Bill Simpson transformed the racing world – through safety! Being a race car driver himself and having many racing friends, he understood the dangers and wanted to keep them as safe as possible. In 1958, at the young age of 18 years old, Simpson broke both arms in a drag racing crash when his dragster didn’t stop at the end of the strip, which made him seriously start thinking about his own safety. The thought of using a parachute to stop dragsters had been discussed in the racing world, but Simpson was the first to make it work.
Keeping safety in mind while he continued to race, he began the quest to find ways to combat fires as all too often, fiery crashes meant certain death or serious injuries for race car drivers. In the late 60’s, Simpson met with Apollo 12 Commander, Pete Conrad, who loved racing and introduced Simpson to the space-age material Nomex. Nomex was used in space suit construction and it transformed drive safety. Before this, such efforts as soaking t-shirts and pants in bathtubs filled with water and chemical agents designed to combat flames was the go-to “safety” step, but these garments were definitely no match for burning gasoline and oil.
Nomex wasn’t a fireproof solution, but it gave drivers those crucial extra seconds to get out of the car and roll on the ground or be reached by safety workers with fire extinguishers to stop the flames and burning before it reached the skin. He took the suit to the 1967 Indianapolis 500 where it was worn by 30 of the 33 drivers. Anyone familiar with the racing world will remember or at least had heard about or seen the ad from 1986 where Simpson set himself on fire wearing his company’s, Simpson Race Products, flameproof driver’s suit, shoes, socks, gloves and helmet.
Simpson raced in the 1968-1974 and 1976-1977 seasons with 52 career starts and qualified 12th for the 1974 Indianapolis 500 and finishing 13th, but he decided to end his racing career and focus solely on safety innovation when he realized he was thinking about a telephone call he needed to make for his business while practicing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His innovation didn’t stop with parachute and fire suits, but also included seat belts, harnesses, helmets and other safety equipment – developing over 200 racing safety products, including three generations of fire suits. When it comes to safety and the racing world, he is the man – his name is on multiple products used by virtually every race driver today. He was named to the Motorsport Hall of Fame in 2003.
E.J. “Bill” Simpson (March 14, 1940 – December 16, 2019)