Two totally different sporting activities share a common risk: traumatic brain injury: football and car racing. Research is ongoing regarding the evaluation, treatment, and prevention of traumatic brain injury. The topic has attracted the attention of Bill Simpson, a former California drag racer, Indianapolis 500 driver, and motorsports safety innovator. He explained to Autoweek.com that he has created a football helmet that he and others believe could revolutionize the sport. Simpson knows this because he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to making safer helmets. Researchers believe it because they have seen data charts.
“Most helmets succeed at distributing force over a large area, but [Simpon’s helmets] actually absorb the energy and dissipate the force more effectively,” explains Eric Nauman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University. He adds, “The results are impressive.”
Simpson’s interest in designing a safer helmet was prompted by a chance meeting in 2010 at an Indianapolis watering hole as a Tuesday-night regular. A friend there introduced him to Tom Moore, a long-respected NFL football coach, who, at the time, was the offensive coordinator of quarterback Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts. The beverages were right and the men compatible, so they chatted for a couple of hours. The conversation did not have much to do with their professions; however, it led to Moore giving Simpson tickets to a November 2010 football game at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indy. It was there, at Simpson’s first NFL game, that Colts receiver Austin Collie was struck in the head after catching a Manning pass across the middle of the field. Collie lay motionless for several minutes before medical personnel removed him on a stretcher.
When Simpson next saw Moore, he inquired about Collie’s status and the circumstances of what the racing veteran figured was a freak accident. The response startled him. “Happens all the time,” Moore said. “It’s part of the game.” Simpson was so stricken by the comment that he asked Moore about the helmets used and requested one for drop testing at his motorsports facility in nearby Brownsburg, Indiana. Moore provided three different types. Simpson is not one to criticize kinds.
To this day, Simpson avoids criticism of other people’s work; however, he came to the conclusion that the sport needs a more forgiving helmet. The task became much more daunting than he expected. For six months, Simpson tried applying what works with racing helmets to football; however, the results did not transfer as much as he expected. He talked to players, coaches, even neurosurgeons. Frustration mounted. He noted, “I was literally shocked, I kept thinking, ‘We can do better, we have to do better.’”
A helmet’s weight is at the core of Simpson’s research. Simple physics says the head moves when the body is struck, and the heavier the head, the more it travels. The brain is the passenger. Simpson equated the head movement to that of a pendulum, “and necks aren’t strong enough.” He acknowledged the impossibility of replicating brain movement inside the skull, but said, “It stands to reason that there’s a whole lot less of that going on in a 2-pound helmet rather than a 5-pound helmet.” Simpson has had as many as 40 NFL players experimenting with versions of his headgear. He put one of his latest ones on a table next to what is considered a standard NFL helmet. “Pick them up,” he instructed. The weight difference was amazing. Simpson explained that the lightness of his helmet was based on simplicity. He noted that the youth version weighs even less, about half as much (1 pound, 4 ounces).
Simpson is not ready to supply production details for the first large batch of his head protection is being assembled by hand because five patents are pending. The inside of the helmets are bleached white so the materials he mixed cannot be identified. Simpson allows that the temple is the area of the head most susceptible to impact. Custom-fit padding there helps. The cost of the helmets will be determined by a sales manager; Simpson wants no part of that since it is not his area of expertise. But he stressed it is not about the money for him. “First of all, you don’t make money manufacturing things––it’s a grind,” the 72-year-old said. “You become a millionaire by buying land and leasing it. “But I don’t give a damn if this is for a quarterback making $100 million or a kid playing youth football. A head is a head to me. I always felt that way in racing. I never cared if I was trying to save Mario Andretti or somebody running a Saturday-night bomber. They can get burned the same.”