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Rutherford Remembers Safety Pioneer Simpson

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, December 20 2019
Bill Simpson saved the life of Johnny Rutherford and countless others in racing over the years.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – The passing of motorsports safety pioneer Bill Simpson this week prompted three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford to pause and praise a perpetually “ornery” friend whose helmet design saved his life nearly 40 years ago.

Rutherford was wearing a full-face Simpson helmet when his Pennzoil
Chaparral was flipped onto its lid during the latter stages of the
Nov. 9, 1980 Championship Auto Racing Teams season-finale at what then
was known as Phoenix International Raceway.

“I attributed Bill with saving my life in the helmet I wore when I got upside down at Phoenix,” Rutherford said in a telephone interview with RacinToday.com. “Only wearing that helmet is what saved me.”

Veteran racer Simpson, renowned in global motorsports for the development of groundbreaking safety equipment, died Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Indianapolis due to complications from recent health issues. He was 79.

“I talked to him about a month ago and he sounded OK,” Rutherford said from his home in the River Oaks section of Fort Worth. “But during May he had a suite (at Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and I sat down with him to remember old times. He was struggling then with parts of his speech and he was in rehab to work on that. I thought he’d certainly pull through…but he had had some mini-strokes and it took him away.”

Simpson competed as a driver in drag racing, sports car racing and open-wheel formula racing, including in SCCA and U.S. Auto Club Indy car competition. He made 52 career INDYCAR starts between 1968 and 1977 and logged 11 top-10 finishes, including a career-best sixth in the 1970 Milwaukee 200 around The Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis.

Simpson started his driving career in drag racing as a teenager in Southern California. His work in motorsports safety started inadvertently when he crashed his dragster as an 18-year-old in 1958, suffering two broken arms. During his recovery time, Simpson devised and developed more sophisticated, purpose-built parachutes _ through trial-and-error on a rented sewing machine in a garage _ to slow dragsters after the finish line, launching a company called Simpson Drag Chutes.

Those humble beginnings evolved into Simpson Performance Products and Impact! Racing. His highly successful companies designed, developed and produced more than 200 motorsports safety products used by drivers in various series worldwide _including helmets, gloves, fire-retardant driver suits, seat belts and more.

Perhaps Simpson’s biggest racing safety breakthrough was delivered in 1967, when he introduced a temperature-resistant fabric called Nomex through NASA astronaut and racing enthusiast Pete Conrad.

Simpson created the world’s first racing suit made of Nomex and brought it to Indianapolis Motor Speedway that May, where it became a safety sensation quickly adopted by nearly every driver in the starting field. Today, Nomex remains standard equipment for all participants. Donning his Nomex suit and a helmet, the PR-savvy Simpson set himself on fire during demonstrations to prove the suit’s effectiveness on several occasions over the years.

Rutherford, however, remains eternally grateful for the helmet he was wearing when the famed “Yellow Submarine” designed and fielded by fellow-racer Jim Hall of Midland, Texas, went for a wild ride at PIR.

“Helmets had come a long way (by 1980) and Bill was very serious about the technology on the helmets,” said Rutherford, whose headgear featured the Texas state flag as part of his “Lone Star J.R.” persona. Rutherford, who won his third Indy 500 from pole position in the No. 4 Pennzoil Chaparral on May 25, 1980, went into the season-ender at PIR as the champion of USAC and CART.

“I was leading the race coming toward the end and was running the high line around Phoenix, which is a little more comfortable,” Rutherford said of the former 1-mile layout featuring a dogleg turn. “I was passing Dennis Firestone, who was a rookie, on the outside and off Turn 4 and he let his car up to follow the natural line and didn’t realize I was there. His right front (tire and wheel) made contact with my left rear and spun me (and Firestone). The (left rear) suspension broke when I hit the wall and it rolled the car up on its rear wheel. When it flipped over, I landed on my head.”

As detailed in Lone Star J.R., The Autobiography of Racing Legend Johnny Rutherford written by Rutherford and David Craft, the car slid 100 feet toward the inside pit wall and stopped. The rollbar had done its job, having collapsed half its height when the car landed and skidded _ but Rutherford was pinned underneath. A group of men ran to the wreckage from pit road and picked up one side of the car, while a couple more men slid underneath to check on Rutherford.

“It was my helmet that ultimately saved my life,” Rutherford said in the book. “It suffered the damage and kept my skull from cracking when my head hit the pavement. But boy, did it take a beating. The brad or rivet that attached the chinstrap to the helmet had been worn down and the strap had come loose. If it had not been for my ‘sissy strap’ _ a strap attached to the left side of my helmet and tethered by a loop under my left shoulder _ the slide my car took would have easily knocked the helmet off my head.

“The back of the helmet sustained a three-inch long split from the impact and the left rear quarter had a sizable dent. You could have poked your finger through the fiberglass to the interior of the helmet on one side, where it had been ground through. It had burn marks all over it (from a flash methanol fire), and the face-bar in front of the helmet was cracked on both sides.”

