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Exonerated & Exasperated

Bill Simpson is relieved an expert says his seat belt didn't cause Earnhardt's death but angry at NASCAR.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2001


Bill Simpson is relieved an expert says his seat belt didn't cause Earnhardt's death but angry at NASCAR.

His company was deluged with death threats and bomb scares, his car pelted with eggs and tires pierced by a knife.

Seven weeks of threats and damage to his company's reputation ended Monday when a phone call delivered vindication to Bill Simpson.

A Duke University crash expert had concluded that a seat belt made by Simpson Performance Products Inc. could not be blamed for Dale Earnhardt's death, as a NASCAR-affiliated doctor suggested Feb. 23.

"When I received a phone call and got a copy of the report, I was immensely relieved," said Simpson, whose company provides safety equipment to thousands of race car drivers. "But now I'm p-----. I'm p----- because I don't think that we should have gone through this."

Simpson's anger is rooted in a NASCAR news conference five days after Earnhardt's crash at Daytona International Speedway and the sanctioning body's relative silence since.

During that Feb. 23 news conference, NASCAR president Mike Helton, Winston Cup director Gary Nelson and car owner Richard Childress revealed that Earnhardt's left lap belt had separated.

"That's something that never happened before," Simpson said.

Dr. Steve Bohannon, head of emergency medical services at Daytona International Speedway, theorized the broken belt might have contributed to the driver's fatal injuries.

"The wrath of some crazy fans then came down on us, and that's been very difficult," said Simpson, who was in Indianapolis on Wednesday. "Unfortunately there's nobody man enough or whatever enough to face you face to face and do something like that."

Dr. Barry Myers, chosen to review the Earnhardt autopsy photos as part of an agreement between widow Teresa Earnhardt's lawyers and the Orlando Sentinel, helped end the threats when he concluded that the seven-time Winston Cup champion died because his head whipped forward so violently it caused a basal skull fracture.

"I don't think anybody in the industry that has been in the mechanical end of it, the racing end of it, has ever questioned anything Bill Simpson has done," said Humpy Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway. "This wasn't Simpson Products' fault. It was something else that happened."

Helton, in a statement Tuesday, said nobody from NASCAR ever suggested what might have happened in the accident other than there were issues regarding the "occupant restraint system."

Simpson disagrees with the sanctioning body's softened stance.

"Mike Helton claims he said he didn't know when it broke or how it broke or where it broke or why it broke," Simpson said. "But there's Gary Nelson sitting there showing you a Simpson seat belt (Feb. 23), and all the people that were sitting in front of him knew they were Simpson belts. I find that very hard to swallow."

Simpson caught a glimpse Earnhardt's seat-belt system lying on a bench during a visit with Rusty Wallace and Ken Schrader to NASCAR's research and development shop in Conover, N.C., to see the car. Simpson was not able to inspect the belt closely.

He instead took six belts from the same November production run as Earnhardt's and sent them to the SFI Foundation in Poway, Calif., for testing less than a month ago. The foundation certifies equipment and determines specifications for CART, Indy Racing and NHRA, but not NASCAR.

"I requested in writing that they videotape the test, which they did," Simpson said. "All the seat belts performed as expected, passed by double what the SFI standard is. They were tested to destruction. One of them, they ran out of fill in their machine. They couldn't break it."

Myers' conclusions have left some wondering if NASCAR didn't implicate a seat belt to divert attention from another fatal basal skull fracture. Earnhardt was the fourth NASCAR driver to die from the injury in nine months.

"People can draw their own conclusions," Simpson said. "I certainly would hope that's not the methodology here, but I think that time is going to tell that story."

Simpson said he will not file a lawsuit against NASCAR and would help the organization in its safety efforts if it asked.

NASCAR announced Monday it had commissioned an accident-reconstruction review, but it did not name companies involved and said results were not expected before August.

"I think that they should come forward and tell us who the people are that are going to be conducting this study," Simpson said. "But if there's only silence from them to hear, I don't see how I can help them."

NASCAR spokeswoman Danielle Humphrey declined to address Simpson's concerns or elaborate further on the safety review. Simpson has been developing a head-and-neck restraint that would be an alternative to the HANS device. A fourth version of his head restraint is scheduled for testing today by Dr. John Melvin, a Detroit-based biomechanical engineer and crash expert.

Simpson expects the restraint system, derived from a mountain-climbing device called a "screamer" and patented by a NASA engineer, will be ready for the Talladega 500 next week at Talladega Superspeedway.

"Anybody that wants one can have it," said Simpson, who said sprint car driver Jack Hewitt has worn the device in two major crashes. "It's not a money thing. They'll be free. We won't charge one penny for it. That's my dedication to this sport, okay?"

Simpson doesn't expect an apology from NASCAR.

The exoneration is good enough.

"I've done a lot to help this sport," he said. "It's been my whole life's work. It's been 43 years, 44 in November. I don't think that I've ever gone through anything like this situation that I've just gone through. I hope I don't ever have to go through it again."

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Do you trust NASCAR?

In light of the conflicting views of what caused Dale Earnhardt's death and NASCAR's reluctance to share information on its investigation, do you still have faith that NASCAR will do a thorough investigation and be candid about its findings? E-mail your thoughts along with your name, address and phone number to sptsnews@sptimes.com.

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