impossible, right? could it really have been january 1993 when i walked into a business just outside los angeles to buy my first—and, sad to say, apparently my last—tailored suit?
i had been wearing off-the-rack stuff, and i was tired of it. there was a little room left on the american express card, and i planned to max it out. i wanted the best, and i got it. the man with the tape measure wrote everything down carefully. chest, inseam, sleeves.
color: black. material: nomex. trim: three yellow bands around the upper arms.
"we stitch your name on it for free," the man said, just one more service of simpson racing products, founded by safety guru bill simpson, who died monday at age 79, following a stroke.
i told the salesman that i'd just as soon not have my name on the suit. he was perplexed. "everyone wants their name on the suit! it can even be a nickname. like 'bubba.' how about bubba?" i was living in texas at the time and assumed that people in california figured half of texas men must be nicknamed bubba, when in reality, it is less than a third.
i declined to tell him the real reason i didn't want my name on the suit: then as now, i'm such a crappy race driver that i discourage any means of expedited identification. pursuant to that, no race car i've owned has had my name on it. if somebody asks, i tell them my name is "smith."
correctly figuring i could use any advantage available, i went to simpson for my firesuit, back when they actually called them "firesuits." go to the simpson racing products website today, and they're called "racing suits." to bill simpson, though—a man who never spent much time worrying about political correctness, or calling a suit something that would not make a racer's spouse see it hanging in the closet and automatically think of "fire"—it was a firesuit.
more than once, simpson set himself on fire to demonstrate the effectiveness of his firesuits. he had to: until nasa astronaut pete conrad, an avid amateur racer, introduced simpson to nomex, in 1967 a new fire-resistant material invented by dupont scientist wilfred sweeny, no one had found a genuinely effective, affordable substance that would work. simpson took the ball and ran with it, and in his first year of manufacturing simpson firesuits, 30 of the 33 starters in the indianapolis 500 were wearing them.
simpson, as multiple obituaries have already noted, was a california native, growing up alongside, and part of, hot-rodding.
at 18, he broke both arms when his dragster declined to stop at the end of the drag strip. several racers had toyed with the idea of using a parachute to stop their dragsters, but simpson was the first to make it work, when he used a rented sewing machine to stitch together a nylon chute that he and his friend and fellow drag racer mike sorokin submitted to a scientific test—they tied it to the tow hitch of a chevrolet station wagon, drove it to 100 mph, and simpson tossed the chute out the back. and boy, did it work! the too-big chute sent the chevy airborne, falling to earth in a tree nursery. the police sent sorokin and simpson to jail, where simpson admitted he had a little more engineering to do. when he got it right, and "big daddy" don garlits began using his chutes, simpson was on his way.
sorokin, incidentally, went on to become the driver for the legendary surfers top fuel racing team, along with bob skinner and tom jobe, who was the team's tuner and a self-taught nitromethane expert, who figured that if the other guys were running well on fuel that was 60 percent nitro, how fast could they go with fuel that was, say, 98 percent nitro? they went pretty fast. or exploded. they exploded a lot.
after the surfers hung it up, sorokin kept racing, and at age 28, he was killed in tony waters's dragster when the clutch exploded. that was happening often—racers learned that when you let the clutch slip a little, the car actually hooked up quicker and went faster, so they were modifying them on their own, and if the clutch failed it could just cut a car in half. simpson took his friend's death hard, but so many racers were dying then, their deaths were typically a shock but seldom a surprise. sorokin was killed on dec. 30, 1967—the 23rd drag racer to die that year.
simpson continued to race, and in 1974, he made it to the pinnacle: he qualified for the indianapolis 500 and finished 13th. several years later he was practicing at indy and realized that his mind was on business—calls to return, materials he need to buy—and not on his driving, and he knew it was time to stop.
stop racing, not stop innovating. he had a hand in bringing some 200 innovations to the safety market, and probably just as many that didn't make it, such as his "bionic glove" that would prevent a racer's hands from tiring. he even opened a restaurant—flat-tops in indianapolis.
in an interview given when he was 63, the female writer noted that he was a "ruggedly handsome man." oh, bill simpson could be charming, and he could also be—not charming. he could be acerbic, impatient, and he did not suffer fools. but once you were on simpson's personal "approved" list, he would likely be your friend for life. he could also be his own worst enemy. in that same interview given when he was 63, he admits to being "creative, not smart." geniuses often do not make the best businessmen.
undeniably, simpson's worst moment came at the 2001 daytona 500, when his close friend dale earnhardt was killed when he hit the wall in turn 4. like so many drivers prior to the popularity of the head and neck support, or hans, device, earnhardt died from a basilar skull fracture, as did nascar drivers adam petty, kenny irwin jr., and tony roper in 2000.
but in nascar's own analysis of how the sport's biggest star was killed, substantial blame was placed on the simpson seatbelts earnhardt was wearing. "if his restraint system—his belts—had held, he would have had a much better chance of survival," said dr. steve bohannon, nascar's medical expert.
yes, the left-side lap belt broke, simpson agreed, but said it had been improperly installed to suit the way earnhardt like to sit in the car—low. he argued his case, and there was evidence to support his claim, but few listened. he got death threats. bill simpson killed dale earnhardt! the reputation he had worked for decades to build crumbled in one week.
