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May 2005
Sports Safety Drives Simpson Performance Products
By Casey Jacobus

Simpson Performance Products, headquartered in New Braunfels, Texas, is the leading safety manufacturer in the motor sports industry. Nine of the top 10 Nextel Cup teams use Simpson products, but the company’s reach extends much further than NASCAR, deep into the country where Saturday night racers compete on dirt tracks.

When one of the estimated 400,000 racecar drivers in the U.S. pulls on a helmet, fire suit or gloves, it’s more than likely “Simpson” gear. Simpson is the brand name synonymous with safety in the racing world.

“We really care about what we do,” says Chuck Davies, CEO of Simpson Performance Products, “and that’s keeping racers safe.”

Davies, 56, has always appreciated the spectator’s view of racing. Growing up in Roanoke, Va., he moved between a number of southern cities pursuing a career in textiles before taking over the reins of Simpson Performance Products. Now Davies divides his time between the corporate headquarters in Texas, the west coast office and manufacturing plant in California, and the team sales office and Simpson World store in Mooresville.

Terry Smith, vice president of Team Sales, took a different route to his current position at Simpson. Growing up outside of Hickory, he was always interested in racing. He helped Dale Jarrett build his first racecar in 1976 and worked with Kyle Petty before becoming Michael Waltrip’s business manager and agent. He left Waltrip Racing in 2003 to join  Simpson. He works out of the Mooresville office where he stays in daily contact with the drivers, sponsors and NASCAR officials.

“We try to stay up on everything connected with driver safety and comfort, as well as the needs of sponsors and the latest in NASCAR rules,” says Smith. “The feedback we get from all these sources is critical to our success.”

The Simpson trailer is a familiar sight, not only in the garage area at NASCAR events, but also at National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) events. NHRA is the primary sanctioning body for the sport of drag racing in the US. Inside the trailer, Simpson not only offers a full line of safety equipment, including helmets, suits and restraint systems, but technicians who are available for adjustments to equipment and helmet fittings. Being on the scene provides a two-way relationship that benefits Simpson as well as the racer.

“If a driver says ‘my foot got too hot,’ it tells us where we need to put an extra heat shield,” notes Smith.

Through Simpson’s extensive sales and service support at racing events, its Web site, 800 number sales team, and strong national distributor network, including Butch Stevens’ Racing, with locations in Concord and Mooresville, the company is able to reach and service many different kinds of racers on many different levels of the sport.

“For the first calendar quarter of 2005, sales are up 8 percent over this period last year, and overall our profits have increased dramatically,” says Davies. “I attribute this to our great product, our great people and our loyal Simpson customers.”

 

Getting a Good Start

Simpson Performance Products got its start back in 1958 when the company’s namesake, Bill Simpson, then a young drag car racer almost died when his car’s engine exploded with enough force to shear the crankshaft in two. Its compression lost, the dragster freewheeled into the shutdown area at full speed. The brake handle broke off in Simpson’s hand. He smashed into a dump at the end of the strip and a huge timber tore through the car and broke both his arms.

Jim Donnelly in “Hot Rod Hero: Bill Simpson” recounts what happened next. While recuperating, Simpson remembered that the Air Force used parachutes to stop jets on short runways. An uncle who owned a military supply store suggested he make his own parachute. With a rented sewing machine, Simpson stitched together a prototype chute and tested it by dumping it from the back of his Chevy wagon, attached to the tow hitch, while a friend drove the car down the street at 100 mph. The chute was too big for the car’s weight, jerked it airborne and sent it crashing into a tree nursery. Both Simpson and his friend went to jail, but at 18, Bill Simpson was in the safety equipment business.

At a time when racecar drivers wore blue jeans and leather jackets, Simpson saw a need for making safety a greater concern in the sport. He borrowed technology from NASA, using a new material called Nomex®, which was used to protect spacecraft from atmospheric friction on re-entry, to make a one-piece fire retardant suit for racecar drivers. In order to convince others of its effectiveness, Simpson reportedly donned a Nomex® fire suit and set himself ablaze.

For almost forty years, Simpson used his experience and insight to develop safer helmets, fire suits, restraints and other accessories. As the sport of racing continued to grow and evolve, so did the safety products. The phenomenal growth in the popularity of NASCAR helped put the Simpson brand in front of the world. And Simpson Performance Products grew with it; in 1998, the venture capital firm Carousel Capital acquired the controlling interest in company.

Safety issues really came to the forefront in 2001, when racing legend Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500. It shook the racing world. NASCAR’s subsequent investigation reported several possible contributing factors in the death of the seven-time Winston Cup champion including the seatbelt. Various expert investigations offered various conclusions. Although no one factor could be pinpointed as the single contributing factor in the tragedy, it emphasized the importance of using safety devices and investing in their development.

Throughout the investigation into Dale Earnhardt’s crash, Simpson Performance Products continued to work closely with NASCAR and to provide product at NASCAR sanctioned events.

 

Leading at the Turn

In the aftermath of the Dale Earnhardt tragedy, safety consciousness became paramount in the racing industry. NASCAR began working even harder to find ways to protect drivers. In July 2001, Bill Simpson resigned from the company and Chuck Davies, who had joined Simpson Performance Products as COO initially, was named CEO to continue the company’s mission to protect racecar driver safety.

“The ultimate outcome of the Dale Earnhardt tragedy was that everyone in the industry learned a lot,” says Davies. “When a tragedy occurs, you try to find out as much about an accident as possible in order to prevent it from happening again. We applaud the investment and focus NASCAR has put on safety.”

Simpson Performance Products continues to lead in the safety initiative, true to its heritage. The constant thread in the company’s history is its commitment to making the racecar driver safe. New strides in materials and changes in style have translated into a wide variety of driving suits, shoes, gloves, and helmets. Because of its close relationship to drivers and teams, the company is also able to customize its products. It can take the common template and adjust it to fit the driver’s specifications.

“We make the helmets Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. wear and work with them to make them feel confident and safe,” says Smith. “We’re working to make drivers safe, but comfortable, too.”

Simpson will even design uniforms around a sponsor’s special project. Last fall it developed a special Halloween suit for Dale Jarrett’s “The Monsters” promotion.

Today Simpson Performance Products holds the dominant share of the racing safety gear market in the United States. It is also prominent in the Karting market. However, Davies says that Simpson has new products to develop and markets to explore, particularly in Asia and Europe.

“There is plenty of room for Simpson to grow worldwide,” says Davies. “We can also build off the power of the brand name by extending our market reach to other products.”

Simpson has a major new initiative to sell helmets and gear in the street and off-road motorcycle market. It is exploring the possibility of providing safety equipment for emergency workers, such as SWAT teams, medics, fire and police, all of whom need fire resistant clothing and gear. The public’s increasing awareness of head and neck injuries to participants in certain sports where head injuries are common – such as cycling, skiing and pole vaulting – is spurring an increasing demand for safe head protection. Simpson is very involved in promoting helmet safety and will be on hand at the Food Lion Speed Street Festival this month for this very purpose.

Davies believes that all of these are great opportunities for expansion that builds naturally on the Simpson brand and experience. What’s more, Carousel Capital, the company’s primary owners, are able to provide access to capital when needed to meet growth opportunities, as well as strategic guidance and support.

“The Simpson name is backed by the technology, the processes and the careful attention to detail that have made us who we are, the most respected company in racing safety,” says Davies. “Overall, we are well positioned now and intend to continue to contribute significantly to motorsports safety.”

 

 

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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