Racing Innovator Bill Simpson Tackles Football Concussions With New Helmet
Jan 18, 2013
Racing innovator Bill Simpson tackles football concussions with new helmet
By: Curt Cavin (Indianapolis Star) for Autoweek
Sam Riche - Former racer Bill Simpson is tackling a new sport with some innovative ideas that could make the sport of football safer.
Bill Simpson was a long time finding the National Football League, but it finding him might change football.
The former California drag racer, Indianapolis 500 driver and motorsports safety innovator 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,” said Eric Nauman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University. “The results are impressive.”
Simpson didn't set out to reduce the number of concussions -- a hot mainstream topic at the moment -- and assorted other head injuries in football. Fact is, he knew almost nothing about the game on the night in 2010 he arrived at an Indianapolis watering hole as a Tuesday-night regular.
A friend there introduced him to Tom Moore, long one of the NFL's best football coaches, 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 talked for a couple of hours. The conversation didn't have much to do with their professions, but 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 aghast that he asked Moore about the helmets used and requested one for drop testing at his motorsports facility in nearby Brownsburg, Ind. Moore provided three different kinds.
To this day, Simpson avoids criticism of other people's work, but he thought then -- and is convinced now -- that the sport needs a more forgiving helmet.
Producing it was not always easy. For six months, Simpson tried applying what works with racing helmets to football, but the results did not transfer as much as he expected. He talked to players, coaches, even neurosurgeons. Frustration mounted.
“I was literally shocked,” he said. “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.
“It's a pendulum,” Simpson said of the head movement, “and necks aren't strong enough.”
Simpson acknowledges 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 difference is staggering.
“Thank you,” he said. “Mine is based on simplicity.”
The youth version weighs even less, about half as much (1 pound, 4 ounces).
Simpson is a few minutes removed from a tour of the facility where the first large batch of his head protection is being assembled by hand, but he won't give production details 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's not his expertise. But he stressed it's 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.”
That spirit is part of what attracted racing team owner Chip Ganassi to the project, but Ganassi was already a believer in Simpson's work. The former CART driver credits a Simpson helmet for saving his life in a devastating 1984 crash at Michigan International Speedway.
When Simpson showed him the football helmet, Ganassi asked to buy the company. They settled for a partnership, now dubbed Simpson Ganassi Helmets.
The other subject Simpson sidesteps is football politics. At times, NFL members have supported his efforts, at times they have not. All Simpson will say is that Collie went concussion-free in 2011 while using an SGH helmet -- only to suffer one in the 2012 preseason while using another manufacturer's.
“I can't make people wear them,” Simpson said.
But he can keep making them, which is what he plans to do. Lacrosse players will be happy to know their sport is the next on his list.
According to NCAA statistics, 11 percent of all injuries in lacrosse are concussion-related.
“I don't know anything about that sport,” Simpson said, “but I didn't know anything about football, either.”
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