One bad tackle was all it took to motivate motorsports safety innovator Bill Simpson to develop a safer football helmet for players of all ages.
Known as the "godfather of safety" within the auto racing industry, Simpson has made an expansive career out of making dangerous sports safer. As the founder and former CEO of Simpson Performance Products and Impact! Racing, he designed and manufactured countless products that have changed the motorsports industry for the better.
Now, Simpson is attempting to transform football the way he did auto racing with SG Helmets, a football helmet manufacturing company that he created with former CART driver Chip Ganassi, based in Indianapolis.
Simpson was 71 years old when he attended his first NFL game in 2010, said Ashlee Quintero, national sales manager for SG Helmets, in a phone interview. It was there that he witnessed Indianapolis Colts receiver Austin Collie get two hard hits to his head, leaving him motionless on the field. After gaining consciousness some minutes later, Collie was taken out on a stretcher.
"In his first exposure to football he was kind of astounded by how antiquated the equipment was and how poorly it tested," said Quintero. "In auto racing, polycarbonate shells — which is that plastic that most other football helmets are made of right now— were banned in 1974 because of how [PC] handles impact. It doesn't absorb and when these guys crash it would just crack."
Rather than using polycarbonate for the helmet shells, Simpson's helmets have a shell made from carbon fiber and Kevlar, she said.
The design of SG Helmets is also unique in the sense that the liner, made from a blend of expanded polypropylene foams, forms one continuous pad throughout the inside of the helmet, leaving no space unpadded. This differs largely from the typical helmets, which are lined with smaller pads throughout, Quintero said.
"If you look at other football helmet interiors, there are 2-inch pads and there are a bunch of them, and they have a gap in between so that if you get hit, assuming there's a pad there, it only can compress and absorb in an area of about 2 inches," she said. "Ours can absorb over the entire shell of the helmet so that it dissipates much better."
In addition to their safety features, SG Helmets weigh about half as much as an average football helmet, relieving unnecessary stress on players heads, necks and shoulders, she said.
"With the lightness, [the players] feel like they can keep their head up better, be in a better position," said Tony Caruso, equipment manager for the University of Dayton football team in Ohio. "In their daily practices it's easier to turn and go with only about 2 ½ pounds on their head rather than 4 ½ ."
Caruso currently has four SG Helmets in the Dayton Flyers' inventory. Depending on what kind of feedback he gets from his players at the end of the season, he will likely purchase more helmets for the team, he said.
Being that this is the first year SG Helmets have been advertised to the public, they have only been tested on about 1,000 athletes across the country, ranging from youth leagues to the NFL.
Still, the helmets have been well-received by players, coaches and parents alike, and they have reduced risk of injury by significant margins.
"We're showing 50 percent less g-forces to the head, and 50 percent of less what they call severity index," said Quintero. "So it's basically half the amount of force that these players are feeling on their head, in comparison to any other helmet on the market."
Especially in the wake of the recently settled class-action lawsuit brought on by former NFL players over head traumas, there are many other researchers and manufacturers in addition to Simpson looking to improve the safety of football equipment.
For example, Vijay Gupta, professor of biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering at UCLA, has created a flexible polymer to be inserted into a helmet that could greatly reduce the shock of helmet-to-helmet hits on the football field.
"We created the shocks in the lab with lasers," he said over the phone. "So we have a laser beam, which creates a mechanical shockwave, and then we use the shockwave as a way to load the material and see how the materials respond to the shockwaves."
Gupta's helmet project is still in the early stages of design, he said.
While Simpson surely isn't the first person to try and improve the design of football helmets to make them safer, his unique perspective on safety and extensive resume has helped him think outside the box in terms of design.
"I think the biggest thing that's helped him create something better is that he's not familiar at all with football," Quintero said. "He didn't have to kind of conform what he knew about safety to these preconceived notions of what a football helmet should be, or should feel like."