A year after NASCAR's Earnhardt report, the man who was scrutinized by it returns to the safety business.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 21, 2002
Years ago, Bill Simpson set himself on fire to prove the racing suit he designed would protect drivers from their biggest fear. He believed in his products that much.
He still does.
One year after a NASCAR investigation claimed the failure of a Simpson seat belt contributed to the death of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, Simpson is back in business designing helmets and safety harnesses.
"I have a good spirit," said Simpson, 62. "I have a lot to give to the sport, and I'm pleased to be able to start contributing again. The NASCAR deal to me is something I don't want to pay a lot of attention to. I lived it for too many months. It was a living hell."
Simpson hoped NASCAR's six-month investigation would absolve him and his company, Simpson Performance Products, of any blame for Earnhardt's death in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. He was disappointed.
In re-creating the accident, a team of scientists determined three factors combined to cause the fatal basal skull fracture: the separated left lap belt, the displacement of Earnhardt's body to the right by contact from Ken Schrader's car, and the velocity and angle of impact with the Turn 4 wall.
Specifically, the seat belt "dumped," or tore, because the strapping bunched at one end of the metal adjuster. Backed by an independent study, Simpson claimed the belt dumped because it was installed outside the manufacturer's specifications. NASCAR's scientists did not offer an explanation.
"(The report) needed to vindicate us because we didn't do anything wrong," Simpson said. "Instead of doing that, it condemned us further. I'm the only person whose life hasn't gotten back to normal. It's been one bad, bad time that I've had."
Simpson received death threats. Bullets were shot into his home in Charlotte, N.C. His tires were slashed. In July 2001, Simpson resigned from the company he founded, citing stress and the fear he would be run out of business.
Chuck Davies, CEO of Simpson Performance Products, would not say if the company lost business because of the seat belt issue, only that business is fine.
"Bill probably saved more people's lives and protected more limbs in racing than anybody, and second place is not even close," Davies said. "I don't think anybody really questioned that Bill Simpson dedicated his life to making racers safer and as a direct result saved the lives of a lot of racers."
Wanting nothing more than an apology, and bitter he did not receive it, Simpson filed an $8.5-million defamation of character suit against NASCAR in February, four days before the sanctioning body's biggest event, the Daytona 500. The case is set for trial in September 2003 in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, where Simpson's company was based and where he has primary residence.
When the lawsuit was filed, NASCAR issued a release saying it was "totally without merit."
Simpson called the filing a turning point.
"When that was filed, I alleviated myself of about 10 tons off my back because I made a statement," Simpson said. "Now, I don't even really pay much attention to it. The lawyers take care of it."
For the past year, Simpson has kept busy, opening a restaurant in Indianapolis, going to non-NASCAR races and researching his latest safety ideas. His one-year noncompete clause with his former company expired Saturday. His new company is called Bill Simpson's Impact Racing.
"I haven't just been sitting," Simpson said. "I've been doing a lot of testing away from everybody's eyes. I've completely changed helmet technology and raised the bar about 15 points. I'm quite positive I will have a lot of Winston Cup drivers because it's a better product."
He'll do anything to prove it.