Buyer's Guide: Helmets
By Bradley Iger
November 19, 2013
For all kinds of motorsport, even something as simple as autocross, a helmet is a necessary part of a driver’s gear. There are a lot of options out there, and trying to choose the right helmet can be tricky, especially with the cost involved. There are many factors to keep in mind when making the purchase, including but not limited to budget, brand, safety certification, fit, shelf life, and, of course, what sort of racing you’ll be using it for.
One thing cannot be denied, though, and that is that safety is crucial, and your life could depend on this one simple piece of equipment. Do your research, choose wisely, and keep in mind that you get what you pay for.
If you have other questions regarding buying a helmet, let us know, and we’ll update this Buyer’s Guide as soon as we can.
I've still got my old helmet. Why should I replace it?
In a crash situation, a helmet should be considered a single-use product. Helmets should be replaced if they incur any damage, as they are designed to protect the head from a single impact. If you’ve dropped your helmet from any height above 18 inches, you should replace it. Even though it may show no visible signs of damage, the structural integrity of the helmet (which is the part you’re relying on to protect you) may have suffered unseen damage. You should never take the chance that it won’t function properly when you need it the most.
Even standard DOT certified motorcycle helmets should be replaced once every five years (under normal circumstances) due to wear and tear. Auto racing helmets undergo much more intense use, and carry Snell Certifications. Never race with a helmet that doesn’t carry the appropriate certification.
If you subject your helmet to rigorous activity on a regular basis (such as monthly days at the track), it is recommended that you replace your helmet at least every two to three years.
If you are an avid racer and subject your helmet to rigorous activity more than 12 times per year, it is recommended you replace your helmet each year.
What certification should my new helmet have?
Depending on the type of racing you’re doing, you’ll need a helmet with a particular certification. After all, the environments and types of crash situations differ from motorcycle racing to auto racing. Sanctioning bodies have rules in place, requiring helmets that have certain certifications.
There are a lot of forces at play in a crash, and they are constantly being studied. Therefore, helmet technology is always improving. Any time a manufacturer makes a design change, that helmet must be tested again for Snell certification.
Here are the various Snell certifications helmets can receive:
- SA: This standard is approved for auto racing
- FIA8858: This standard is used to designate helmets with approved female M6 terminals for use with a HANS (head and neck support) or other FHR (frontal head restraint) system
- FIA8860: This standard is an updated version of FIA8858, and is said to absorb nearly 40 percent more impact force. It is sometimes referred to as the “super helmet standard.”
- SAH: This standard is a combination of SA and FIA8858 into a single standard
- K: This standard is approved for kart-style racing
- M: This standard is approved for motorcycles and other motorsports. Most tracks for motorcycle racing will require a helmet with a Snell certification. Check with your local track for their exact requirements.
Why can’t I use my karting helmet for Spec Miata?
Well, there are some major differences between the different Snell certifications. For instance, both SA and K standards include multi-impact roll-bar testing, while the M standard does not, as it is not designed for this use. SA standard requires a flammability test, while the K and M standards do not. Both SA and K standards allow a narrower FoV (field of view) while the M standard requires significantly more peripheral vision.
Snell performs various tests, depending on the type of racing the helmet is designed for, and certifies individual models that meet their standards. Snell tests for impact, positional stability, dynamic retention (those last two relate to keeping the helmet on your head), chin bar (for motorcycle, karting, and special application racing), shell penetration, face shield penetration, and flame resistance. We won’t get into the details here, but you can learn more about what those tests actually consist of at Snell’s website.
What the tests don’t cover, though, are the effects of a crash on the neck and body. You’ll want to check with race organizers for rules and regulations regarding HANS (head and neck support) devices and harnesses, and make sure your helmet is HANS compatible, if necessary.
How often are Snell certifications updated?
Snell certifications are updated every five years. It's important to note this because most sanctioning bodies only allow the use of helmets that carry the current or previous certification. A new Snell certification is coming for the 2015 racing season, so if you're using a helmet with a 2005 certification or older at that point, you'll need to replace your helmet if you want to go racing.
So what's the difference between a $500 helmet and a $3000 helmet?
With helmets, as with most things, you get what you pay for. As Rob LeFever of Arai Helmets describes it, making a helmet is like making a pizza—sure, you use a lot of similar processes and materials to create it, but the construction, quality of the ingredients, and the design can and will bring about significantly different results between one product and another.
You can get away with spending just a few hundred dollars on a new helmet. The most basic helmets will provide you with the certification you need to go racing, with enough comfort that you can stand to wear the helmet long enough to race. For less than $800 you can even get a helmet with some vents, lightweight construction, HANS anchor systems, communications equipment, and maybe even basic forced air compatibility.
As you go up in price, in the $1000 to $2000 range, the helmets become more sophisticated. Ventilation improves, and the increased airflow will make the helmet more comfortable to wear. Better materials also mean increased comfort, but may even include upgraded safety technology. Often, more money means a better design, so the helmet will probably offer some aerodynamic benefits. And lastly better materials typically means lighter weight, reducing fatigue.