Rutherford said Simpson sent the helmet to the Snell Foundation, which set the standard for professional racing helmets, for testing and analysis. The people at Snell estimated Rutherford was traveling at 135 mph when his helmet hit the ground with the Chaparral upside down. 

“Bill sent me the helmet back when they got though with the tests with a letter,” Rutherford told RacinToday.com. “And the last graph said, ‘A helmet of any less integrity would have certainly produced a fatal.’ Bill Simpson was a dear, dear friend because his helmet saved my life.”

A native of Southern California, Simpson qualified 20th and finished 13th in the 1974 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in the No. 18 American Kids Racer Eagle/Offy owned by Dick Beith. It was Simpson’s only career start in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” but competing at IMS was the fulfillment of a life-long dream and the pinnacle of his driving career.

Ironically, Rutherford scored the first of his three Indy 500 victories in 1974 driving the No. 3 McLaren/Offy after starting25th as a second-day qualifier in the traditional 33-car field.

Simpson’s IMS legacy includes providing off-road racer/aspiring USAC driver Rick Mears of Bakersfield, Calif., with a car to make his first career INDYCAR start in the 1976 Ontario 500 in Riverside, Calif. Mears went on to become the third four-time winner of the Indy 500 driving for Roger Penske.

Simpson’s racing career ended during an Indianapolis 500 practice lap in May 1977, when he realized he was thinking more about a phone call he needed to make for his racing safety products business than driving an open-wheel car at nearly 200 mph. That realization prompted him to hang up his helmet for good on the spot, with Formula One veteran Clay Regazzoni taking his seat.

“Bill Simpson became synonymous with motorsports safety equipment through his tireless work of more than 50 years,” said Mark Miles, president/CEO of Hulman & Company in Indianapolis. “His innovations and products protected so many drivers and saved countless lives, and will continue to do so moving forward.

“We’re eternally grateful for Bill’s dedication to safety at every level of the sport, from the grassroots oval and road racer all the way to the biggest events and stages such as the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Bill was a great friend to IMS and INDYCAR, and a passionate supporter of the Indianapolis 500 and IMS Museum, never missing a chance to return and sign autographs for the fans. He will be missed but always remembered by everyone in our racing world.”

Simpson’s tireless contributions to motorsports safety led to a host of accolades and honors, including enshrinement into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2003 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 2014.

Simpson chronicled his colorful and substantial life in racing by writing two books _ Racing Safely, Living Dangerously and its sequel, Through the Fire.

Despite the vast success of his motorsports safety companies, Simpson never forgot his magical year of qualifying for and competing in the Indianapolis 500. He annually returned to the Speedway during the Month of May for veterans’ activities, including appearances at driver autograph sessions for fans on Legends Day presented by Firestone. Simpson often attended these sessions with motorsports mogul and Indy 500 veteran Chip Ganassi. Simpson also was a passionate supporter of the IMS Museum.

Simpson is survived by a son. Simpson also was an animal enthusiast, whose menagerie included his beloved dog, Maia, camels and other pets. A celebration of his life is being planned for May 2020 at the IMS Museum, with details pending.

“Bill was the safety guru for sure,” Rutherford said. “What he contributed in the way of helmets, technology and uniforms to prevent fires…he was a good guy. He was ornery; he didn’t care what he said and he cussed in front of whomever. That was just Bill Simpson. He marched to his own drum beat but he was a dear, dear friend and will be remembered, that’s for sure.”

Rutherford spent the night of his wreck at PIR in a hospital suffering from a “terrible headache” and in need of rest. Wife Betty, who died on Jan. 20, 2019 at age 80, attended the awards celebration that night which crowned Johnny as National Champion of USAC, for winning the Indy 500, and CART. Betty Rutherford _ herself a pioneer among driver’s wives in the male-dominated racing world of the 1970s _ accepted Johnny’s championship ring and, according to his autobiography, “a whopping $2,500 check.”

Rutherford later was voted 1980 Driver of the Year by both the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (AARWBA) and the prestigious Olsonite panel.

“I always said the Good Lord looked after me,” said Rutherford, 81, alluding to that infamous crash. “I gave a testimonial at my mom’s church several years ago and said the crash had been published in the newspapers and made headlines. And I said, ‘I was fortunate that the Good Lord was riding with me.’ And somebody in the audience said, ‘Let Him out before you hurt Him.’^”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, December 20 2019
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • I watched Rutherfords accident right in front of me at Phoenix. When the car went up in the air, it seemed to float like a leaf 🍂 coming down taking its time and then a thud. So glad he was OK

    • John Sturbin says:

      Mr. Summey: Thanks for adding that detail to the story. The 1980 season was my first covering Lone Star J.R. in Jim Hall’s “Yellow Submarine” for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. And while I know I wrote about that crash, many details have faded from memory. Johnny certainly was fortunate to have walked away from that one.