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Motorsports Safety Pioneer Bill Simpson Passes Away

By SEMA Editors

Bill Simpson
SEMA Hall of Fame member Bill Simpson passed away Monday, December 16, after suffering a massive stroke.

Bill Simpson, 79, motorsports safety pioneer, died Monday, December 16, after suffering a massive stroke. A class of 1988 SEMA Hall of Fame member and a 2003 Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee, Simpson drove dragsters and Indy cars, finishing 13th in the 1974 Indianapolis 500. After ending his career as a driver, he started Simpson Safety Products in his garage, which grew into an empire and helped reduce the death rate in all forms of racing.

Born in Hermosa Beach, California, Simpson started drag racing in the late ’50s and broke both arms when he was 18 years old. That led to his initial safety idea of mounting a parachute behind the car to slow it down, and soon enough it was adopted by the NHRA. But his big breakthrough came in the ’60s, when astronaut Pete Conrad introduced him to a fire-retardant material called Nomex. At that time, IndyCar, NASCAR and F1 drivers routinely lost their lives to fire because they either drove in a T-shirt or a uniform that was dipped in a chemical that provided minimal protection. Simpson began producing Nomex suits, and by 1967, 30 of the 33 starters at Indy were wearing them. In 1986, Simpson set himself on fire while wearing one of his suits to prove its efficacy.

Bill Simpson
Before founding Simpson Safety Products, Simpson drove dragsters and Indy cars, finishing 13th in the 1974 Indianapolis 500.

From suits, Simpson branched out into gloves, shoes, seat belts and helmets. Simpson Safety Products were used worldwide. However, in 2001, his friend Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash at Daytona, which changed the course of Simpson’s life. NASCAR blamed Simpson’s seat belts for Earnhardt’s death. His life was threatened by fans, and he resigned from his company to start another company, Impact Performance Products. He ended up suing NASCAR for defamation of character in 2003, settling the $9 million suit out of court.

Simpson was married three times and fathered two sons, Jeff and David. In his spare time, he enjoyed sailing his boat in Mexico.

Funeral arrangements have not been disclosed as of press time. Indianapolis Motor Speedway said a celebration of Simpson's life is being planned for May at the IMS Museum.