At $3000 and up, you will be buying a state-of-the-art helmet. Often, these will feature carbon fiber construction, and will be incredibly lightweight. You will have increasing options for ventilation, visibility, and interior fit. Expect anti-fog technology in the visor, and impact safety that goes above and beyond the required Snell certification. You’ll have more options for communications technology, with improved sound and noise reduction. In this price range, you should feel absolutely comfortable wearing the helmet for extended periods of time with a good fit, optimal temperature, increased visibility, a low weight, and very little fatigue.
And, yes, you can spend even more on a helmet. At $5000 and up, you’ll be able to pretty much completely customize your helmet. In this price range, you’ll be working with someone to set up a helmet exactly the way you want it, built to your specifications for a perfect fit, specific accessories, and, of course, excellent safety.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of fiberglass versus carbon fiber helmets?
While the popularity of carbon fiber helmets is on the rise, making a helmet out of carbon fiber does not automatically equate to a superior helmet design. In fact, for many manufactures, traditional fiberglass composites are still the preferred material for helmet shell construction, as fiberglass absorbs and distributes impact energy very effectively.
However, if weight savings is of paramount importance to you, carbon fiber helmets are usually lighter than their fiberglass counterparts, though the weight disparity can sometimes be negligible, depending on the quality of materials used (cheap carbon fiber versus expensive fiberglass, for example). Another consideration is that carbon fiber typically stands up to abrasion abuse better than fiberglass does, so if you're planning on doing a significant amount of open-wheel racing, this might be a better choice under those circumstances.
Also keep in mind that sub-$1000 carbon fiber helmets are often carbon fiber which is simply laid over a fiberglass shell, instead of carbon fiber construction throughout.
What kind of replacement shield do I need?
Mirror shields are purely for aesthetic value. Amber and yellow tinted shields are best suited for low light situations—rainy/overcast days and dawn/dusk racing. Clear shields are best suited for nighttime sessions.
As for tinted shields, the level of tint you choose is largely based upon how much glare you're comfortable with—the more tint you have, the less glare you'll get, but you'll also have to take into consideration that you'll likely lose some visual acuity if you choose a shield that's too dark for the conditions.
Use only water when cleaning your shield, as chemical cleaners can damage the tinting film.
For more information about replacement shields, check out our buyer's guide
What about communications/electronics mounting?
While your options are somewhat limited when it comes to helmets that provide built-in communications, you should be aware that if you need communications functionality in your helmet, drilling holes in the helmet to mount such hardware will not only void the manufacturer's warranty, it can also significantly affect the structural integrity of the helmet, and in turn its effectiveness in the event of a crash may be compromised.
Helmets like the Stilo ST4 GT
provide a built-in communications port within the helmet shell which is positioned to ensure that the wiring doesn't interfere with the use of head and neck restraint (HANS) systems.
How should my new helmet fit?
A helmet needs to fit you properly to provide optimal safety. First and foremost, the helmet should be snug on your head. It might take some getting used to, but a snug fit is incredibly important. If it’s loose on your head, this can cause serious problems, especially in a crash.
When you put the helmet on, it should provide a bit of resistance. Remember, if it goes on too easily, it will come off easily, too. Once it’s on your head, it shouldn’t twist too far to either side, or move back and forth or up and down on your head.
Pressure should be firm and uniform around your head. You shouldn’t be able to stick your fingers very far between your head and the inside of the helmet. If you can, try a size smaller.
Remember that you’re sizing the helmet to your head, not your face. The fit around your head is the deciding factor in helmet sizing. If you’re not sure of the fit, and the helmet you’re trying on has removable cheek pads, try wearing the helmet without the cheek pads inserted. If it fits comfortably on your head without the cheek pads, the sizing is correct and the thickness of the cheek pads should be changed, not the size of the helmet.
Still, you want your head to feel comfortable in the helmet. “Snug” does not mean that you should feel like you’re putting your head in a vice. When you get the chance, try wearing the helmet for 10 minutes or so, to make sure it’s comfortable. You shouldn’t be in pain, and if discomfort becomes distracting, there is a problem.
Keep in mind that sizing may vary from one brand to another. If you usually wear a Medium in one brand, you shouldn’t just trust that you’ll wear a Medium universally. Whenever possible, try different sizes on.
Another way to make sure you’re getting the right size is to check the size measurements for the manufacturer you are considering. (Sizing charts: Arai, Bell, Stilo.) Measure the circumference of your head just above the eyebrows to the back of your head. Measure several times, and use the largest measurement you come up with. Compare this to the manufacturer’s sizing chart to see what size helmet you should order.
Also, if you’re going to wear a balaclava with your helmet, take the measurement while wearing one.
If you have trouble finding a helmet that fits uniformly, there are options to get a proper fit. Try extra padding. You can adjust your fit with crown, cheek, and ear pads (not available for all helmets). Many simply attach to the inside of your helmet with Velcro.
What should I do to keep my helmet in good condition?
Avoid leaving your helmet in a bag after a race for long periods of time. Doing so will allow the bacteria from sweat and dirt to grow into a big funky mess.
If you need to clean your helmet, you can so by dunking the helmet in a bucket of water or in the shower. The inner lining and cups can be cleaned with shampoo. Keep in mind that you should only use water to clean your visors, though.