I’ve been obsessed with helmets for a long time…
If you know me, you know I have a weird obsession with helmets—all kinds. But I wanted to take a moment to talk about the helmet that sparked my obsession—The Simpson “Bandit.” There isn’t much info about the original model online. The best info I could find was that the original Bandit had a RX1 model designation and was first released in 1979 by Bill Simpson (Simpson Race Products). The earliest iterations you can see above in the Rutherford and De Angelis photos. I grew up watching sprint car racing (see Brad Doty photo above)—and later participated in open wheel dirt racing in midgets (see photos above). From a style perspective, even as a little kid I thought the looks of the bandit were so unique—particularly the nose piece. Anyone wearing one automatically looked like a badass. So, naturally when I started racing I wanted one. Simpson helmets were always elusive and expensive. I’m sure they still are. It took several years, but I finally got my first bandit when I made the switch from go-karts to midgets. The bandits at that time had of course been updated stylistically, but still retained the same basic shape. They also had nomex (fireproof) lining—when you’re strapped into a racecar that’s basically a moving bomb nomex is a definite safety plus (more on that later).
Another thing about Simpson products that were very memorable to me as a kid is the Simpson catalogue I’d get every year. The catalogue had a range of products, from drag racing parachutes (what Simpson initially got famous for inventing) to helmets, firesuits, seatbelts, etc…But the thing that really stuck out to me was a short article Simpson wrote about his products that included a photo of him intentionally setting himself on fire to demonstrate the quality of his products. I thought this was incredible, and now I’d say from a branding perspective it’s about as good as it gets. My second Simpson helmet after the bandit was a speedway shark (see above). I also bought a high quality firesuit and gloves from Simpson, and don’t ya know it, one night me and my car caught on fire. Long story short, the fuel injection system malfunctioned during a race and was spraying fuel from the top of the motor—unbeknownst to me fuel was getting all over me and the car while we were at speed, but it wasn’t bad because we were pretty much full throttle during the whole heat race, so most of the fuel was still being consumed by the motor. When the race ended and I let off the gas flames burning off from my exhaust (a normal occurence) ignited fuel that the fuel pump was literally spraying from the leak—now that I wasn’t on the throttle the system had more back pressure on it. Our cars used methanol for fuel, meaning the fire was invisible except for impurities. As soon as I let off the throttle all I felt was a wave of intense heat and could see hints of fire all around me—I definitely knew what was going on though. An article I had read about a sprint car driver that got trapped in his burning car flashed through my mind before I could even think about anything else. Other than that I don’t remember much about how I got out of the car. I was able to get out myself pretty fast though—I had a cam lock belt system instead of a latch system and I feel that helped. I rolled out of the car onto the track. I didn’t know if I was still on fire or not, because my suit, gloves, and helmet were all super hot. They hit me and the car with a fire extinguisher and got all the switches turned off in the car really quickly. It was a crazy experience. Even crazier we fixed the car and raced the next day of the show. I put new visor on my helmet because parts of it were melted and coated with extinguisher residue. It was an eerie site, but I didn’t get burned at all—I got super lucky—and the track crew was awesome. I started 21st and finished 3rd in the feature at a tough venue in Oklahoma (then I-44 Speedway)—it was one of my best races ever.
Of course, this is just a for-fun, not for profit illustration project, but drawing this stuff brings back great memories. And it’s fun to celebrate designed artifacts that both work and look awesome. In the small world of sprint car racing I’d say this helmet was trend setting. Bill Simpson had a very interesting trajectory, which basically led to him getting ousted (unfairly IMO) from his own company in the early 2000s. Apparently this unfortunately had something to do with the Death of Dale Earnhardt and his seatbelts failing in his fatal crash. He subsequently started another race product company and then a company that made lightweight football helmets for kids. Apparently dude loved helmets more than me. Simpson is still a super popular brand, but it’s always funny when a company boots the person it is named after and continues on without changing the name—I’m sure that was a very strange feeling for Bill Simpson to see his name being used without even being a part of the company 🤷♂️. That’s America, I guess. He recently passed away, which I hated to see. He certainly made a lasting impact in the racing community, not just in terms of safety innovations, but also style. That’s all for now—ciao.