How Much Should I Spend On A Road Racing Helmet?

By Tom Martin

July 30, 2021

 

If you’re new to track days, going to a racing school or have experience in wheel-wheel racing and need a new helmet, the range of costs can be confusing. Here is our quick guide to help.

 

How much do road racing helmets cost?

Anywhere from $189.00 to $5,000.00. Clearly, that’s a pretty big range, but you should know that the $5,000.00 helmet is not the same as the $189 helmet. In general, as you go up in price you get one or more of these features:

 

  • Light weight
  • Modular features (communications, hydration, air cooling, visor types, aero elements)
  • Adjustable fit
  • Superior finish
  • Advanced materials
  • Re-assurance of large, experienced brands
  • Possible safety benefits beyond minimum certification
  • Comfort

 

What do I get when I spend more money?

As described above, generally there are several benefits offered by more expensive helmets, but you should know that when you go up in price you don’t necessarily get all those benefits, so we advise buyers to check for those features they really need.

 

  • Light weight is valuable if you are in the car for a long time (e.g. endurance racing) and if you are driving a fast car or an aero car. The differences between heavy and light helmets range from a few ounces to a pound, but your neck can often tell.
  • Modular features such as communications, hydration, air cooling, visor types, aero elements are needed or not needed depending on your application. More on this below.
  • Adjustable fit is very helpful for almost every driver.
  • Superior finish means paintwork that is attractive, parts that fit right and mechanisms that are easy to operate
  • Re-assurance of large, experienced brands for the extra engineering that you can often only understand in the car (e.g. workable ventilation and modular systems that function properly)
  • Possible safety benefits beyond minimum certification, because certification only covers laboratory scenarios, not “above and beyond” materials and engineering for a variety of crashes.
  • Comfort is not universal because drivers have different head shapes, but more expensive helmets on average seem to be more adaptable to more drivers.

 

Speaking generally, most drivers will benefit from the superior features of more expensive helmets.  Going from about $250 to about $1000 gets you most of the possible features. Beyond that, you are getting advanced materials and certifications that you may want or need, but not more features.

 

The most difficult topic to understand is safety margin. It is likely that more expensive helmets (especially those in the $800.00 to $2000.00 range) have had additional engineering work done to ensure that they exceed minimum requirements of Snell and FIA. There is no consensus measurement system for determining safety margin, so the consumer is left to rely on brand name and materials (e.g. carbon fiber is generally stronger than composite).

 

How much do accessories cost and do I need them?

Transport: We think everyone will want to carry their helmet in a bag of some sort if for no other reason than to keep it protected. Physical damage to a helmet tends to be a “life ending,” for the helmet in that the helmet will no longer pass tech.  Helmets unfortunately are not like your car where a dented fender is acceptable. You may choose to carry your helmet in a dedicated helmet bag, or you might put your helmet in a larger carry-all gear bag. Note that if you want to put your large roller bag in checked luggage, we advise carrying your helmet in its own bag as carry-on luggage. To be clear (you know this, but it makes it more vivid):

Price range: $50-$120

Visors: Many drivers like to have a tinted option other than the clear that comes standard. Some of our customer favorites are low-transmission tinted sun shields, in a yellow or gold or amber hue to enhance contrast of track surface elements, when in bright sun. These are especially valuable for races early or late in the day. As an illustration watch (you won’t regret the next 5 minutes, we promise):

 

Some drivers also like to have a high-transmission yellow or pink visor for cloudy days. Again, this is for contrast enhancement, because the hand-eye-brain system is a marvelous thing when it has the right data.

 

Price range: $30-$130

 

Communications: Some time in your career you will want to have integrated communications. If you are a novice wheel-wheel racer, you’ll probably be back in the field at the start and it really helps to have the waving of the green flag radioed to you (e.g. at Road America, drivers on row 8 may not be able to see the flag stand at the start). You’ll also want comms if you are starting in endurance racing so you can coordinate pit stops. So, if it were us, we would NOT buy a helmet that didn’t have integrated comms as an option. However, if you are purchasing a helmet to do your first track day and you don’t know if you’re going to do another, it may be best to save money and shop at the lower end of the range (remember if you get more involved in the sport you can always go back and get the right helmet based on experience).

