Bill Simpson, Racing Safety Pioneer Who Tangled With NASCAR After Dale Earnhardt’s Fatal Crash, Dies At 79

A picture of the finish line at a NASCAR race.
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images

Bill Simpson took a normally unseen part of motor sports and brought it to the forefront by making key innovations in safety and famously tangling with NASCAR after the death of one of its biggest stars.

Simpson died Monday at the age of 79 after suffering a massive stroke, Racer reported. He had been hospitalized over the weekend in Indianapolis, which was reported by the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, where Simpson was an inductee.

E.J. “Bill” Simpson was the founder of Simpson Performance Products, a company that made a number of safety advancements. Simpson started his career as a drag racer in the late 1950s and later qualified for the 1974 Indianapolis 500 but left racing in 1977 to pursue a career creating racing safety products.

As Simpson explained, he first started thinking about safety improvements when he was 18 and broke both arms in a crash during a drag race. Safety at the time was not a priority for racing, and Simpson saw an opening to make some key improvements to protect drivers.

He grew his company into a force across racing, creating dozens of safety innovations, including the first fire suit. As My Fox 8 reported, Simpson was also responsible for major improvements to safety devices, including helmets and seat belts.

Simpson was perhaps most known for his tangle with NASCAR following the death of his friend Dale Earnhardt in a crash during the Daytona 500. As Racer noted, Earnhardt had a reputation for using an unsafe seat and loosening his seat belt during races, but NASCAR in its official report on the crash placed blame on Simpson’s company. Simpson vehemently disagreed that this seat belt played a role in the crash, and independent medical examiner findings would eventually give him backing.

However, the cloud of controversy still hung over the safety pioneer. Simpson received death threats and resigned from his company, but he decided to take NASCAR to court. He sued the racing giant for $8.5 million in a defamation suit, but withdrew it after an unspecified settlement was made.

“Those people declared war on me but they didn’t know what kind of a fight they were in for,” he said in a 2004 interview, via Racer. “Everyone who has ever dealt with NASCAR has acquiesced to them because they think they’re bulletproof and nobody will stand up to them. They brought me my knees like nobody else has ever done. But I’m a pretty mean son of a b*tch, and they f*cked with the wrong guy.”