Racing safety pioneer Bill Simpson dies at 79
Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Bill Simpson, an innovator in the world of motorsports safety equipment, died on Monday, Dec. 16 in Indianapolis after complications from recent health problems, according to a statement from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was 79.
Simpson, a Southern California native competed as a driver in drag racing, sports car racing, and open-wheel formula racing. He made 52 career Indy-car starts between 1968 and 1977 and produced 11 top-10 finishes.
He cherished his one start in the Indianapolis 500, where he finished 13th in 1974.
As a teenager, he crashed his dragster and broke both his arms. During that recovery, he started thinking about safety and rented a sewing machine to come up with his first advancement: a parachute to help dragsters slow down at the finish line.
Simpson decided to hang up his racing helmet in 1977 to fully pursue his passion for innovation and engineering. He went on to become a trailblazer in racing safety equipment, including fire suits, helmets, and harnesses.
His big breakthrough came when friend Pete Conrad, a NASA astronaut, introduced him to Normex, a temperature-resistant fabric. Simpson created the world’s first racing suit made of Normex and brought it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He would set himself on fire in front crowds to demonstrate the suit’s effectiveness that is now standard for drivers.
Simpson was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2003 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 2014 and attended motorsports events every May.
Hendricks County residents say Simpson always promoted the area through his racing connections.
“Bill would refer anyone that was connected to the motorsports industry to the hotel,” said Allan Bolante, who manages the Comfort Suites in Brownsburg and knew Simpson for 20 years.
“Bill was most instrumental in developing Brownsburg into the motorsports base for a lot of the race teams and motorsports ancillaries that it is today,” he said.
Simpson owned multiple properties in Brownsburg and served as a landlord to businesses and also developed property into warehouses and race shops to attract industry insiders.
Simpson is survived by a son. He also loved his animals. A celebration of his life is being planned for this May at the IMS Museum.
Residents and drivers are remembering him this week for his big personality and innovation.