By Drew Hardin
Photography: Steve Scott, Petersen Publishing Company Archive
It would be difficult to estimate how many lives have been saved and injuries averted (or at least minimized) by the pioneering work of Bill Simpson. Simpson, who passed away in December 2019, was one of a handful of members of the racing community who dedicated their lives to improving driver safety.
Simpson was a racer himself. In 1958, at the age of 18, he broke both of his arms when he couldn’t get his race car stopped before careening off the end of a dragstrip. During his recuperation, he thought long and hard about ways to keep that from happening again.
At the suggestion of an uncle who operated a military surplus store, he focused on using parachutes to slow speeding cars and tested a prototype with fellow racer Mike Sorokin. As the story goes, Simpson pitched the parachute out the back window of a Chevy station wagon that Sorokin had pedaled to about 100 mph. The chute, tied to the wagon’s trailer hitch, was so big that it sent the car airborne—and the two racers to jail when the police showed up.
But Simpson was onto something, and none other than Big Daddy Don Garlits was among the first customers for his dedicated drag-race parachutes.
Simpson is seen here in September 1965, when he was photographed for a Car Craft profile. That same year, he pioneered another innovation—the dual drag chute—again with help from Sorokin, who by that time was a member of the famous Surfers drag-racing team.
Note the company logo on Simpson’s T-shirt. He hadn’t yet diversified beyond parachutes, so it was still Simpson Drag Chutes and not Simpson Safety Equipment. Perhaps his most important innovation was still two years in the future, when a meeting with astronaut Pete Conrad would introduce Simpson to Nomex, the flame-retardant material that NASA used in
Simpson took a prototype Nomex fire suit to Indianapolis in May of 1967. By the time the race started that year, 30 of the 33 entrants were wearing Simpson Nomex suits. To convince any doubters in the racing community, Simpson—more than once over the years—had himself photographed on fire while wearing one of his suits.
Simpson continued to race while innovating safety gear, moving up to Indy cars in the late ’60s. Among his strongest finishes was 13th place in the 1974 Indy 500, but he stopped racing in 1977 when he realized that business distractions were affecting his concentration.
Simpson left the company he founded in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal 2001 crash at Daytona, amid allegations that Earnhardt’s lap belt (made by Simpson) failed. His drive for safer racers didn’t stop there, though, as he went on to launch Impact Racing in 2002.
Simpson was inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2003.