NASCAR folks donât like to mention it much without feverishly knocking on wood, but almost 19 years have passed since a Cup driver was killed on the track. Bill Simpson has had a lot to do with that sparkling safety record.
E.J. âBillâ Simpson, who died of a stroke Monday at 79, was a former racer who became much better known as one of the leaders of the pack of the safety forefront in auto racing, a sport that Simpson figured did not have to be that dangerous.
Simpson became interested in making racing safer as an 18-year-old, manufacturing parachutes to slow down dragsters after heâd broken both arms in a dragster crash. He later used a flame-retardant material called Nomex to create a fire suit for drivers.Â
Before Simpson came along, hard as it is to believe, drivers did not think as much about the dangers of racing. They wore street clothes sometimes dipped in baking soda or Borax, and their helmets were frightfully flimsy.Â Â
Simpson was flamboyant, a playboy, and once he set himself on fire â or rather, his fire suit on fire as he wore it â at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to show that a newer model of his suit was even better. Among other innovations, Simpson later brought window nets to NASCAR.
He was a fishing buddy of Dale Earnhardt Sr.âs, and as the old story goes, Simpson told Earnhardt, who liked to ride very low in his car seat, to make adjustments to his seat belts at least to make his ride safer. Earnhardt, true to character, scoffed.
âI warned him it was going to bite him some day, and he just laughed and said I was going to check out before he did,â Simpson told Indianapolis Monthly magazine in 2003.
Of course, that is not what happened. Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, and a team of independent experts commissioned by NASCAR said he died of a basilar skull fracture. A torn seat belt made by Simpsonâs company was said to be a factor.
Simpson held a news conference later in the day of the NASCAR news conference, stressing that his commissioned investigation team found no design flaws in the seat belt. The belt failed, he said, because it had not been installed properly.
Bill Simpson said he received death threats from NASCAR fans who were convinced that his seat belt killed Dale Earnhardt. He resigned from the company he founded. Then Simpson filed an $8.5 million defamation-of-character lawsuit against NASCAR.
The suit was settled out of court, and nobody could have blamed Bill Simpson for walking away from NASCAR forever. But he formed another company in the racing-safety business that he sold in 2010. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2003.
Simpson drove in 52 Indy-car races between 1968 and 1977 and did not finish in the top five in any of them. At 34, he qualified 20th for the 1974 Indianapolis 500 and finished 13th â his only appearance in the worldâs most famous auto race.
It is literally impossible to gauge how many lives, or serious injuries, that Simpsonâs 200 products have saved in all different kinds of motorsports. He wrote two books about the topic. NASCAR has added head-and-neck-restraint devices and softer outside walls at tracks.
Even though race-car drivers donât âcheat deathâ like they did in the old days, fans donât seem to miss that aspect of the sport, and, of course, neither do the drivers.
Before he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame, Simpson talked about the effects of his dragster crash when he was 18, saying, âUntil then, I was like most drivers. The only time I thought about safety was after I’d been hurt. This time, I was hurt bad enough to do a lot of thinking.â
That round of thinking helped a lot of people survive. Maybe others would have come up with the same kind of innovations for racing safety, but Bill Simpson actually did it.
âWe lost a true racing pioneer today,â tweeted Tony Stewart, the driver and owner. âBill Simpson was a racer and innovator who made drivers and crew members safer. The safety equipment that bears his name saved me plenty of times.â