Bill Simpson, legendary motorsports safety pioneer, dies at 79

Bill Simpson
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Motorsports safety pioneer Bill Simpson died Monday after suffering a stroke last week, according to the Motorsports Hall of Fame. He was 79.

Simpson was a 2003 inductee of the Motorsports Hall of Fame, which recognized his long career in racing. He began as a drag racer and moved on to open-wheel racing, finishing 13th in the 1974 Indianapolis 500. After ending his career as a driver, he focused on Simpson Performance Products, which he founded.

One of the company’s primary thrusts was racing safety, of which Simpson became a passionate advocate after breaking both arms in a 1958 drag racing crash.

“Until then, I was like most drivers,” Simpson was quoted as saying in his Motorsports Hall of Fame biography. “The only time I thought about safety was after I’d been hurt. This time, I was hurt bad enough to do a lot of thinking.”

Simpson is credited with helping spearhead many innovations and developed hundreds of safety products, including the first parachute in drag racing, the firesuit, heat shields and several generations of helmets.

His seat belts were used by dozens of famous drivers but also were at the center of the biggest controversy of Simpson’s career. Dale Earnhardt was wearing a Simpson-manufactured seat belt when he was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. An accident report from NASCAR attributed Earnhardt’s skull fracture in part to his Simpson left-lap belt becoming separated.

Simpson filed an $8.5-million defamation of character lawsuit against NASCAR. After receiving death threats (and also having his tires slashed and bullets fired into his home in Charlotte, N.C.), he resigned from Simpson Performance Products in July 2001. But he remained in the safety business, forming Impact Racing.

His vigilance and belief in the quality of his products was legendary, particularly their flame-retardant ability. In 1986, he set himself on fire while wearing one of his suits to prove its efficacy.