BILL SIMPSON – 1940-2019
Bill Simpson, renowned racing safety pioneer, passed away Monday, Dec. 16, in Indianapolis due to complications from a massive stroke on Friday. He was 79.
“He made safety part of the racing vernacular, but lived his life on the edge. He started in drag racing and spread his knowledge to IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula 1. He pissed people off hourly, yet shared a drink with them before the sun went down.
“He set himself on fire to prove a point, and saved countless lives with his innovations. He took a sucker punch from NASCAR, and retaliated with a haymaker in court. He drove in the Indianapolis 500, yet was much more successful out of the car. He was an orphan that embraced fatherhood, although he wasn’t that great of a husband.
“E.J. “Bill” Simpson was a pioneer in motorsports safety, a self-made millionaire and a stubborn character that answered to no-one.”
Simpson’s entry into the safety equipment business was the result of breaking both arms in a drag racing crash in the late 1950s at age 18. Despite the broken limbs, he designed and developed the first purpose-built drag racing parachute systems which he was soon marketing as Simpson Drag Chutes. He handmade the earliest chutes himself in a garage with a rented sewing machine. His first customer was Don Garlits.
A colorful character with a penchant for stirring up controversy, Simpson was at heart a racer, first in drag racing and then road racing in SoCal, both sports cars and formula cars. He graduated to the Indy Car circuit in 1968, making 52 starts over the next nine years with 11 top-ten finishes and a career best sixth in the 1970 Milwaukee 200. His only career start in the Indy 500 netted a 13th place finish in 1974.
One of Simpson’s early contributions to Indy Car racing was mentoring SoCal off-road racer, Rick Mears. Simpson put Mears in a car for the 1976 Ontario 500, the future 4-time Indy 500 winner’s first career Indy Car start.Simpson Performance Products was the result of a restless mind and a determination to design, develop and produce safety products and systems to enhance driver survivability in a demonstrably dangerous sport. It was Simpson who first produced a driver’s suit made of Nomex. The flamboyant entrepreneur would don a Simpson suit and set himself on fire. It was an effective demonstration on product reliability. He’s most recently been immersed in improving football helmets.
Simpson’s multiple contributions to motorsports safety have yielded a host of accolades and honors, including induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2003, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 2014 and honorary membership in the Road Racing Drivers Club in 2017.He authored two books: Racing Safely, Living Dangerously and its sequel, Through the Fire.
Simpson has been a regular at Indianapolis Motor Speedway each May for veterans’ activities, often in the company of his great friend Chip Ganassi. Simpson was a guest of Team Ganassi at many recent Indy Car races and was an enthusiastic supporter of the IMS Museum.
Simpson is survived by a son. He also was an animal enthusiast whose menagerie included his beloved dog, Maia, camels and other pets. A celebration of his life is being planned for next May a the IMS Museum, details pending.