One of the highlights of my PRI show this year was sharing Bill Simpson stories with Del Flores—a fellow former tenant of Lord of the Land Simpson. To know Simpson is to have Simpson stories.
Neither of us knew that Bill had a second—and ultimately fatal, I guess—stroke on Friday. I kept looking for him in the aisles, and especially at Kenny Koldsbaek’s Kenny’s Components booth, where I was sure to find him every year. That’s Kenny between Bill on the left and IndyCar scribe Robin Miller in the photo above. Now it’s hard to believe that the irascible man with the winning smile is gone.
Most people know Bill’s history as a racing safety pioneer—inventing drag chutes, setting himself on fire to show the quality of his firesuits, etc. If you don’t know about that, I hope you do some research or buy his book “Racing Safely, Living Dangerously.”
Del introduced me to Bill at the old cigar bar in downtown Brownsburg, Indiana. Bill had survived some ups and downs in his safety equipment businesses and wisely invested in developing real estate, making Brownsburg’s racing industrial parks what they are today.
I was rightly honored to meet the great man, and our conversation that night placed me in a good position—I knew enough about racing and Bill’s career to show I was no idiot, but left enough on the table for him to be able to tell me the REAL story about every tale.
When the unit next door to Del’s Performance Cycles came available, I jumped on it. I soon learned that no matter how much money I was handing over to Bill at any one time, that was no reason for him not to bite my head off about something—often about wasting his time while he’s busy. But religiously, like clockwork, Bill would show up at my door 20 minutes later. He would NEVER actually apologize about snapping at me, but he would always take the time to turn it around, be nice, and show interest and support in my work. He even hired me to produce a video about his football helmets.
The transgression that I was most truly embarrassed about was when my old blue Astro Van spilled ALL of its transmission fluid all over the freshly (and I mean within days) sealed pavement outside my door. Bill was livid, but I won him back by scrubbing the mess clean and resealing it myself.
Eventually, Del moved back to Jersey, and White Alligator Racing moved out of the unit next to him and went to Alabama. More importantly for me, my business had changed into one that kept me constantly on the road, and a luxuriously large shop space for Eatmyink no longer made sense.
But I still stopped in to see Bill whenever I was nearby and saw his white SUV parked outside of his own, constantly moving office. Strangely, Bill’s time for me increased now that I was no longer handing him money and was merely stopping in to see him.
My last time at the office, Bill was surrounded by boxes of little, Impact brand, kevlar, wallet type things. He asked me if I thought they would shield credit cards from being scanned or skimmed. I promptly said “Just say that they do Bill, it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve been accused of things like that.” I braced myself, sure that this was a joke too far and that I’d be promptly thrown out of the building. Bill didn’t laugh, but the visit moved from the lobby to his office and was a good one. We vacationed in the same, somewhat remote part of Mexico, and discussion that visit specifically centered around flights to and from ZIH.
When Bill’s son passed away, I paid my condolences when I saw him next at IRP and told him I was sorry. “It’s OK,” Bill said, and managed to flash that wide grin of his. “No, Bill, it’s not. That’s the worst thing anybody can have happen to them,” and I hugged him, right there at the IRP ready line. He stiffened up, not quite used to displays of affection.
The last time I saw Bill was this past 500 raceday at his turn 2 suite. I always made it a point to stop and pay my respects. With me being sweaty, wearing my awkward photo vest, and laden with heavy cameras, I was clearly out of place with the fashionable people enjoying drinks in his suite.
Bill would promptly snap at me and make a joke at my expense. His guests would laugh and/or raise their eyebrows. I would laugh. Over the course of, say, a 5 minute visit, Bill would soften and I would be laying my groundwork. Before exiting, I would have built up to a zinger at the old man’s expense that would leave everyone laughing and Bill flashing his grin.
This last time, though, Bill told me about his first stroke. I already knew about it, of course, and the whole visit was somewhat more laid back.
And now Bill has made the final joke, dying a day or two after everyone at PRI has left and gone home. We’ll all be cursing him a little bit as we head back to Indy (where I’m guessing there will be a memorial of some kind) through December weather, wishing that instead he’d be showing up at the door 20 minutes later to smile and make amends for his bad behavior.
Godspeed Bill, there will never be another one like you.
story and photos by Tim Hailey
Here’s the press release from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway regarding Bill:
Veteran racer Bill Simpson, who made one Indianapolis 500 start and was renowned in global motorsports for his development of groundbreaking safety equipment, died Monday, Dec. 16 in Indianapolis due to complications from recent health problems. He was 79.
Simpson competed as a driver in drag racing, sports car racing and open-wheel formula racing, including in SCCA and USAC Indy-car competition. He made 52 career Indy-car starts between 1968 and 1977. He produced 11 top-10 finishes, including a career best of sixth in the 1970 Milwaukee 200.
Southern California native Simpson qualified 20th and finished 13th in the 1974 Indianapolis 500 in the American Kids Racer Eagle-Offy owned by Dick Beith. It was his only career start in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” but competing in that race was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and the pinnacle of his varied driving career.
Another noteworthy highlight of Simpson’s career was providing four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears with a car to make his first career Indy car start, in the 1976 Ontario 500.
Simpson’s racing career ended during an Indianapolis 500 practice lap in May 1977, when he realized he was thinking more about a phone call he needed to make for his racing safety products business than driving a race car at nearly 200 mph. That realization caused him to hang up his helmet for good on the spot, with Formula One veteran Clay Regazzoni taking his seat.
The colorful Simpson started his driving career in drag racing as a teenager in Southern California. His work in motorsports safety started inadvertently when he crashed his dragster as an 18-year-old in 1958, suffering two broken arms. During his recovery time, Simpson devised and developed more sophisticated, purpose-built parachutes – through trial and error on a rented sewing machine in a garage – to slow dragsters after the finish line, starting a company called Simpson Drag Chutes.
Those humble beginnings evolved and grew into Simpson Performance Products and Impact! Racing, highly successful companies that designed, developed and produced more than 200 motorsports safety products used by drivers in all series worldwide, including helmets, gloves, fire-retardant driver suits, seat belts and more.
Perhaps Simpson’s biggest racing safety breakthrough came in 1967. He was introduced to a temperature-resistant fabric called Nomex through NASA astronaut and racing enthusiast Pete Conrad.
Simpson created the world’s first racing suit made of Nomex and brought it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that May, where it became a safety sensation quickly used by nearly every driver in the starting field and now is standard equipment for every race driver. Donning his Nomex suit and a helmet, Simpson set himself on fire during demonstrations to prove the suit’s effectiveness on several occasions over the years.
Mazda featured Bill on fire n a TV commercial a few years ago:
Those tireless contributions to motorsports safety led to a host of accolades and honors, including enshrinement into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2003 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 2014.
Simpson chronicled his colorful and substantial life in racing by writing two books, “Racing Safely, Living Dangerously” and its sequel, “Through the Fire.”
Despite the vast success of his motorsports safety companies, Simpson never forgot his magical year of qualifying for and competing in the Indianapolis 500.
He annually returned to the Speedway during the Month of May for veterans’ activities, including appearances at driver autograph sessions for fans on Legends Day presented by Firestone. Simpson often attended these sessions with fellow colorful motorsports mogul and Indianapolis 500 veteran Chip Ganassi, and he was a passionate supporter of the IMS Museum.
Simpson is survived by a son. He also was a devout animal enthusiast, whose menagerie included his beloved dog, Maia, camels and other pets. A celebration of his life is being planned for this May at the IMS Museum, with details pending.