INDIANAPOLIS — As always, the obituaries told you what the man did, but not enough about who he was.
That is how it goes with highly accomplished people. Their lives get compressed into bullet points, and when they die, we squeeze the best of those bullet points into a few column inches.
Bill Simpson accomplished plenty. Across 60 years in the racing-safety arena, he pioneered drag parachutes, brought Nomex suits to Indianapolis and tangled with sanctioning bodies. As a driver, he progressed from crude dragsters to the starting grid of the 1974 Indy 500. He is enshrined in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. That’s some obituary.
But Simpson was more than that. Depending on the hour, he could be quarrelsome or sentimental, wild or reasoned, profane or tender. He was something auto racing used to have plenty of, before we began losing them to “professionalism” and marketing and old age. He was a character.
Simpson died on Dec. 16, having suffered a major stroke. He’d recovered from a couple of lesser stokes, dating back to last March. He’d get tired and he’d trip over a word or two, but he looked good and said he felt fine. I figured we’d have him around for a while yet. Wrong.
Not long ago, he told me the kind of story in which he specialized. Because he’d dealt with so many racers, from Formula One to midgets, Simpson knew every eccentric in the sport, so he had a library of crazy tales. This one was from his Indy car days, when he was still living in his native California.
He was on his way to see a friend about some engine work. The fellow operated out of a garage beside his Los Angeles home, machining this and grinding that, in the company of his loyal dog. Simpson was turning onto the man’s street when he heard a terrific boom. Next he saw the poor guy standing in his driveway, with half his clothes gone. The sky was raining slivers of garage door.
Apparently, the room had been full of fumes — welding gasses, solvent, gasoline, who knows — and when the engine man paused to light a cigarette, things went nuclear.
“The dog,” said Simpson, “was standing in the middle of the street. He wasn’t injured, but most of his fur had been singed off; he was actually smoking. He was looking around, wondering what the hell had just happened.
“The fur grew back, but for years that dog would haul ass anytime someone lit a match.”
I was looking forward to May at Indianapolis when I’d get Simpson to tell that story in his suite outside turn two. That would have set off a round-robin burst of other yarns and racing never saw a more eclectic band of storytellers than those in suite 164.
On any given day there across the last 25 years, you might see Indy winners Parnelli Jones, Tom Sneva and Bobby Unser; team bosses Jim McGee and Albert Arciero; sponsors such as Jim Williams and the Giuffre brothers, Frank and Dom; straight-line gods the likes of Don Prudhomme; and assorted open-wheel studs: Kevin Olson, Chuck Gurney, Jason Leffler, Jeff Heywood, Davey Hamilton, Bob Wente and Rico Abreu. Then the door would open, and in would walk Linda Vaughn, spiritual godmother to them all.
Stationed around the room was the meanest quartet of ballbusters on the planet: race car alchemist John Buttera, Indy 500-winning chief mechanic Wayne Leary, USAC championship car owner Junior Kurtz and Simpson. Once they picked out a target, the wisecracking assault might last an hour. Death by a thousand verbal cuts. Leary observed that it was wise to wear galoshes “to keep the blood off your shoes.”
Now, they’re all gone: Buttera in 2008, Leary in 2010, Kurtz in 2016 and, lastly, Simpson. If there’s a heaven for racers, good luck sneaking past those four.
That Bill Simpson, brash and aggressive, was the accepted caricature of the man. But he also had a huge heart. In all the places where he lived, from L.A. to Indy to Charlotte, he’d quietly helped broke racers pay bills, and he lent friends money to launch businesses.
Bill Vukovich Jr., the 12-time Indy 500 veteran who later worked as a product rep for Simpson Race Products, knew the Simpson few people saw. Vukovich remembered feeling “lost and confused” after the death of his son, Billy III, in a 1990 sprint car crash.
He also remembered this: “Simpson said, ‘Vuky, take off as much time as you need — two months, three months, four months, whatever — with pay.’ That said a lot about the man.”
And for years, the holiday season meant Simpson’s homes in Indiana and North Carolina would be alive with what he called his “Orphans and Misfits” dinners. He knew that many rank-and-file racing folks in those areas were transplants, spending Thanksgiving and Christmas a long way from their families. So he’d invite a bunch of them over, serve a great meal and preside over the cheery, beery fellowship.
He could have celebrated those holidays at the finest restaurants, but that couldn’t compare to watching a bunch of Indy car mechanics, dirt-track racers and NASCAR fabricators smile and swap lies.
There were, his pals will tell you, a lot of sides to Bill Simpson. Racing is going to miss them all.