14/3/1940 - 21/12/2019
Record updated 10-Mar-20
Bill Simpson has protected and saved hundreds of racing drivers through his fire proof suits, helmets and safety devices. He also raced in SCCA, Indycars and Dragsters.
Bill Simpson has probably saved more people's lives and protected more limbs in racing than anybody.
Born in Hermosa Beach, California, 'Bill' Simpson was an orphan who came from nothing to build an empire devoted to safety.
He started drag racing in 1955 and after a big crash at the San Fernando Dragway in 1958, in which he broke both his arms, he started to turn his attention to safety. His uncle ran a military surplus store, and suggested using a parachute to slow a dragster down. Simpson made a prototype and, with his friend Mike Sorokin, tested it by attaching it to the tow bar on his Chevy wagon. They deployed it while driving down a public road at 100 mph. It worked rather too well and the Chevy went airborne and crashed into a tree nursery. Both of them were jailed for the incident, but Simpson Drag Chutes was founded. (Sorokin was killed in 1968 when his fueler’s rear end disintegrated)
He switched to road racing in SCCA events and in 1960 he met Pete Conrad, a keen amateur racer and the astronaut who went on to command the Apollo 12 and become the third man to walk on the Moon, who introduced him to Nomex, the fireproof material. At the time Simpson was marketing aluminiumised firesuits to drag racers and using Nomex he made a viable fireproof race suit that offered real protection with the added benefit of being able to be worn for long periods of time. He took samples to Indianapolis in 1967 and were tried by A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney. Come race day all but three of the 33 starters were wearing them.
Simpson was still racing and had moved up to Indycars making a total of 52 Indycar starts between 1968 and 1977 with a best finish of sixth place at Milwaukee in 1970. He qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 in 1974 with an ex-Penske McLaren.
In 1977 he hung up his helmet to concentrate on his business interests. In the years ahead he went on to develop more than 200 safety products, including new generations of Nomex suits, famously setting himself on fire to prove their effectiveness, as well as the first carbon fiber helmet.
His seat belts became one the motorsport industry's standards, but the failure of a belt during Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash at Daytona in 2001 caused NASCAR to state that this was a contributory factor in his death. Simpson received death threats. Bullets were shot into his home in Charlotte, N.C. and his tires were slashed. Simpson maintained that the failure was not caused by a manufacturing defect but by incorrect installation. He sued NASCAR for nearly $9m for defamation, ultimately settling out of court. In July 2001, Simpson resigned from the company and started another safety equipment company called Impact!
Outside of motorsport he developed lighter and stronger American Football helmets in responce to the number of players who were suffering concussion.
He died from complications following a massive stroke.