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Monday, February 11
Simpson seeks public apology
By Robin Miller
Just more than a year ago, in the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt's death, NASCAR pointed its finger at Bill Simpson and his restraint system -- charging the seat belt came apart and directly contributed to the death of the seven-time Winston Cup champion.
But ESPN.com learned that Simpson will finger NASCAR for wrongly accusing his safety company of playing any part in Earnhardt's death on the final lap of the Daytona 500 last year.
Negotiations between Simpson's attorneys, James H. Voyles and Robert W. Horn, and NASCAR have ended without resolution, paving the way for a multi-million dollar suit that Simpson's attorneys will file Wednesday at 9 a.m. in Indianapolis Superior Court for defamation of character, false invasion of privacy, defamation by implication and reckless disregard for the truth.
NASCAR had charged that the Simpson-made belt in Earnhardt's car came apart and directly contributed to the driver's death last year.
Simpson Performance Products Inc., manufacturer of the belt, has dropped out of the suit.
"NASCAR brought me to my knees like nobody else ever has and, for eight months, I felt (helpless) because these charges just kept coming and there was nothing I could do," said Simpson, the subject of several death threats. He eventually moved out of his former home in Charlotte, N.C.
"Everyone who has ever dealt with NASCAR has acquiesced to them and nobody will stand up to them. But they picked on the wrong guy this time. I'm not going away quietly and they deserve to pay for what they did to me and my company's reputation.
"This isn't about money. This is about integrity and the truth."
NASCAR spokesman Mike Zizzo said Monday his organization would not comment.
"We will not comment on pending or potential litigations," said Zizzo, the communications manager.
Four days after Earnhardt became the fourth driver in NASCAR to die from a basal skull fracture during an 11-month period, NASCAR's post-mortem charged that the 50-year-old legend's left lap belt had broken -- allowing him to lurch forward and strike his chin and chest on the steering wheel.
Dr. Steve Bohannon, director of emergency medical services at Daytona International Speedway, concurred with NASCAR's findings during a news conference. He also stated Earnhardt was not restrained and, had his belt held together, he would have had a much better chance of survival.
Simpson, who began working on safety equipment in 1958 when he was still driving dragsters and gradually developed Simpson Performance Products Inc. into the world's leading supplier of helmets, uniforms, shoes, gloves and restraint systems, didn't find out about the alleged failure until the morning of NASCAR's news conference.
"Mike Helton (NASCAR president) told me about the press conference but said they weren't going to hurt me," said Simpson, whose only recourse at that time was to issue a news release that said his company had never had a case of a properly mounted seat belt separating or failing.
"To this day I'll never understand why they would go after someone who had spent millions of dollars supporting them since the early '80s."
But Simpson suspects a phone call he made to NASCAR vice president Jim France might have played a part.
"Dale Earnhardt was a damn good friend of mine and the day after he died I called Jim France and told him NASCAR had to do something about making their cars safer. I said if they didn't I wasn't going to keep my mouth shut any longer about how they'd stiffened up the front of their cars and that's why Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper had all died -- just like Dale.
"He told me not to be a hothead and he'd get back to me. But he never did. I guess unless you count that NASCAR press conference."
Last April, after viewing autopsy photos and other facts, a court-appointed medical examiner, Dr. Barry Myers of Duke University, determined Earnhardt's basal skull fracture was a result of a "violent head whip."
Dr. Bohannon recanted his theory of how Earnhardt hit his chin and chest on the steering wheel, but maintained the seat belts were still responsible for allowing Earnhardt's fatal movements.
NASCAR, which would eventually issue a missive to its teams that future seat belt installation must adhere to manufacturers' specifications, then announced it was commencing with a full-blown investigation into the accident.
Simpson launched his own investigation and maintained that the belts in Earnhardt's Chevrolet were improperly installed and that led to a malfunction known as "dumping" -- where the seat belts bind up due to an improper angle of mounting and thereby can be weakened or compromised.
Simpson repeatedly warned Earnhardt that such a practice was dangerous but his friend "laughed it off."
Last August, NASCAR announced its findings in a news conference at Atlanta and claimed that not only was a separated belt a factor in Earnhardt's death, but that he died of blunt force to the head after his helmet slid forward and exposed the back of his skull before hitting either the steering wheel or the inside of the cockpit.
"I'll guarantee you that Dale's helmet never moved on his head," said Simpson, who requested an equal forum at Atlanta to present his findings but was denied. "We made a special inner-liner for him and it was so tight it couldn't have moved with his helmet on."
But, as NASCAR prepares for the Daytona 500 on Sunday, what Simpson really finds ironic is the number of Winston Cup teams that have changed brands of safety equipment.
"It's interesting because Mike Helton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. make statements that we make a fine product and they believe in it and yet 16 of the top-20 teams from last year switch to another brand," said Simpson, whose close friend, Rusty Wallace, and the two-car Robert Yates Racing team were thought to still be loyal to Simpson's brand.
"We've got the best product, best service, a contingency program and more than 20 years of experience in NASCAR, yet we lost Hendrick, Roush, DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) and Richard Childress.
"A year ago we had 39 of the 43 starters at Daytona and this year we'll have 13-14. Now why do you suppose that is?"
Now living near Indianapolis, Simpson resigned as a consultant for Simpson Performance Inc. last year but convinced SPI to join his lawsuit to restore its reputation. He's considering rejoining SPI in the same capacity.
Asked what would be acceptable in this lawsuit and he replied:
"First, I want NASCAR to do the same things for their competitors that the other sanctioning bodies do, in terms of safety. I want them to spend as much time and effort on their safety as they do on their restrictor plates or body rules.
"Then I personally need my name absolved from the responsibility of the death of my friend. NASCAR needs to apologize to me for trying to make me the fall guy and they need to make a statement that I didn't have anything to do with Dale's death and neither did my company."Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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