One of the most overlooked items when preparing for your first trackday seems to be a helmet. Too many times do I see newcomers showing up to a trackday, drift event, or autocross expecting to pass their standard DOT rated motorcycle helmet they have used hooning around in middleschool on their dirtbike. In this feature of Through Our Eyes we will be talking about helmets specifically designed for motorsports both for the serious competitor and the casual trackday goer.
To start things off let’s talk about the typical construction of a helmet which is comprised of a hard outer layer, a softer polystyrene or similar material interior, as well as an even softer padding layer for comfort. This combined with a chin strap as well as an assortment of other accessories like visors, air masks, radios, and so on typically make up most road racing helmets today. The hard outer shell of the helmet as well as the inner polystyrene material are easily the most important features of any helmet when it comes to the safety and well being of the person donning the helmet. The hard outer shell allows the point of impact to the helmet to be spread across the surface absorbing the initial shock of the collision, the polystyrene interior of the helmet is meant to absorb the impact by crushing when the driver’s head meets the resistance of the outer layer and the force behind it, softening the blow to the head.
The most important feature to consider when purchasing a helmet would be the construction and standards designed to keep your brain intact. Many of these standards come down to the intended use of the helmet and in most circumstances one rating does not fit all. There are two organizations here in the United States responsible for setting these standards, the first being the Federal Government’s Department of Transportation or the DOT and the second being the Snell Memorial Foundation. The DOT helmets for the most part are not recognized by any racing organization as qualified to protect your noggin so today we will be focusing on Snell approved helmets.
It is true that Snell offers many different helmet ratings and determining which is best for your needs can be overwhelming, but the two most common of these ratings will be either the M or SA ratings. All of Snell’s ratings are followed by a number in a format like SAxxxx. SA2010 for example would be the most recent rating available for automobile racing which Snell updates every 5 years with new standards as they see fit. The motorcycle alternative M2010 is also available in a similar format but the differences between the two are vast. The M rating is given to motorcycle helmets which pass Snell’s standards and while the M rating may be recognized by many grassroots racing and trackday organizations a Snell SA helmet is designed specifically for automobile racing and the collisions that may be associated in a car versus a motorcycle. The Snell SA rating is typically found inside the helmet, possibly under some padding complete with a serial number for that specific helmet model. Most trackday or grassroots racing organizations will allow the previous two ratings at their events. At the point of this article being written both SA2005 and SA2010 are widely accepted, but it is always best to have the newest helmet possible due to wear and tear over the years and material degradation.
Another vital element in the performance of the helmet you select is the size of the helmet. For the helmet to perform properly in a collision it must be secured to the head with the chin strap, it must be snug, but not too tight to cause discomfort. Everybody has a different sized head and while most helmet manufacturers have a pretty accurate fit across the board. Some brands run large and some run small, just like when picking out shoes between your favorite brands. Most manufacturers sizing charts can be found on the pertaining manufacturer’s website to give you an idea of the variances when purchasing online. To find the proper size of your helmet you would want to measure with a flexible tape measure around your skull, approximately one inch above your eyebrows around your head, following the band which a baseball cap would typically fit, this allows you to find the circumference of your head which is the standard in measurements when it comes to helmet sizes between brands. Once you have a helmet it is important to test a few things concerning fitment. Remember that helmets should be snug and if you have the ability to loosely put the helmet on without any resistance then you may have to go down a size. Once you have the helmet on the next test would be to check horizontal and vertical movement around your head. Move the helmet up and down or shake your head side to side, if there is excessive movement with little to no resistance you will want to move down a size until the helmet is snug and unable to be moved so easily. Next would be a strap test to check fitment with the strap latched, with the strap latched securely to your chin attempt to rotate or roll the helmet off your head. If there seems to be no space to do such a thing it is likely a proper fitting helmet, but if the strap is unable to keep the helmet on your head you will definitely want to go a size or two smaller. Many other tests can be done when trying helmets on and no two heads or helmet models are alike. Trying on a variety of helmets may be required to find the proper fit for both comfort and functionality.
Finally when selecting a helmet you are going to want to choose a style which works best for you. There are many styles of helmets available from open face to basic closed face designs and more advanced closed faces with accessories like air ports, radio ports, or connections preinstalled for HANS devices. There are no differences in safety between these helmets and their associated price tags when it comes to the Snell SA rating. There is only one Snell SA rating and any helmet that passes that certification is just as qualified as the next. The biggest difference between all the brands would be materials and accessories available to the user. Most autocrossers or average trackday enthusiasts will require the most basic of Snell SA rated helmets. Some may even opt for an open faced helmet to keep the helmet as least intrusive as possible, although we recommend checking with your local track event organization to confirm that open face conforms with their rulebook as some organizations prefer closed face. For the more experienced road racer a more aggressive helmet designed with more comforts like air masks with a port to duct fresh air for the driver usually for long stints in the cockpit. Another safety feature often included with higher end helmets would be HANS device attachments which are typically required for more aggressive road racing organizations.
To wrap things up when it comes down to selecting the helmet for your needs you will have to gauge how much you want to spend and what sort of track driving you plan on taking part in the future. Most entry level organizations are fine with a standard Snell SA2005 or SA2010 these days, but come 2015 we will have a new SA2015 series of helmets making the SA2005 obsolete for most organizations. I recommend not skipping out on purchasing a helmet if you are a rookie with an upcoming trackday, after all having a proper fitting and safe helmet to protect your head if you ever were to have an accident on track is priceless.