When E.J. “Bill” Simpson showed up at the Indianapolis 500 in the first-ever Nomex race suit and lit himself on fire to prove that this meager-looking piece of fabric could save lives, the course of racing history changed. Simpson died of a stroke yesterday, December 16, 2019, at age 79, but his legacy as one of the pioneering forces of international motorsport safety will never be forgotten.
Simpson started out his career in drag racing back in the late ‘50s, but his perspective on racing changed in 1958 when he broke both arms in a drag racing crash. He noted that, “Until then, I was like most drivers. 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.” Danger was part of racing, but it didn’t have to be quite that dangerous.
While he raced in everything from drag racing to IndyCars, Simpson is best known for the business he started in his garage, Simpson Performance Products, which grew into a safety empire and drastically changed the scope of motorsport. Things we take for granted today, like the parachutes that slow drag racers or the Nomex fire suits that keep drivers from sustaining massive fire-related injuries like they used to, were all thanks to Simpson. His business eventually expanded to encompass gloves, helmets, and just about all the general safety equipment drivers now take for granted.
And he was certainly confident in his product. Knowing that racing drivers are some of the most stubborn human beings on the planet—that there was no way in hell they’d trade in their leather jackets and Levis for this strange-looking fire suit that had no guarantees of even working—Simpson decided to demonstrate that it would work when he completed the suit in 1967. He sat down on a chair at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire in order to calmly explain that this new suit might just save your ass. By the end of that demonstration, 30 of the 33 drivers racing at the Indy 500 were wearing these Nomex suits.
While there was a rule in place that drivers must try to wear something flame-retardant at the very least, it was Simpson’s suits that changed the game. As he repeated his fiery demonstration, people really began to take notice, and both the FIA and SEMA started figuring out the specs for the suits based on Simpson’s model.
But his career wasn’t without controversy. Here’s more from Racer:
In 2001, his pal Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash at Daytona that changed the course of Simpson’s life.
Despite the fact Earnhardt used a seat that was anything but safe and was notorious for loosening his seat belts during a race, NASCAR blamed Simpson seat belts for the death of NASCAR’s biggest star. His life was threatened by fans, and he resigned from his company. “The Earnhardt thing broke his heart, took him down to his knees,” recalled [drag racer Don] Prudhomme.
Despite that dark mark, Simpson was inducted into the Motorsport Hall of Fame in 2003 for his wide-ranging contributions to motorsport. Bill Simpson started a safety revolution that spread across all disciplines of motorsport, and despite being “responsible” for one of the most high-profile deaths in racing, his legacy remains one of an inventor who saved countless lives on the track.