Bill Simpson’s lasting legacy as one of racing’s most important figures


Bill Simpson never won the Indianapolis 500 or the Daytona 500, but his impact on the sport may be more important than that of a former champion.

He was ornery and cantankerous and loved to start fights in bars.

Yet his lasting legacy is in motorsports safety and preventing drivers, mechanics and crewmembers from serious injury.

In 1971, Simpson wanted to generate publicity and attention for his flame-resistant driver’s uniform, so he went down to Turn 1 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and set himself on fire.

It was the best way he knew to show the auto racing world that his suit worked.

In many ways, Bill Simpson was a paradox. He lived his personal life recklessly, but creative safety innovations that allowed the real daredevils to avoid danger.

Simpson, who grew up an orphan and went on to become a self-made multmillionaire, suffered a massive stroke on Friday and died Monday at the age of 79.

One thing about Bill Simpson, he either liked you or wanted to punch you.

There was little in-between.

“He was very direct,” four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears told NBC on Monday. “Like setting himself on fire, that was part of the risk to go forward to get a better product. A lot of times, you have a product that is good, and you sit on it but to take the next level and step is where the risk comes in. You are taking a chance.

“Bill was willing to do that thing. He was willing to take that gamble, take that risk and continue to move the product forward and make it better for everybody. He was direct. You knew where you stood with him at all times.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty good.”

The Mears connection

It was Simpson who took an off-road, desert racer from Bakersfield, California, and put him in an Indy car for the first time. That driver was Mears, who was part of the famed “Mears Gang” in the mid-1970s.

Simpson, who started 20th and finished 13th in his only Indianapolis 500 as a driver in 1974, owned the race car that Mears started 20th and finished eighth in his first IndyCar race at Ontario (California) Motor Speedway in 1976.

Simpson sold that car to Art Sugai on the guarantee that Mears would remain as the driver.

Mears finished ninth in his two races with Sugai in 1976 at College Station, Texas, and Phoenix.

It was a pink car.

“It was actually a car that was formerly owned by Roger Penske,” Mears recalled. “He had purchased a few ex-Penskes McLarens that Mario Andretti had run after the Eagle chassis. It was the blue and yellow Simoniz car.

“I was asked, ‘What do I think of driving a pink car?’ I said, ‘I don’t care, just as long as I don’t have to wear a pink firesuit.’ ”

Famed team owner Roger Penske took notice of Mears’ ability and hired him to drive for his team in 1978. Mears won three times including Milwaukee, Atlanta and Brands Hatch in 1978.

In the 1979 Indianapolis 500, Mears started on the pole and won the race – the first of his four wins in the Indianapolis 500.

By winning at Indy in just his second start, Mears recalled sitting in Simpson’s office in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway just a few hours after celebrating in Victory Lane.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘How did we do this? How did we pull it off?’” Mears recalled. “It all happened so quickly. We didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect it. Bill didn’t expect it. To go from that short amount of time from racing in the desert to winning at Indy, it all happened incredibly quick.

“We were both shell-shocked.”

Shellshock soon turned into dominance. Mears was arguably the best driver of his generation at the Indianapolis 500 and one of the greatest drivers in the history of the world’s most famous race.

Mears wouldn’t have gotten there if it hadn’t been for Bill Simpson.

‘Saved more lives than anyone knows’

As the founder of Simpson Performance Products, Simpson was very impactful and controversial figure in racing.

“He was the industry leader for a long time in terms of safety,” Mears recalled. “They were the first company that ever helped me and sponsored my career in off-road racing in dune buggies when I started. I always wore Simpson helmets and firesuits and seat belts.

“He was always thinking about how to make it better, how to make it safer. That’s always a gamble, but he was always willing to take the gamble, experiment and try things.

“He undoubtedly saved a lot more lives than anyone knows with his products throughout the years.”

One of those lives might have been Mears’.

In the above photo, Simpson sits in his office in front of a photo of Mears’ famed Marlboro car sliding upside down after hitting the Turn 2 wall during practice for the 1992 Indianapolis 500. Mears’ helmet made contact with the asphalt before skidding to a stop.

The inscription on the photo says, “Bill, Thanks for the help! Rick Mears.”

Simpson competed as a driver in drag racing, sports car racing and open-wheel formula racing, including in SCCA and USAC Indy-car competition. He made 52 career Indy-car starts between 1968 and 1977. He produced 11 top-10 finishes, including a career-best sixth in the 1970 Milwaukee 200.

Southern California native Simpson qualified 20th and finished 13th in the 1974 Indianapolis 500 in the American Kids Racer Eagle-Offy owned by Dick Beith. It was his only career start in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” but competing in that race was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and the pinnacle of his varied driving career.

Simpson’s racing career ended during an Indianapolis 500 practice lap in May 1977 when he realized he was thinking more about a phone call he needed to make for his racing safety products business than driving a race car at nearly 200 mph.

That realization caused him to hang up his helmet for good on the spot, with Formula One veteran Clay Regazzoni taking his seat.

A creative and colorful innovator

Simpson started his driving career in drag racing as a teenager in Southern California. His work in motorsports safety started inadvertently when he crashed his dragster as an 18-year-old in 1958, suffering two broken arms.

During his recovery time, Simpson devised and developed more sophisticated, purpose-built parachutes – through trial and error on a rented sewing machine in a garage – to slow dragsters after the finish line, starting a company called Simpson Drag Chutes.

