But you went back to Indy in, what, ’76 and ’77?
Simpson: Yeah, and in ’76 I got bumped. I qualified on the first day. It was about 100 degrees. I think they had about 104 entries or something like that; you’d have to look that up. I went home to California, I came back the next weekend and I qualified like at 184 or 185 miles an hour in the heat and I got in my car, the same car, everything was identical and I went out and I ran my third warm-up lap, you know, I ran 190. And I pulled in and I told my chief mechanic Ted Swantec, I told Ted, I said, you know if you guys are showing me the numbers, we had radios but I liked the chalkboard, I said, if you’re showing me that I’m running 190 mph, you might as well put the Milwaukee set up on this thing ’cause we’re not gonna be in this race. Which we weren’t. We got bumped. That’s because we didn’t have a backup. So, then, I went back again. I ran some races that year in that car. Like I ran Milwaukee and we had a pretty good finish, then I went and I ran Michigan and finished like 6th or 7th up there.
The next year Teddy Yip bought my whole race operation, so I ran with Teddy and we went to Phoenix and from Phoenix we went on to Indianapolis and Clay Regazzoni was going to be my teammate, which was fine, but Clay wrecked my car. I don’t mean just a little bit. I mean I was standing on the front straightaway in our pits and I saw the car above the turn four bleachers on the inside, up in the air, you know. I mean, he knocked the motor out of the car. One fuel cell was laying on the ground. It really was a big, big crash.
What was your best finish in that period?
Simpson: I finished 3rd in the California 500 in ’75, I think, or ’74. I don’t remember what year it was.
I understand there’s an interesting story behind how you decided to retire from racing.
Simpson: Oh, well, it was pretty interesting. I mean, you had your mind in two places and you can’t have two gods at one time, you know. And, my company was doing well and we were in the helmet business and that was taking up a lot of energy and a lot of brainpower and shit. And now I was going down the back straightaway at Indy and I wasn’t giving that whole thing 100%, you know, in fact I almost missed Turn Three.
Just thinking about other stuff?
Simpson: Yeah, it was like, OK, this is not cool and I pulled off and I came down the front straightaway on the inside and did another lap and I pulled in the pits. I got out of the car and I said, “That’s it boys; you’ll never see me in one of them things again.” And Gary Rovazzini who runs Ganassi right now—he runs Chip Ganassi Racing—Gary said, “What’s the problem?” You know, I says, if I can’t give you guys 100%, I don’t need to be riding around in that car. And my mind wasn’t there. I needed to make a phone call and I fuckin’ near crashed the car. So, I said, the best thing I can do is to step away from it because I’m a danger to myself and anybody else that’s on the racetrack. And I quit and I never did get back in one again.
Looking back now at your safety-gear business, you got started out making drag chutes, is that correct?
Simpson: Yeah, Jim Dietz is the guy that made the very first chute, like a surplus thing, and I made one, it was almost the same time, but mine was different than his. I tried the surplus parachute thing, you know, and it turned my car…I had a station wagon, I had it attached to and it turned the thing over!
We were going down a hill at 190th Street in Redondo Beach, which goes toward the beach and then you go way up this big old hill and you get to the top of it, then you didn’t have any cross streets going, until you hit Pacific Coast Highway. So haulin’ ass down that hill and all the way down that hill on the south side of 190th was a great big nursery. Anyway, we pulled this goddam parachute—we’re going about 110 miles an hour in the Chevrolet station wagon—and everything got quiet—it picked the back of the car up and the wind was blowing a little bit to the south, and we ended up rolling around out there in the nursery. Cops came and they took us to jail. I’m surprised it didn’t kill us both.
After starting with the chutes, where did the business go from there, in terms of how you started developing other products?
Simpson: Well, I mean, the parachute thing was kinda like a thing I was doing in my garage. But, I’d make a parachute in my garage and I’d sell it for $75 and that would get me through to the next week’s races. And, you know, it was really not anything serious. However, after a couple of years, I could see that those guys were really getting fucked up in drag racing and then I would go out to Ascot and watch the sprint-car guys and, about every other week, one of those guys was eatin’ it, you know; so I started paying way more attention to it. In fact, at Pomona in ’62 or ’63, Chuck Browning got burned to death out there. So, that made a hell of an impression on me, you know, and so I made a fire suit—very crude—but I still made a fire suit and that’s how that thing started.
Now, I heard a story that you somehow got involved with the design of the umbilical cords for the NASA space program?
Simpson: Yeah, I did that, all right.
How did that come about?
Simpson: Well, because Pete Conrad was a really good friend of mine. I got involved with Pete Conrad because Pete was an SCCA racer and he ran Formula Bs. And him and Rathmann were pals, Rathmann being from Indianapolis, and those guys went and did a race in the Bahamas and then they did one in, I think it was in Puerto Rico or something. And that’s where I met them. I really got along good with Conrad. He reminded me a lot of me, except he was older and I liked him and, you know, we became instant friends. He would turn me on to a lot of things and he opened the door for me to be able to communicate with the guys at NASA that are really smart. I’m not so sure that’s the way it is today but in those days, there were people that were pretty switched on and they were all car buffs. So, that’s how I ended up in the Nomex fold.