Racing equipment maker Simpson testing helmets for football

November 27, 2010

helmets factboxOne of the biggest names in motorsports safety is getting involved in the crusade to make a better football helmet and reduce the number of concussions in the National Football League.

Bill Simpson, owner of Brownsburg-based Impact Racing, recently told WFNI-AM 1070 that he is conducting impact tests on helmets for the Indianapolis Colts. Simpson, a longtime friend of Colts offensive guru Tom Moore, said he is working on the helmet project with Steve Champlin, the Colts’ director of football administration.

Simpson, who did not return calls from IBJ, told WFNI that NASCAR and IndyCar Series team owner Chip Ganassi is helping finance the football helmet project.

The Colts declined to comment about Simpson’s work, and Ganassi did not return calls seeking comment.

One thing is certain, though. Simpson doesn’t lack confidence that he can do better than the nation’s biggest football helmet makers.

“There ain’t no doubt in my mind we can save people,” Simpson told WFNI. “I have a lot of good talent around me. We’ve all thought about this, and we believe we have a 10-times better unit than what’s out there. It’s just a question of where we want to go with this.”

Simpson Simpson

Simpson, 70, told WFNI he could put a “Band-Aid” on the problem this season that would still significantly lessen impact to a player’s head. He added that he could make a new helmet for next season that would far exceed current industry standards.

Not only did Simpson say he could reduce the force from an impact to players’ heads at least 25 percent, he said he could more than cut the weight of the helmet in half from the current 5-1/2 to 7 pounds to 2-1/4 pounds.

Simpson said his improved helmet would look much like the current helmet, but employ some of the same interior design features his company uses with racing helmets.

“I use space-age fabric that we can impregnate with epoxy,” Simpson told WFNI. “Our idea of one of those [football] helmets is completely different than anyone else outside our industry.”

If Simpson can make good on his promised improvements, it would be a quantum leap forward, said Bob McGee, editor of Sporting Goods Intelligence, a Pennsylvania-based trade publication.

“There have been no major technological advancements in the football helmet in the last 20 to 30 years,” McGee said.

Simpson said he recently completed one round of studies on football helmets and is doing further side-by-side studies with current models and his prototype this month before getting back together with Colts officials.

Sharp criticism

Simpson admits his operation is smaller than the nation’s biggest helmet makers, such as Riddell, which is licensed through 2014 as the NFL’s official helmet. But that won’t keep him from developing a superior helmet, he told WFNI.

“We certainly have the facility and the capacity to take care of every one of [the Colts] players’ helmets in a matter of days,” Simpson said.

Simpson, who provides everything from seat belts, fire suits and helmets to teams in just about every major race circuit worldwide, said he isn’t impressed with what he’s seen from today’s football helmets, which he said “looks like an air mattress with a lot of holes in it.”

“I felt like the [football] helmet business is a little far behind what our business is,” Simpson said. “Our guys run into walls at a couple hundred miles an hour, shake it off and walk away. And I see these [football players] having these collisions at what turns out to be 15 miles an hour, and they get hurt pretty bad.”

Simpson told WFNI that he approached the NFL several years ago about helping them improve football helmet technology. But he said he was told he’d have to pay a large licensing fee if he wanted to provide helmets the league would use.

“I feel I don’t ever want to pay a big licensing fee to try to save someone’s butt,” Simpson said.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Simpson would not be required to pay a licensing fee to provide NFL teams with helmets. Though Riddell is the league’s official helmet, teams and players can choose any brand of helmet they like.

In most cases, Aiello said, a player tells a team what he wants, and team officials get it for him. The only requirement is that the helmet be certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, a Kansas-based organization that has been testing the effectiveness of football helmets and other athletic equipment since 1969.

Potential company wrecker

McGee said while gaining NOCSAE certification would require significant testing, it might not be the biggest obstacle for Simpson.

“This is not a crowded industry and there’s a good reason why,” McGee said. “The cost of liability insurance is substantial, and the cost of fighting off all the lawsuits you’ll encounter every time a player gets hurt is even more substantial.”

There are only four major U.S. football helmet manufacturers: Tennessee-based Adams USA, Illinois-based Riddell, Illinois-based Schutt Sports Inc. and Massachusetts-based Xenith LLC.

Schutt’s bankruptcy filing this year is a sign of the industry’s potential pitfalls. The company claims legal expenses as a primary cause of its financial troubles.

Simpson told WFNI that it costs $500,000 to $600,000 to fight every lawsuit brought against a safety equipment company, even when the firm is exonerated of wrongdoing.

Simpson knows well how lawsuits—and high-profile accidents—in his line of work can ruin a company. In 1984, the family of a New Hampshire youth who died in a motorcycle-racing crash while wearing one of Simpson’s helmets sued him. The jury favored the family, and the judgment forced Simpson’s firm into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Banks called his loans, and some dealers dropped his products. It was, he says in his autobiography, “a very dark and painful period, two years of nothing but hard times.” He went on the road to win back dealers and saved the business.

Simpson started Impact Racing in 2002 after fending off NASCAR reports that said a seat belt 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. Simpson said Earnhardt had the seat belt installed incorrectly.

Simpson sued NASCAR in 2002 for $8.5 million for defamation of character. Simpson withdrew that suit in 2003 after an undisclosed settlement.

Impact has grown significantly in the last eight years, with factory stores in North Carolina and California, in addition to its headquarters and a showroom in Brownsburg.

Hot-tempered hell-raiser

Simpson, a retired professional racer, has long been known by supporters and critics alike as hot-tempered, butting heads with anyone he thinks doesn’t take safety as seriously as he does. Even Simpson acknowledged he’s made a living out of pushing the envelope.

“My personality—meaning, I guess, my temper—has cost me dearly at times,” Simpson wrote in his autobiography, “Racing Safely, Living Dangerously.”

Despite a reputation as something of a mad scientist, few in motorsports doubt the quality of his work. Simpson has gone to extremes to secure that reputation.

In 1970, when people questioned a fire suit he developed, Simpson donned the suit and set himself on fire in front of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Simpson, who came out of the incident unscathed, even had a driver roast a hot dog over him as he sat calmly in his suit. That year, all 33 drivers in the Indianapolis 500 wore his fire-proof suit.

H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., said if Simpson’s track record in auto racing is any indication, he has little doubt Simpson can have an impact on the concussion problem plaguing the NFL.

“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 Wheeler, who still does consulting work for NASCAR and IndyCar Series operations. “He’s been a true innovator and his products have stood the test of time.”

If Simpson joins the effort to improve football helmets, he’ll have company. Due to all the attention on concussions recently, McGee said there have been three new entrants into the field in the last year. And Riddell President Dan Arment told Sporting Goods Intelligence this month that his company will debut a new helmet in 2011 with improved concussion-reducing technology.

Simpson has no fear of competition. Besides, “I’m not money-driven,” he told WFNI.

Making helmets for NFL teams wouldn’t likely get Simpson much publicity. Only Riddell can display its logo on helmets during NFL games or practices.

So why is Simpson getting involved?

“I saw the thing that happened to [Colts wide receiver] Austin Collie, and it sent shivers up my spine,” Simpson said. Collie was knocked unconscious during a Nov. 7 game in Philadelphia.

“When the Congress starts talking about this,” Simpson said, “you got a problem, and somebody needs to fix it. So I’m full-speed ahead.”•


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