Those humble beginnings evolved and grew into Simpson Performance Products and Impact! Racing, highly successful companies that designed, developed and produced more than 200 motorsports safety products used by drivers in all series worldwide, including helmets, gloves, fire-retardant driver suits, seat belts and more.

Perhaps Simpson’s biggest racing safety breakthrough came in 1967. He was introduced to a temperature-resistant fabric called Nomex through NASA astronaut and racing enthusiast Pete Conrad.

Simpson created the world’s first racing suit made of Nomex and brought it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that May, where it became a safety sensation quickly used by nearly every driver in the starting field and now is standard equipment for every race driver. Donning his Nomex suit and a helmet, Simpson set himself on fire during demonstrations to prove the suit’s effectiveness on several occasions over the years.

Those tireless contributions to motorsports safety led to a host of accolades and honors, including enshrinement into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2003 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 2014.

Simpson chronicled his colorful and substantial life in racing by writing two books, “Racing Safely, Living Dangerously” and its sequel, “Through the Fire.”

Despite the vast success of his motorsports safety companies, Simpson never forgot his magical year of qualifying for and competing in the Indianapolis 500.

He annually returned to the Speedway during the Month of May for veterans’ activities, including appearances at driver autograph sessions for fans on Legends Day presented by Firestone. Simpson often attended these sessions with fellow motorsports mogul and Indianapolis 500 veteran Chip Ganassi, and he was a passionate supporter of the IMS Museum.

Simpson is survived by a son. He also was a devout animal enthusiast, whose menagerie included his beloved dog, Maia, camels and other pets. A celebration of his life is being planned for this May at the IMS Museum, with details pending.

In recent years, Simpson attended most every NTT IndyCar Series race as guest of team owner Chip Ganassi. Simpson would bring famed Indianapolis defense attorney James Voyles with him because Simpson had a penchant for finding trouble.

Simpson estimated that he spent millions throughout his career on attorney fees (he once sued NASCAR for defamation of character). In Voyles’ case, they also were very good friends.

“Racing is a better place because of Bill Simpson,” Ganassi said Monday. “His innovations in safety over the years have never really received the amount of recognition they deserve.  It is hard to think of anyone whose contributions to the sport of auto racing can match those of Bill Simpson.  His name is every bit as important to the sport as those of A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.

“I will miss my good friend, but I know his legacy will last forever.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Starting lineup grid for IMSA Petit Le Mans: Tom Blomqvist puts MSR on pole position

Petit Le Mans lineup

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar championship contender Tom Blomqvist put the Meyer Shank Racing Acura at the front of the starting lineup for the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Road Atlanta.

Blomqvist turned a 1-minute, 8.55-second lap on the 2.54-mile circuit Friday to capture his third pole position for MSR this season. Earl Bamber qualified second in the No. 02 Cadillac for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Ricky Taylor was third in the No. 10 Acura of Wayne Taylor Racing, which enters Saturday’s season finale with a 19-point lead over the No. 60 of Blomqvist and Oliver Jarvis (who will be joined by Helio Castroneves) for the 10-hour race.

PETIT LE MANS STARTING GRID: Click here for the starting lineup l Lineup by car number

PETIT LE MANS: Info on how to watch

With the pole, MSR sliced the deficit to 14 points behind WTR, which will field the trio of Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque and Brendon Hartley in Saturday’s race.

“We really needed to put the car in this kind of position,” Blomqvist said. “It makes our life a little less stressful tomorrow. It would have given the No. 10 a bit more breathing space. It’s going to be a proper dogfight tomorrow. The guys gave me such a great car. It’s been fantastic this week so far, and it really came alive. I’m hugely thankful to the boys and girls at MSR for giving me the wagon today to execute my job.

“That was a big effort from me. I knew how important it was. It’s just awesome for the guys to give them some sort of reward as well. It’s always nice to be quick. If you do the pole, you know you’ve got a quick car.”

Though WTR has a series-leading four victories with the No. 10, MSR won the Rolex 24 at Daytona and has five runner-up finishes along with its three poles.

The strong performances of the ARX-05s ensure that an Acura will win the final championship in IMSA’s premier Daytona Prototype international (DPi) division, which is being rebranded as Grand Touring Prototype in the move to LMDh cars next season.

Taylor qualified third despite sliding into the Turn 5 gravel during the closing minutes of qualifying while pushing to gain points.

“Qualifying was important for points,” Taylor said. “Going into it, if we outqualified the No. 60 Meyer Shank Acura, they had a lot to lose in terms of championship points. So, we were trying to increase the gap over 20 points which would’ve made a big difference for tomorrow. We would have loved to get the pole and qualify ahead of the No. 60, but in the scheme of the points, it didn’t change a whole lot. I’m feeling good since it’s such a long race, and the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura team does such a good job strategizing and putting us in a good position.

“I’m very confident in our lineup and our team compared to them over the course of 10 hours. I’d put my two teammates up against those guys any day. I think we are all feeling optimistic and strong for tomorrow.”

In other divisions, PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports (LMP2), Riley Motorsports (LMP3), VasserSullivan (GTD Pro) and Paul Miller Racing (GTD) captured pole positions.

The broadcast of the 10-hour race will begin Saturday at 12:10 p.m. ET on NBC, moving at 3 p.m. to USA Network.



Results by class

Fastest lap by driver

Fastest lap by driver after qualifying

Fastest lap by driver and class after qualifying

Fastest lap sequence in qualifying

Best sector times in qualifying

Time cards in qualifying

PRACTICE RESULTS: Session I l Session II l Session III