In the history of motor-sport safety, few names are as universally recognized as that of Bill Simpson. Initially an active drag racer, Simpson went on to race in various road racing categories before moving on to USAC racing and eventually the Indianapolis 500. While Simpson often demonstrated great speed and competitiveness, his nearly worldwide name recognition would come from the eponymous business he started, manufacturing safety equipment for racers. Starting in the ’60s with drag racing parachutes, Simpson Safety Equipment went on to manufacture the first Nomex racing suits, helmets, fireproof clothing and safety harnesses, used in virtually every form of motor sport around the world.
However, in 2001, Simpson elected to resign from his namesake company as a result of the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death at Daytona. NASCAR officials attempted to lay some of the blame for Earnhardt’s death on allegedly faulty Simpson belts, which Simpson has always vehemently denied. But when he started receiving death threats and even gunshots fired into his home, he chose to walk away from the safety empire that he created. However, Simpson could only stay away for so long before he decided to form a new company, Impact! Racing, which finds him yet again developing safety equipment.
Recently, Editor Casey Annis caught up with Simpson to learn more about his own racing career, the birth of Simpson Safety Equipment and what he sees as the future of racing safety.
I understand you started your racing career through drag racing?
Simpson: That’s correct. I went to my first drag race in 1955.
And so you started as a competitor when?
Simpson: I was first a spectator, and then in 1957, I got hooked up with a guy named John Garen and I went drag racing.
How long did you stay in drag racing?
Simpson: Oh, I don’t know. It was off and on through 1970 actually. You know, I did some road racing in that period. In the early ’60s I went road racing, and then in the mid-’60s, I went over to Europe, and then I did some more road racing later on.
You’re road racing started in the SCCA?
Simpson: Yes, it did.
Simpson: I don’t think they had Formula Ford, when I started. I ran a thing called Formula Continental.
What year was that?
Simpson: I don’t know, I reckon ’63 maybe or ’64, something like that. We ran all those goofy places like…Oklahoma, someplace out in Virginia. I mean, you know, places that were real dangerous. You know what I mean, no guardrails or nothin’ and shit that you could go over. Castlerock, Colorado. Up in northern California, there’s a place that we raced on a airport circuit and just, you know, those kind of things. And the Formula Continental, I believe, ended up becoming the Formula 5000.
What model cars were you running at the time?
Simpson: Well, I had several. I had a Lotus, I think it was a 48, does that sound right? And then I had a Brabham. I do remember that it was a BT18, because I still have it hanging up in one of my shops. I had Brabhams for a couple of years. They were not real Brabhams; they were built by Frank Williams. They were top Brabham copies.
Were you splitting your time then between drag racing and road racing?
Simpson: Uh, no, because when I went road racing, I didn’t drag race anymore even though I had an interest in some drag cars.
What was it that drove you to road racing having come from a drag racing background?
Simpson: There’s another drag racer, a guy named Paul Sutherland who talked me into going up to Willow Springs to take this Jim Russell School that had just been opened. So, we went up there together, and I got hooked. I thought that was really a thrill. And I went from there, you know?
How did you make the transition to USAC in, what was that, ’68?
Simpson: What happened was, you know, USAC decided they were going to go road racing and so I thought, well, that’s pretty cool, and SCCA and USAC were at war with each other basically and I decided that I was gonna go do some USAC races, so SCCA took my license away from me.
I can’t recall what they were battling over at that time? Was it over who controlled professional road racing?
Simpson: I don’t know. You know SCCA was pissed off because they thought that USAC was coming along and was going to take some of their thunder or something, but if you were an SCCA guy and you drove in one of them deals, they automatically took your driver’s license away from ya. So you couldn’t compete in any more SCCA races. Of course, if they did that today, they’d be hung out to dry.
Anyway, I did that and I ran, I think, eight Indy Car races with a V-8 Chevy that Howard Gilbert had built and I did pretty good. And so, I did it again in ’69, and then USAC stopped doing the road races. And then I tried to go back to SCCA and, of course, I was persona non-grata, so I didn’t get to go back there. Then, Howard asked if I wanted to run Phoenix? I said, “I never been on an oval in my life.” He said, “Well go on, find out how it is.” So, I went down there and promptly wrecked the shit out of the car, but I made the transition to oval track racing.
When was your first appearance at Indy?
Simpson: My first appearance there was in ’74.
And that was with what type of car? Who was your team?
Simpson: I was in an Eagle. I drove for Dick Beith. I was there actually, in ’73 I was there for Rolla Vollstedt with Janet Guthrie, she was my teammate and I was driving one of Rolla’s new creations. They called it the Bedstead or some…I don’t know. It was like an M16 McLaren. They did some really weird stuff to it and it had a lot of problems, and I had a pretty serious accident with the thing and that kinda stopped us from going further with that car. And Janet got in the show with her car, you know, she had a good one—she had the real deal.
Now, you took a year off in ’75?
Simpson: I did. Well, I didn’t take a whole year off, I took part of the year off. Simpson Safety Equipment, was way, way, way out of control. I don’t know what happened. We had made a whole bunch of different things and it was like our little company was sitting there in Torrance, California, and it needed help, so I spent a majority of my time there.