What exactly were you doing?
Simpson: Well, there was a fellow who was from Ventura, California, his name was Ed and he had developed a knitting machine. And this knitting machine would make…you know what an Aeroquip line looks like? It made the same kind of thing, but if you didn’t have a hose in the center of it you could pull on it and it wouldn’t tighten like a Chinese finger knot. You know, you can take a piece of nylon and stick it over your finger and you can pull on it, and what happens, it keeps tightening up, tighter and tighter? OK, well, he made a knitting machine that would prevent that from happening. And I just simply took that to NASA. Man, and they said, “Well, goddam, this is really something.” So this cat made this machine, and I said, what’s the good of that thing? And he goes, well, I don’t know, I just made it…. You know how shit happens? And I was telling Pete about it and he goes, “Are you telling me that it’s like a hollow piece of nylon, a braid and you can pull on it and it doesn’t tighten up?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “Shit man, that’s what we’ve been looking for.” So that’s how they got it.
So you were just kind of the intermediary to put the people together?
Simpson: Well, I helped them do stuff with it you know, to fabricate pieces and parts. I wasn’t the…I’m not smart enough to figure out how to make a knitting machine that would do that. That’s not my business, you know.
But, your relationship with Conrad and NASA ultimately led to your introduction to Nomex, which then led to better suits?
Simpson: Yeah. In fact, I ended up going to DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware, and I had a meeting with the president up there and he said, “Well, we can only make 3,000 pounds of Nomex a year.” They didn’t see a future for it. But I said, “No, you’re wrong.” Because I could see this going to the forest service, I could see it going to all the services for fire-protective clothing. And he goes, “Well, what’s your estimate that you’d, what would you think that we would do in this?” And I says, “Probably 25,000 pounds a year.” Well, they make about 10,000,000 pounds a year now, so that tells you how far off I was.
You started developing your Nomex suits, but at what point in time did you decide that it would be a good idea to light yourself on fire in one?
Simpson: [Laughs] Well, that was in ’71 when I did that, and that was kind of like a lark, you know, ’cause A.J. Foyt was giving me a bunch of shit. I said, I’m tired of listening to your bullshit, you know, so I’m gonna light myself on fire. But that was a kind of a candy-ass light, where we poured a little gasoline down around my feet and lit it on fire. But in ’88, we did it right. Over those following years, we went from Nomex to Nomex 1, 2, 3, Nomex 3A, Nomex 3A Plus. You know, it just kept gettin’ better and better and better. DuPont really, really did a hell of a job with that. So I came to the speedway, it was either ’86 or ’88, and I had a fire suit that was about half the weight of the one the year before.
So anyway, there was a guy there and he was wandering through the garage area telling everybody that I was full of shit, I was lying, and my product wouldn’t do what I said it would do. And at the speedway, the word gets back to you within a couple of minutes when somebody’s in there, you know, stirring the shit that doesn’t belong there. So, I just, you know, I said to somebody, point him out when he walks by the garage area, you know, when he walks by my shop here; they pointed him out, I went out and I said, hey, man, you know I know what you’re telling people about me and I don’t really appreciate it. Then he goes, well, that’s what I think. And I said, OK, you know what we should do? Let’s just have a burn-off this afternoon. He goes, a what? I said, well at 5 o’clock, when they close the track, we’ll go across the street over there and we’ll have a burn-off in the parking lot. And he goes, are you crazy? And I said, no man, you’re telling everybody my shit don’t work and yours is all like beautiful. I’ll meet you over there. So, I went over there. But, the word spread through the garage area, I was gonna do that. Well, I go over there, it was about 6:15 and there’s got to be 200 people there and half of them are the press. So I sat down in a chair and a friend brought a gallon of Mobil gasoline. They poured it on me and Chip Ganassi threw the match in and that son of a bitch went off and I’ll tell you what, you know, it was pretty spectacular from where I was sitting—and it was pretty spectacular from outside too! So, that’s how that came about and I don’t know, they put it out in about 30 seconds or 40 seconds. That was enough. I learned a good lesson, you know, that if you have a clear shield on and you’re in a fire, you’re gonna burn off all your eyelashes.
I didn’t know that.
Simpson: Yeah, well, lots of people don’t know that, but it’s true.
Looking at the amateur racing scene today and, in particular the historic racing scene, what’s your feeling on the current state of safety and safety gear?
Simpson: Well, I don’t really have any comment about that ’cause I haven’t really sat down and paid a lot of attention to historic racing specifically. I love watching them old cars race. And when I say old cars, they are “old cars” to a lot of people. To me, I mean those things are a piece of art, you know. I’ve got a couple of old racecars. I wouldn’t sit in one because I think they’re kind of inherently dangerous, but the vintage guys are doing, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re wearing all the right stuff. I don’t have an issue with that at all. Car construction and such, I can’t really make a comment about that.
Do you think amateur racing, in general, is keeping up on safety in the same way professional motor sport has been?
Simpson: I think—really honestly—most upper-echelon sanctioning bodies are pretty much keeping up with it because, you know, they can’t afford to be killing anybody. You can’t change a car design, you know! You just can’t do that. There are things that you can do to make it better and safer and, for the most part, I think that people are very interested in that, where 25 or 30 years ago, they weren’t. So again, I get a lot of people asking a lot of questions, and we’ve learned a hell of a lot over the last 25 or 30 years about how to keep somebody from busting their ass. You know, the primary things are to keep them in a good seat and keep them so they’re not moving around. So I have no issues with vintage racing. And I don’t have any issues with SCCA.
If you could peer into your crystal ball for a moment, what do you see as being the future trends in safety, say over the next 10 or so years? Not necessarily what’s in the pipeline right now but, theoretically, do you have ideas of where you think the direction of things may go in the future?
Simpson: Well, you know, I do. I think that we’re gonna come to a capsule in a chassis where if there’s a catastrophic crash, the capsule leaves the car and the driver’s strapped into it because then, once he leaves the car, all the energy’s gone and he’s just in there for an E-ticket ride. I think that racetrack safety is gonna improve a tremendous amount. I think that as far as drivers’ personal safety equipment goes, it’s at the cutting edge but I don’t see it making any huge advances.
You don’t see any new technologies on the horizon?
Simpson: No, I don’t really.
Not another Nomex, or similar advance that revolutionizes the sport?
Simpson: Well, because right now, you know, you can make a fire suit that only weighs 3 pounds. I don’t see how the hell you’d want it to be any lighter than that. Now, I know we’re dealing with some atomic scientists out in Rhode Island and they’re talking about this nano fabric, fabric made with nano fibers. They’re talking about making a piece of material that does the same thing that a piece of 7-1/2-ounce Nomex does that weighs micro ounces. But, that’s a ways away. You know what, there are a lot of things out there on the horizon but, like you say, it could be 10 years from now, it could be 5 years, it could be 20 years from now. We are on top of most of that stuff that’s going on, I can assure you.