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Impact Racing reaches agreement over safety labels

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Bill Simpson's Impact Racing LLC reached an agreement Thursday with an industry-certification group that will allow the company to continue selling race car safety gear made this year and last.

Impact and the SFI Foundation Inc. issued a joint statement after a hearing in federal court. The two sides agreed that no counterfeit SFI conformance labels have been used in 2009 and 2010, and all Impact products made and sold during those years meet SFI specifications.

SFI maintained its decertification of Impact products, excluding helmets, made before 2009.

Based in California, SFI is the not-for-profit organization that sets minimum performance standards for motorsports equipment. It filed a lawsuit on March 26 in U.S. District Court of southern Indiana claiming that, between November 2005 and August 2008, Impact hired an Asian manufacturer to produce look-alike SFI labels. The lawsuit, based on an affidavit from former Impact employee Darren Swisher, says the counterfeit labels were put on seatbelts, arm restraints, fire suits, head socks, gloves and boots.

According to Thurday's joint statement, Impact and SFI are cooperating to resolve "issues" that led SFI to decertify products made between 2005 and 2008. The company and SFI are also cooperating to determine whether any Impact products bear a counterfeit label, and whether there are any safety issues with products made before 2009.

If customers find products that lack a manufacturing date, they are supposed to call Impact, which will verify the date of manufacture. Impact will also notify SFI of those instances.

SFI's move to decertify Impact Racing's current product line threatened the business because the gear would be unusable at any track requiring SFI cerification. Track requirements vary, but SFI's reach in the racing world is extensive. The body includes 93 member manufacturers and affiliates, including NASCAR and the National Hot Rod Association.

“Impact strongly denies it's done anything wrongful. Its products are safe,” Ed Harris, attorney at the Indianapolis office of Cincinnati-based law firm Taft Stettinius and Hollister LLP, said on Wednesday.

After the Thursday meeting with SFI, Harris said, "They agree, we're back in business."

Simpson started Impact Racing in 2002 after fending off rumors that a seatbelt made by his former company, Simpson Performance Products, played a role in Dale Earnhardt's death. The NASCAR driver died after a crash in the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Impact has its headquarters and a showroom at 1531 Northfield Drive in Brownsburg and factory stores in Mooresville, N.C., and Irwindale, Calif., according to the company Web site. The site includes video of the famously demonstrative Simpson set ablaze in one of his own racing suits to show its protective qualities.

Before the Earnhardt controversy, Simpson was known for inventing the parachute that slows drag-race cars. Harris would not disclose other details about Impact, including the current number of employees.

SFI's counterfeit-label claim is not the only such allegation Simpson faces. Hans Performance Products,  an Atlanta company that makes head and neck restraints, says Impact hired an Asian manufacturer to copy its helmet component, then sold and distributed it under the Hans logo.

Hans' parent company, the privately held Hubbard/Downing Inc., filed a suit in September in federal court in Atlanta. The SFI Foundation joined that suit as an intervening party.

Hans CEO Mark Stiles said it took a court order to stop Impact from selling the look-alike components.

“We were surprised to have to take the action we did,” said Stiles, who noted that Impact has become a significant player in the dirt-track and drag-racing market.

Hans makes a neck restraint that rests on the driver's shoulders and attaches to either side of the helmet with a tether and metal posts or clips. The company doesn't make its own helmets, so it distributes the helmet posts through authorized manufacturers. Stiles said Impact is not one of those manufacturers.

A former Impact manager tipped Hans off to the copies, and the company says it easily found them in use at several NASCAR tracks. The counterfeits were distinguishable, Hans claims, because they were made with a non-magnetic metal.

A deposition recently filed in the case quotes Simpson admitting that the components Impact used on its helmets were “copies.” “The only reason ... why they would be counterfeit is because somebody put 'HANS' on there,” he said, according to court records.

Despite the allegations, Simpson has some loyal customers. Mike Hull, managing director at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, said his drivers and crew use Impact fire suits and other gear. “There's nothing wrong with the quality of his product, or the safety of his product.”

Hull was aware of both lawsuits, and he said he didn't think Simpson would order up counterfeit goods.

“Safety is one of those things, you just don't do things like that. You make sure your product is above the mark all the time," he said. "You have to abide by industry standards. You try to go past that with everything you do.”

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