Mazda ad campaign torches local racing icon

When Mazda wanted a real-life safety pioneer for its television commercials, it turned to central Indiana resident and motorsports safety savant Bill Simpson.

Simpson, well known for designing and making safety equipment for numerous motorsports series worldwide, was featured in a Mazda commercial for the first time during the 2014 Super Bowl. That ad did so well that Mazda put him in a commercial debuting during this year’s Super Bowl.

Now there is talk that Simpson could take a bigger role as a Mazda spokesman. Simpson said no plans have been finalized.

Mazda is still running the Super Bowl ad, which starts with the 74-year-old sitting in a chair and donning a fire-proof suit he designed. Dramatic music rolls. Then he is torched by two flame throwers.

A voice states: “Some people go to enormous lengths in the name of safety, like the inventor of the flame resistant racing suit, Bill Simpson.”

Simpson burns for 10 seconds before being extinguished. (“I could have been on fire twice as long,” Simpson told IBJ.) Simpson pulls off his helmet to reveal his smiling face and tousled hair, and the commercial concludes, “When it comes to safety, you can never go too far.”

Mazda called Simpson 18 months ago about doing a TV commercial campaign. Though Simpson has been an icon in motorsports safety for more than 45 years, he had no prior dealings with Mazda, he said.

“They asked me to do a commercial, and I said, ‘Why don’t you get a stunt double,’” Simpson recalled. “They said, ‘No, we want the real people.’”

The Mazda campaign also features Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers for their innovations. Simpson chided Mazda about that.

“I said, ‘you want the real people? How are you going to get those guys?’” he said.

It’s understandable why Mazda wanted Simpson. The company is known for its sporty cars and many of its customers likely follow—or are at least familiar with—auto racing. And if you know much about auto racing, you know Simpson.

Simpson developed more than 200 racing safety products, including three generations of fire suits. In 2003, he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

The Mazda ads featuring Simpson were shot at day-long sessions at a vacant Portland, Oregon, prison. The facility is commonly used by video production and movie making firms.

For the most recent Mazda commercial, Simpson was set on fire 12 times—in an exact replica of the fire suit he made in 1986. Back then, he famously set himself on fire in to prove to doubters just how reliable it was.

Simpson said he did everything Mazda asked of him—except one thing.

“We had shot that 12 times and they said we’re going to shoot that one more time,” Simpson recalled. “I said, ‘no we’re not. There’s a reason there’s no 13th floor on any hotel.’ And I got up and left.”

Simpson has left the motorsports business but that doesn’t mean he’s sitting around with his feet up.

In August, 2010, he founded SG Helmets with IndyCar Series and NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi. Simpson has put his knowledge to work designing and making a football helmet he claims is half the weight and more effective than any other on the market.

 “Comparing my football helmet to other helmets is like comparing a Model T [Ford] to a space shuttle,” Simpson said. “We don’t use any of the same materials as other helmets.”

The company just completed a two-year study involving 1,500 middle and high school football players—70 percent of them from central Indiana.

During the two-year study, there wer only 19 instances of “minor concussions,” Simpson said.

“We’re not doing any puffing on this,” Simpson said. “These are real test results. We’re now ready to take it to market.”

Simpson, who is friends with former Indianapolis Colts offensive guru Tom Moore and previously supplied helmets for several NFL players, including Colts, said he is not asking NFL players to wear his product.

“There’s a lot of politics in this,” Simpson said of the NFL. “And these guys don’t want to pay for anything. If they want to wear one, they can buy one.”

Simpson said he isn’t in the football helmet business to make money.

“I don’t need any money,” Simpson said. “I’m in it because Tom Moore talked me into getting into it. And I saw a lot of people getting hurt. If I can do something to mitigate these injuries, that’s all I want.”

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