By: Spencer Neff
December 17, 2019 | 10:42 AM
On Monday, the world of auto racing lost a true hero and friend. After battling illness, Bill Simpson passed away at the age of 79. Although Simpson’s journey started out as one of a pure racer, his career path quickly found other outlets.
Like many great innovators, Simpson’s story begins with a bit of serendipity, as unfortunate as his case of it may be. As a teenager, the Californian found his way into drag racing, a burgeoning activity in the region at the time.
In 1958, Simpson was injured during a drag race and left with two broken arms and multiple bruises. While recovering from his injuries in the hospital, Simpson began to brainstorm.
“Until then, I was like most drivers,” Simpson recalls in his 2003 Motorsports Hall of Fame of America profile.
“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.”
Following the new wave of parachutes constructing from post-war surplus materials, Simpson pioneered the use of rear-mounted, purpose-built parachutes for slowing dragsters down after their runs.
With the foundation of Simpson Drag Chutes, legendary racer Don “Big Daddy” Garlits was among Simpson’s first customers.
As Simpson Drag Chutes developed into Simpson Performance Products, the young racer’s pursuit of safety innovations continued. Less than 10 years later, Simpson began working with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) on an umbilical cord-like product.
During this pursuit, Simpson was introduced to astronaut and racing enthusiast Peter Conrad. At this time, Conrad introduces Simpson to Nomex, a fledgling DuPont product.
Soon after, Simpson began to use Nomex to develop a flame-resistant driver suit. In May of 1967, Simpson’s latest innovation had become a hit among his fellow racers before the 51st Indianapolis 500.
“Come race day,” Simpson recollected, “there were something like 30 Nomex suits on the grid, and they all said ‘Simpson’ on the sleeve. I was pretty proud of that. Still am.”
Balancing Racing and Innovating
Despite his constant work on safety, Simpson was still able to enjoy his time in racing from behind the wheel. After getting his start in drag racing, he quickly moved onto SCCA and USAC competition.
On December 1, 1968, the Hermosa Beach, California native made his Champ Car debut at the famed Riverside International Raceway. After qualifying 30th, an oil leak forced Simpson out of the race after just five laps and relegated him to 27th in the final running order.
Between then and 1977, Simpson made a total of 52 starts in USAC. In 1970, he earned a career-best finish of sixth in a 200-mile event at the Milwaukee Mile. In 1974, he achieved what is arguably the pinnacle of his personal racing career.
Driving the American Kids Racer Eagle-Offy for car owner Dick Beith, Simpson qualified 20th for his first career Indianapolis 500 start. After completing 163 of 200, a broken piston sidelined him for the rest of the race and he finished 13th.
At Ontario Motor Speedway, Simpson would lead two laps during the 1976 California 500, the only laps he would lead in his career.
While Simpson started and finished 14th that day, the race also remains significant for another reason. In his first start, rookie Rick Mears started 20th and finished eighth.
Less than a year later, Simpson would opt to step away from the driver’s seat for good and focus on his business efforts. Upon his retirement during practice for the 1977 Indianapolis 500, five-time Formula 1 Grand Prix winner Clay Regazzoni would take over his ride.
Making what would be his lone start at Indianapolis, the Swiss racer started 30th and finished 29th in the Theodore Racing McLaren-Offy.
Over the next several decades, Simpson’s business expanded to include more than 200 safety products, ranging from helmets and gloves to suits, and much more through his companies Simpson Performance Products and Impact Racing. In addition, he also penned two books about his time in racing, “Racing Safely, Living Dangerously” and “Through the Fire.”
Heralded across the racing world for his achievements, Simpson would be inducted to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2003, and later, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 2014.
Open-Wheels would like to thank Mr. Simpson for his contributions to Auto Racing. We also offer condolences to his friends and family at this time.
Image by INDYCAR.