Rutherford was sporting a full-face Simpson helmet when his Pennzoil

Chaparral was flipped onto its lid during the latter phases of the, Was called Phoenix International Raceway. Watch Indy 500 Live.

“I credited Bill with saving my life in the helmet I wore when I caught upside down in Phoenix,” Rutherford said in a telephone interview with  “Only wearing that helmet is exactly what saved me.”

Experienced racer Simpson, famous in global motorsports for the development of groundbreaking safety gear, died Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Indianapolis due to complications from current health problems. 

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 “But during May he had a suite (at Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and I sat down with him to remember old times.  Watch Indy 500 Live Online. He had been fighting then with parts of his address and he had been in rehabilitation to work with this.  I thought he would certainly pull …but he had had some mini-strokes and it took him away”

Simpson competed as a catalyst in drag racing, sports car racing and open-wheel formula racing, such as in SCCA and U.S. Auto Club Indy car competition.  Watch Indy 500 Live. He made 52 career INDYCAR begins between 1968 and 1977 and logged 11 top-10 finishes, such as a career-best sixth at the 1970 Milwaukee 200 round The Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis..

Simpson started his driving career in drag racing as a teenager in Southern California.  His job 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 invented and developed more complex, purpose-built parachutes _ through trial-and-error on a rented sewing machine in a garage _ to impede dragsters following the end line, starting a company called Simpson Drag Chutes.

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

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Maybe Simpson’s biggest racing safety breakthrough was sent 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 from Nomex and brought it to Indianapolis Motor Speedway that May, where it became a safety sensation promptly adopted by nearly every driver in the starting area.  Watch Indy 500 Live, Now, Nomex remains standard equipment for many participants.  Donning his Nomex suit and a helmet, the PR-savvy Simpson set himself on fire through demonstrations to prove the suit’s potency on many occasions through recent years.

Rutherford, nevertheless, remains eternally grateful because of the helmet he was wearing as soon as the famed”Yellow Submarine” designed and fielded by fellow-racer Jim Hall of Midland, Texas, went for a wild ride in PIR. Watch Indy 500 Live Online.

“Helmets had come a very long way (by 1980) and Bill was quite serious about the technology to the helmets,” said Rutherford, whose headgear showcased the Texas state flag as part of his”Lone Star J.R.” persona. 

“I was leading the race coming towards the end and was running on the high line around Phoenix, which is a little more comfortable,” Rutherford said of the prior 1-mile layout featuring a dogleg turn.  “I was passing Dennis Firestone, that had been a beginner, on the exterior and away Turn 4 and he let his car up to follow the natural line and didn’t realize that I had been there. 

His right front (tire and wheel) made contact with my left rear and spun me (and Firestone).  The (left back ) suspension broke once I hit the wall and it rolled the car up on its back wheel. Watch Indy 500 Live, When it turned, I landed on my head.”

 The rollbar had done its job, having dropped half its height once the car landed and skidded _ however Rutherford was pinned underneath.  A group of guys ran to the wreckage from pit road and picked up one facet of the car, even though a few more guys slid underneath to check on Rutherford.

“It had been my helmet that ultimately saved my life,” Rutherford said in the book.  “It suffered the damage and kept my skull from cracking if my head hit the sidewalk.  But boy, did it have a beating.  The brad or rivet that attached the chinstrap into the helmet was worn and the strap had come loose. Watch Indy 500 Live,  If it hadn’t been because of my’sissy strap’ _ a strap connected to the left side of my helmet and tethered by a loop under my left shoulder _ the slide my car took would have readily knocked the helmet off my mind.

“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 around it (from a flash methanol fire), and the face-bar facing the helmet has been cracked on both sides.”

Rutherford stated Simpson delivered the helmet into the Snell Foundation, which set the benchmark for professional racing helmets, for testing and analysis.  The people at Snell estimated Rutherford was traveling at 135 mph when his helmet hit the floor with the Chaparral upside down.

“Bill sent me the helmet back when they got though with the tests with a letter,” Rutherford told  “And the previous chart said,’A helmet of some less integrity could have surely produced a fatal.’ 

 It was Simpson’s only career start in”The best Spectacle in Racing,” but competing in IMS was the pride of a life-long dream and the pinnacle of the driving career.

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

Simpson’s IMS heritage includes offering off-road racer/aspiring USAC driver Rick Mears of Bakersfield, Calif., with a car to make his first career INDYCAR begin from the 1976 Ontario 500 in Riverside, Calif. Indy 500 Streaming Live, Mears proceeded to become the third-largest four-time winner of the Indy 500 driving for Roger Penske.

Simpson’s racing career ended through an Indianapolis 500 practice lap in May 1977, when he realized he was thinking about a phone call he had to make for his rushing safety products business than forcing an open-wheel car at nearly 200 mph. 

“Bill Simpson became synonymous with all motorsports safety equipment through his tireless work of over 50 decades,” said Mark Miles, president/CEO of Hulman & Company in Indianapolis.  “His creations and products protected so many motorists and saved innumerable lives, and certainly will keep doing so moving forward.

“We are forever grateful for Bill’s devotion to safety at each level of the game, from the grassroots oval and road racer all the way into the biggest events and phases like the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Bill was a great friend to IMS and INDYCAR, and a passionate supporter of the Watch Indy 500 Live and IMS Museum, never missing an opportunity to reunite and sign autographs for the fans.  He will be missed but always remembered by everyone within our rushing world.”

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

Regardless of the vast achievement of his motorsports security companies, Simpson never forgot his own magical season of qualifying and competing in the Indianapolis 500.  He annually returned to the Speedway during the Month of May for veterans’ actions, including appearances at driver autograph sessions for lovers on Legends Day presented by Firestone.  Simpson often attended these sessions with motorsports mogul and Indy 500 veteran Chip Ganassi.  Simpson was a fervent supporter of the IMS Museum.

Simpson was an animal enthusiast, whose menagerie included his beloved dog, Maia, camels and other pets.  A celebration of his life has been planned for May 2020 at the IMS Museum, with details pending.

“Bill was the security guru for sure,” Rutherford said.  “What he contributed in the method of helmets, technology and uniforms to prevent fires…he was a good man.  He was ornery; he didn’t care what he said and he cussed in front of whomever.  Indy 500 Streaming Live, That was only Bill Simpson.  He awakened to his own drumbeat but he was a dear, dear friend and certainly will be recalled, that is 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 one of motorist’s wives in the racing world of the 1970s _ approved Johnny’s championship ring and, based on his own autobiography,”a whopping $2,500 check.”

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

“I always said the Good Lord looked after me,” said Rutherford, 81, alluding to this infamous crash.  “I gave a review in my mom’s church many years back and said the crash was printed in the newspapers and made headlines.  Watch Indy 500 Live. And I said ‘I had been lucky that the fantastic Lord was riding with me.’  And somebody from the crowd said,’Let Him out until you hurt Him’ ^”


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