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 Sports.com 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.”