Auto racing safety pioneer discuses new football helmet aimed at concussions

Austin CollieNFLJeff SaturdayTom Moore

Several Indianapolis Colts players, including receiver Austin Collie, have been wearing a new helmet this season, and the man behind it believes it will help reduce the severity of concussions.

"Everything we've done has been a step in the right direction to protecting people," said Bill Simpson, who developed the new helmet. "If you can manage the energy so it doesn't get to the guy's head, then he's not going to have as bad a concussion."

Though Simpson is new to making football helmets, he's drawing on years of experience as an auto racing safety pioneer. He developed one of the first chutes for drag racing in the late 1950's, introduced the first fire suit for drivers, and ran two successful safety companies that specialized in motorsports helmets.

Simpson says his interest didn't turn to football until he attended his first Colts game three years ago at the invitation of his friend Tom Moore, who was offensive coordinator of the Colts at the time.

"I saw two guys get taken off of the field on stretchers and I didn't understand that," Simpson said. "I felt like, if we could reduce the weight (of the helmet) by half we could really minimize concussions. We're not ever going to stop concussions. We can't. That's impossible. However, you can make them less severe."

That work on a lighter, stronger helmet started as a hobby, but when Colts receiver Austin Collie went down with a concussion twice last season, Simpson went to work on the project full time.

After the season Simpson began working directly with Collie to design and test a custom helmet that would be much lighter than anything he'd used before.

"They went on strike and Austin was here two or three times a week," Simpson said.

Technicians started by scanning Collie's head and manufacturing a custom liner, which resembles the interior of a race helmet. He then paired it with a titanium facemask, which  weighs less than two pounds.

Simpson made an agreement with the Colts that he wouldn't identify players who have worn the helmet, but Jeff Saturday and Collie are two of at least six who have tested it out this season. Simpson says players from at least two other teams have also worn it.

"Every Tuesday morning I get helmets back, the ones that are in the field," Simpson said. "I take them apart, and I look at them, and I put them back together and send them wherever they're going."

Before his current version made it on to the field, Simpson tested a prototype for at least 11,000 hours. He also took it to several independent labs, including the Southern Impact Research Center, located near Knoxville, TN.

The research center has tested many thousands of helmets for every major manufacturer.

"If it's a standardized test we probably have it in our scope," said Dave Halstead, the technical director for the lab.

For years the research center has tested helmets according to the NOCSAE standard, developed by the National Operating COmmittee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. The testing standard consists of a series of drop tests that measure how well a helmet manages energy through repeated impacts.

Helmets that pass the standard, such as Simpson's, need the NOCSAE seal of approval before they are allowed on the field.

"I believe that any helmet that meets the NOCSAE standard is as good as we know how to make them today," Halstead said.

During drop testing, Simpson's helmet exceeded the NOCSAE standard, and yielded numbers comparable to the best rated helmets available, but Halstead says he doesn't believe the lighter design is necessarily any better.

"I think any time you have a lighter product that, all other things are equal, is a good idea, but I can't prove that it's important," Halstead said. "Scientifically I can't tell you that that concept is going to be a safer helmet."

He says the problem is the standard does not directly address concussions.

"Most of the helmet standards today were designed around, how do I keep the head from breaking?" Halstead said. "We're measuring the acceleration of the skull and we hope that is directly related to the damage in the brain."

That's because most brain scans, including traditional MRI, can't detect the tissue damage caused by a concussion. Another problem, Halstead says linear collisions, replicated during drop tests, aren't what cause many of the concussions in football. Instead, Halstead says they are the result of rotational forces on the head and neck.

"That kind of event that causes the head and helmet to be accelerated as opposed to causing the head and helmet to stop," Halstead said.

New tests at the Southern Impact Research Center using high speed cameras and more life-like equipment are just beginning to replicate those rotational forces, but so far no helmet stands out.

"They all manage the linear aspects of this quite well and none of them manage the rotational aspects differently enough for us to really measure," Halstead said. "It may be that you can't ever manage them with a helmet."

"If you have a five pound mass on the head versus a one pound mass on the head the rotation is not going to be near as severe," Simpson said.

Simpson hopes to eventually prove that theory through more research and by outfitting even more players. In the meantime, he's testing new materials in hopes of creating a one pound helmet.

"We're not there yet," Simpson said.

Maybe not, but he's already partnered with prolific race team owner Chip Ganassi, and begun developing plans to manufacture the helmet in Indiana. Simpson says he expects to open a new facility and begin rolling out a new version this coming spring.

It's a strategy one expert calls risky, considering Austin Collie is the player people associate with it.

"(Simpson) has a significant challenge ahead of him because the way in which he's chosen to do this is to start with those guys who really are at risk," Halstead said. "These are the guys who are most likely to be reinjured."

Simpson says that's exactly why he's so passionate.

"In my heart Austin Collie is protected as well as he could be protected and if something does happen I would still sleep that night knowing that what he has is far advanced from what I believe the others are," Simpson said. "I'm taking a lot of heat for saying that, but you know what that's what I believe."

Though Simpson and Ganassi plan to begin manufacturing the helmet in the spring, it's unclear whether it will be widely available. Simpson says they originally planned to produce a helmet for NFL players, but he says he'd like to do what he can to go beyond that in the near future.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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