In what world would motorsports ever cross-pollinate with football? It may sound crazy, but the two wildly different sports have found common ground when it comes to athlete safety.
Bill Simpson — known as the “Godfather of Safety” in the race car community, and founder of Indy-based company Simpson-Ganassi Helmets — and his partner, Chip Ganassi, have created a football helmet they say will help reduce concussions occurring in football at all levels. And thus, revolutionize the sport.
Simpson says that about 20 NFL players have already worn the helmet in practice or games, including Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Green Bay Packers center Jeff Saturday. The helmet is now starting to penetrate high school fields.
It all started in 2009. While watching an Indianapolis Colts game, Simpson recalls seeing a player getting carried off the field after being knocked out with a major concussion. Simpson was quick to fault their protective headgear.
He would know.
The Motorsports Hall of Famer has more than 50 years of experience designing auto racing safety equipment. He designed the first racing fire suit as well as a helmet that protects drivers from impact to the head while reaching speeds of more than 200 mph. Simpson’s helmets have been worn by 27 Indianapolis 500 winners.
After watching the Colts game, Simpson felt he could revolutionize football helmets by using technology from auto-racing helmets.
The outside looks like a traditional football helmet — Simpson didn’t want to change the aesthetic. Rather, the significant modifications are with the technology.
The density and stiffness of the SG football helmet is different than racing helmets, but the same materials have been applied and adapted to fit the needs of football. The shell features a proprietary blend of carbon fiber and Kevlar — materials used to form the INDYCAR and Formula One chassis.The liner is composed of multiple layers of expanded polypropylene foams.
One of the secrets to the helmet’s success is its weight. It checks in at a mere 2 pounds and 6 ounces, making it approximately half as light as a typical football helmet. The result is a decrease in force from big hits, saving the head from unnecessary trauma.
“Something that’s five pounds and hits a wall is going to make a much bigger dent than one that weighs two pounds.” Simpson said. “It’s physics. Period. Force equals mass times velocity.”
Carmel (Ind.) coach Kevin Wright was stunned when he held the helmet for the first time during a meeting with the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s like a bicycle helmet.”
The $400 price tag is worth it to Center Grove (Greenwood, Ind.) coach Eric Moore, who intends to purchase one for each of his sons and at least 25 for his varsity team to wear during the upcoming season.
“A helmet should be tight to your head,” Moore said. “This one gives you a sense that it’s on tight, but you don’t have that weird feeling on your forehead.”
Still, Moore predicts big skepticism among coaches will be the helmet’s durability because it’s so light. Not that he’d buy into it.
“I laugh when I hear that concern,” he says. “The man is a genius. He builds helmets that don’t break at 250 miles an hour.”
Simpson admits the helmet isn’t concussion-proof. But it appears to go a long way to helping curb the epidemic.
The helmet’s three-year creation period included approximately 150 prototypes. Samples were put up to more than 500 impact drops, and Simpson has even sent 40 out for wear-testing at the NFL, college and high school levels. Two helmets even went to Joe Montana’s sons, both of whom are college quarterbacks.
Returned samples were disassembled and thoroughly inspected for cracks, oblong holes or any other abnormalities, including with the lining material. Simpson says he has yet to detect a cosmetic or performance issue.
“I’m convinced we have a product that’s better than anything that’s on the market today,” Simpson says.
He’s quick to recognize that 40 exemplars are hardly enough to adequately convince the football community.
“The only way we’re going to have knowledge of what this is going to do is to have 1,500 to 2,000 of them out there,” Simpson says.
And if and when that happens, Simpson says, “I think we’re going to revolutionize the football business.”