"the simpson company was not responsible in any way, shape, or form for this accident," simpson said in a statement. "having tested and produced seatbelts for the motorsports industry for more than 43 years, we have never seen a seatbelt come apart in the manner that occurred. our seatbelts, when properly installed, won't fail."
nascar, simpson believed, was throwing him under the bus. earnhardt fans were anxious to hear any explanation that didn't include the possibility that earnhardt, who still wore an open-face helmet and had no interest in even talking to jim downing, the co-inventor of the hans, much less wear one, might have made a mistake. several mistakes.
simpson had sold a majority interest in his company to investors in 1999, and the corporate types now running simpson performance products wanted all this bad publicity to just go away—now. a year after the crash, simpson filed an $8.5 million defamation suit against nascar: "they picked on the wrong guy this time," he said. prior to the filing, simpson performance products sent out a press release saying they would not be party to any rumored lawsuit. bill simpson was out there, by himself.
but he wasn't backing down. "all nascar had to do was apologize to me, but no, they were too damn arrogant. so, if that's the way they want to be, then fine. there will be a lot of shit coming out through this, things they never wanted to talk about," simpson told autoweek just before the suit was filed.
as for simpson performance products, "they're in the appeasement business right now, but that's their problem. what nascar did to us was wrong, and i'm not going to take it. they can mess with a lot of people, but they aren't going to mess with bill simpson. i'll stand up to them. i'll see them in court."
he never did. the suit was settled out of court in july 2003. everyone smiled and joined hands. "simpson and nascar are happy to announce that they agree that it is in the best interest of racing that they direct their time, energy, and resources away from litigation and to improving safety for professional racing drivers," said a statement approved by both sides. not surprising: few high-profile suits involving nascar seem to go through the complete trial process, and the last thing the sanctioning body wanted was to air this particular batch of dirty laundry.
simpson sold the rest of his company, and, after a one-year noncompete agreement was satisfied, started impact racing, where he developed and sold safety equipment and spent of lot of time explaining why bill simpson was actively marketing against a company he founded that still bore his name. he sold impact in 2010, saying he was "getting older" and that it was time to "pass the torch."
but it had been a turbulent couple of years for simpson's new company. in 2009, a former impact employee told the manufacturers of the hans device that impact was using counterfeit anchors on some helmets—anchors are where the hans attaches to the helmet. hans inspected 87 impact helmets being used at the nascar races at bristol motor speedway and found that 82 had the questionable anchors. the anchors were stamped with trademarks for hans, the international automobile federation (fia), and the sfi foundation, but hans said that in-house tests showed the anchors didn't meet the load requirements specified by the fia. a subsequent lawsuit claimed that impact was buying attachment clips from china for $8.90 a set, compared to $41.25 for the actual hans clips.
the chinese clips were inscribed with an sfi certification. the nonprofit sfi foundation, which issues and administers safety standards for racing equipment, said that impact never even participated in that program.
on the heels of that came the revelation that impact had sewn fake sfi foundation certification patches onto some of its suits and used fake sfi labels on other products. impact and the sfi engaged in a monumental battle of press releases, with impact claiming that "sfi's actions have caused racers to unnecessarily question their safety" in using impact equipment. the sfi countered with a scathing release saying that, among additional revelations, "scientific testing just conducted on 2008 impact 3.2a/5 suits has determined that the thread melts away in a fire." the thread was not made from nomex, as sfi was led to believe, but "some sort of unknown noncompliant thread that melts during heat testing. this thread failure is contrary to the sfi specifications that impact agreed to follow." it went downhill from there.
no one argues that bill simpson was the consummate innovator, working hard and fast to get his innovations on the market. that sometimes bit him, like in 1984, when simpson sports manufactured the first carbon-fiber motorcycle helmets. early models failed testing; simpson explained that the problem was with his resin supplier. he assumed the resin would cure properly in 48 hours, but found out after selling 300 of the new helmets that it took eight weeks.
still, no question: simpson has saved countless lives. he was a bulldog when it came to safety, took every fatality personally, saw every injury as one more problem to solve. he was named to the motorsports hall of fame in 2003, and no one before or since deserved the honor more.
and as for the only tailor-made suit i'll ever own: still fits, still perfect, still bill simpson at his finest.