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 

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment

DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and two red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500