 

Price range: $80-$120

 

Hydration: Hydration is a great and important idea for all drivers, but our experience tells us most drivers don’t take this step because they are running sprint races and they skip hydration in an effort to be macho. This probably isn’t a performance-enhancing decision, because hydration enhances cognitive and physical ability. But hydration systems that are not integrated work perfectly well. So, we don’t think this a knock-out factor. A helmet that otherwise works for most amateur drivers is fine if it doesn’t have integrated hydration. If you’re doing endurance racing, hydration is more important (since your stints are longer) but you need a system compatible with what your team is running. The same thing goes for heat. We’ve started races with 100 degree ambient temp and run with cockpit temps in the 140 degree range. You sweat enough in those conditions to be woozy after 30-45 minutes. Woozy is not fast.

 

Price range: $50-$150

 

Top-Air and Side-Air: Very few amateurs need top air or side air, but we note that a crucial area for cooling is your head. That’s partially because your head generates a lot of heat but mostly because as your head generates heat your blood vessels dilate as a primary cooling mechanism. That dilation of your blood vessels can (for some drivers) be a cause of headaches. Trust us you don’t want a headache as you’re trying to run down another driver for P1.

 

We would also recommend that you only consider top air or side air if you already have installed a Cool Shirt, F.A.S.T or Chillout cooling systems. Core cooling is the most efficient cooling method.

 

Price range: $30-$80

 

Aero Aids: These are obviously a thing you only need in open-top cars. Your choices are to buy a helmet with integrated aero (e.g. Bell GTX3) if the helmet that fits you the best is one with modular aero aids and you’re running an open top we would highly recommend running the aero aids. Either way aero is important in open-top cars because you don’t want your head moving around and creating visual distortions and neck strain (most open top cars are aero top and generate enough neck strain on their own.

 

Price range: $50-$80

 

How long does a helmet last? Price per year?

Most amateur racing in the US requires a Snell certified helmet. Snell certification (SA) happens every 5 years. You may own or find SA2010, SA2015, SA2020 helmets. Almost all sanctioning bodies allow helmets to be run up to the 10th year of certification. To illustrate how this works, in 2021 an SA2010 helmet is no longer legal. It is not the age of the helmet itself but certification that determines legality. So, for example, an SA2015 helmet manufactured in 2019 will no longer be legal after 2025 even though it is only 6 years old (because the certification is 10 years old and that’s the limit).

 

Most helmet manufacturers recommend replacing your helmet more often than the 5-10 year frequency the certification suggests. That’s because of two things. First of all, the components of your helmet are made of chemicals and those chemicals age. The manufacturer has no way of knowing the environment you and your helmet has been in, so as a precaution they suggest you change every 3 years. There’s no magic to that, but it’s the conservative path. In addition, due to usage your helmet will have endured bumps and scrapes, some of which you won’t know about because as you’re setting up for entry to Road America’s kink at 122 mph, you’re not thinking about the fact that your helmet is bouncing off the roll-cage padding. These little stresses and strains don’t break the helmet, but they can cause fatigue or small fractures. Again, the conservative is replacement every 3-5 years.

 

As a rule, helmets can’t be repaired. See the section above for discussion of a conservative replacement strategy to deal with minor damage. The main maintenance you can do to a helmet is regular cleaning. The most important cleaning is in the interior. In addition to dealing with that lovely perspiration residue, regular cleaning can help prevent the growth of mold. Mold sounds disgusting, but the real issue is allergic reaction on track which can be distracting at best and dangerous at worst.  

 

Can I save money by running my motorcycle helmet?

No. Motorcycle helmets are illegal in all sanctioned road racing as they are not fire-rated nor do they have the correct Snell or FIA ratings.

 

If I require an FIA certified helmet, how much do they cost?

If you are running a series (e.g. IMSA) that requires an FIA 8860 helmet, the price range will range from $2800.00 to $5000.00. Be sure not to be confused between FIA 8859 certified helmets and 8860 helmets, because if your series mandates 8860 then an 8859 will not suffice.