Safety Pioneer and Racer Bill Simpson dies at 79

By: Alex Affat, Unique Cars magazine

RIP Bill Simpson headshot RIP Bill Simpson headshot

You may not know Simpson, but it’s likely you know someone who’s alive today because of him

E.J. Bill Simpson is one of those larger than life characters that seemingly could have only been forged in a past era.

He had his hands in drag racing, IndyCar, and NASCAR but is most well-known for his safety equipment business which started in his garage, and spread throughout the racing world.


Simpson passed away yesterday, aged 79, after suffering a stroke last week. His safety innovations are credited with saving countless lives worldwide.

By all accounts, he was a divisive character – prone to near fist-fight levels of friction, but equally known to share a drink with his adversaries before sun down.


Drag racing legend and close friend of Simpson, Don "The Snake" Prudhomme spoke of safety pioneer: "Not a lot of people know this but Bill was an orphan that had nothing, and turned his life into something special".

"He was the original rags-to-riches story, but he had a big heart and cared about people. Of course he wasn’t real tactful, and we had our differences over the years but I loved the guy".

A Californian native, Simpson began drag racing in the late 50s and broke both arms at the age of 18. That gave him an idea to mount a parachute behind a drag car to help scrub off speed – an innovation soon adopted by the NHRA.

His big innovation came in the late 60s, when Astronaut Pete Conrad introduced Simpson to a fire-retardant material called NoMex. Simpson’s line of NoMex suits changed the tide in the lethal era of racing in the 60s. By 1967, 30 of 33 starters at Indy were wearing his suits.


Indy legend Bobby Unser said: "we never, ever thought about safety, and I didn’t chase Bill Simpson, but thankfully he chased us and made us think".

"The things he was doing changed racing, and he was the best in the world. He did more for racing safety than anyone. He was the man".

Prudhomme added: "We were wearing Levis and leather jackets, and he saved my ass a time or two with his NoMex suit".

While Simpson, for the most part, kept fellow racers on side – he was consistently at odds with various governing bodies thanks to his abrasive attitude. The United States Auto Club (USAC) were less than impressed when he set himself alight on turn one at Indianapolis to prove a point. And he was famously made a scapegoat of by NASCAR, who blamed his seat belts for the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 (he sued for defamation of character which was later settled out of court).

Unser said: "Bill was a hippy when I met him and a cranky old guy most of his life, but he went from a nobody to the top of the heap".


"He worked hard and had a good mind – it didn’t go where the normal mind went. Now, he was a hard-head and I’d get mad at him, then he would do something really good, which was often, and we’d like him again".

"He’d piss people off one day and save a bunch of lives the next. That was Bill Simpson".

Inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2003, Simpson is a name that most people may not have heard of. But if you've been playing with cars long enough, there’s a fair chance that you know someone who’s alive today because of him.

And for that – we’d like to tip our hats and say thanks.

Vale Bill Simpson, from one racer to another.


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