Indy’s Bill Simpson is at the forefront of motor racing safety
Flashing a warm smile from across the room, the Hawaiian-shirt-clad owner gives a wave of welcome as he excuses himself from a table of regulars enjoying lunch at Bill Simpson’s Flat Top’s. Yeah, that Bill Simpson — the guy who has spent 45 years in the business of making motor racing safer — owns a popular Westside eatery with a Caribbean flavor. What does he know about the restaurant business? “Not a damned thing,” he laughs. “And I want to keep it that way!” After his partner dropped out, Simpson maintained his financial investment in the restaurant because he “didn’t want to put 28 people out of work.” But now that Flat Top’s is firmly on its feet — and the lawsuit with NASCAR has been settled, and his agreed-to one-year no-compete clause with his former company, Simpson Performance Products, has expired — the energetic 63-year-old has time to devote to what he does best, this time under a new banner: Impact Racing. Impetus for a career “I saw things happen that didn’t need to,” Simpson defines his reason for building a business at the forefront of motor racing safety. “It seemed like every weekend someone was getting killed. Back in the ’60s, 400 to 500 people a year were being killed. Now, even though we have 10 to 20 times more people racing, there are only about 25 deaths a year. That’s progress.” Much of the progress of safety in racing can be attributed to Simpson’s inventions. “I’m creative, not smart” is his humble explanation for the number of firsts he’s introduced to motor racing over the years. “It’s mostly common sense stuff.” Common sense stuff that he had the gift of envisioning … before anyone else. Years of experience Part of Simpson’s success derives from his background as a racer. “I’ve driven everything,” he says. Everything includes sprints, midgets, boats and even Eagles and McLarens at the Speedway. But it all began with drag cars in California. In 1958, the SoCal native “accidentally” became an entrepreneur when fellow drag racing competitor Don Garlits inquired about a creation of Simpson’s he saw the inventor use in competition: a parachute. Simpson offered him one. The word spread, and, before he knew it, Simpson’s garage became a factory. “It went from there,” he recalls. Parachutes on drag cars are just one of the firsts Simpson can lay claim to. As Dan Gurney once put it, “The biggest influence on modern race car design and construction has been the U.S. space program.” The flow of information in that relationship flows both ways, with Simpson, also a flyer, one of its primary conduits. He designed the first umbilical cords for NASA, where he met Pete Conrad. It was Conrad who introduced him to Nomex in the mid-’60s. Grasping the significance of the fabric’s benefits, Simpson designed a one-piece fire retardant suit. In order to convince others of its effectiveness, in 1987 Simpson donned a Nomex fire suit and set himself ablaze in a memorable demonstration. Simpson designed an on-board fire extinguisher system, used at Irwindale Speedway in 1971 for the first time. It has since been mandated by every racing series. That mandate has been carried over to the emergency vehicles that serve motor racing. Not all of Simpson’s designs envelope a driver in the cockpit. Soft walls were first put in place at the Speedway after Kevin Cogan’s horrific 1989 crash that spun him, still strapped in the shattered remains of his tub, from the inside wall into the pit entrance wall. Simpson says afterwards, Speedway President Tony George approached him about creating a protective barrier to prevent future incidents from becoming tragedies. Simpson’s creation was put to the test in May, when Billy Boat slammed the pit wall entrance. “I talked to Billy afterwards,” Simpson says. “He wasn’t hurt at all.” The storm of controversy The Simpson name is synonymous with safety in racing. Just about anyone who’s been behind a wheel professionally has used his equipment. His name still graces gloves, helmets, fire suits, seatbelts and more. For four decades, he has been one of the most respected names in racing. His commitment and his products were beyond question the best in the business. That’s why the results of NASCAR’s investigation into the death of Dale Earnhardt blaming — in part — a seatbelt failure stunned him. Death threats and bullets shocked the man who has “saved more people’s lives and protected more limbs in racing than anybody,” according to Chuck Davies, CEO of Simpson Performance Products. Simpson resigned from his company and filed an $8.5 million defamation suit against NASCAR to clear his name. In July, at a joint press conference with NASCAR officials, Simpson announced the withdrawal of the suit. When asked if he received the apology he sought, he hesitates. “I can’t discuss the details, but I’m very happy with the results, and NASCAR is very pleased. The racers will benefit. And that is the last conversation I’m ever going to have about the whole thing.” Starting over Rejuvenated, Simpson is starting over with a clean sheet of paper at the top of his game. “It’s pretty cool,” he says. “There’s no set mold, no restrictions. I’m doing things that are so far advanced, it’s raising the bar.” On the market is a new, patented helmet that addresses the problem of carbon monoxide buildup. Air now enters from the top of the helmet — avoiding the problem of drying out a driver’s eyes. Not only does the filtered air force the carbon monoxide out, it cools the driver’s head. “There’s a layer of air between the liner and the shell,” Simpson explains, “and there a layer between the skull and the liner.” Simpson is expecting 22 drivers in NASCAR and IRL to wear his helmet next year. But he won’t pay them to wear it. “I’ve always said that if I ever had to pay anyone to use my equipment, that’s the day I quit. It’s an insult to my employees, who work hard to make it right.” Simpson has also designed a head and neck restraint system. The patent-pending device uses “screamer” technology, for which he has exclusive rights in motor racing. A wire around the helmet keeps the restraint centered. Upon impact, the line becomes taught and begins to come apart at a slow rate, dispersing energy as it does. “It’s simplicity to the max,” Simpson beams. “Simplicity makes things work.” The restraint system — as yet unnamed — costs about $150, including the shoulder harness. That compares favorably to the $1,200 HANS device, considered too bulky by stock car drivers, and the $400 Hutchens, which attaches across the chest. “There was a need for a super light helmet with a better air system, and for a more user-friendly head and neck restraint,” says Simpson, who is now competing against his own name. “It’s just part of the deal,” he shrugs. “I don’t want to say anything against them, but they’re bankers who don’t understand the business. They don’t have the heart, the passion. They’re not racers. That doesn’t work in safety equipment.” Simpson has the understanding and the passion. While many his age might be thinking of retirement, he thinks of work. “I like working,” he insists. “I don’t want to stop. Realistically, I’ve got 15 more years to contribute. If I get to the point where I need naps, where I’m tired in the morning, then it’s time to quit.” Full of energy, the ruggedly handsome man works out twice a day to keep in shape. He may be purchasing a condo and speed boat in Ft. Lauderdale, but that doesn’t distract his thoughts from business. “There are a lot of things coming from Impact Racing,” he predicts. “The next act is a new fire suit material.” Asked if he’ll repeat his blazing stunt, he grins. “No, I did that in my younger, dumber days.” He’s also working on a bionic glove that will keep a driver’s hands from tiring and allow greater flexibility. “You can pick up a dime with them,” he boasts. And there’s new seatbelt hardware that will “never, ever, ever ‘dump,’” he promises … which brings him back to the Earnhardt issue. The one positive result of that ordeal, he muses, is the safety consciousness it engendered across the board. “NASCAR is now at the forefront of safety,” he claims. While some never thought they’d see that day, Simpson merely continues doing what he does best: improving safety for drivers of all series. And selling some pretty tasty grub at Flat Top’s.