The Ultimate Auto Racing Helmet Buyer's Guide
We’ve sold tens of thousands of helmets here at Competition Motorsport and, in the process of doing that, answered a million questions (probably) about them. With that in mind, this article will give you the real lowdown on selecting a proper auto racing helmet. We’ll go over the why’s and how’s of size, shape, certification, pricing, features, and maintenance so you have the tools you need to select the perfect helmet.
Let’s start with the crown jewel of helmet purchasing: Size does matter.
I bet you didn’t know most people wearing a helmet are wearing at least one size too large. If you’ve never had your head measured by a helmet specialist, there’s a good chance you’re wearing a helmet that’s too loose. Even if you’ve measured your own head or had a friend measure it for you (using a cloth measuring tape), there’s a reasonable chance your helmet isn’t properly fitted.
In order to measure your head correctly, you should use a cloth measuring tape (as mentioned above) and wrap the tape around your head just above your brow. The key things to note here are you never measure just once, and you never measure the same angle twice (until confirming, which I mention later). In order to get a helmet that fits properly I recommend measuring at least three times. Each time, you should rotate the angle of the tape upward or downward just a little bit (perhaps 1/8” or 3.2mm) as it circles around the back of your head. Then you use whatever the largest measurement was. Now it’s time to measure again to duplicate that largest measurement.
Proper helmet fitment comprises ALL the following: (i) Firm, even pressure all the way around the widest part of the head (this is what you measured above); (ii) No uncomfortable pressure points; (iii) No gaps in pressure (i.e. areas where you don’t feel the helmet making firm contact with your head); (iv) Pressure on the cheeks such that moving the helmet while fastened with the chin strap also “slides” the skin on your face; and (v) with the chin strap secured, reach around to the lower back edge of the helmet (above your neck) and gently pull upward. If the helmet slides down over your brow and obstructs your view, it’s too loose!
One thing to remember: comfortable does not equal safe. That’s not to say that to be safe you should be uncomfortable, but we’ll dive into that in the next section.
NOT ALL HELMETS FIT PROPERLY ON ALL HEADS
Heads come in various sizes and shapes. Most head shapes fall into one of three categories (looking at your head from the top down): Long Oval, Intermediate Oval (most common), and Round Oval.
In this illustration, the blue ellipses represent the three main head shapes while the dashed black ellipses represent the helmet shape. Note that we are using the same helmet shape over all three head shapes to illustrate how different a single helmet can fit people of differing head shapes. This helmet will be comfortable on someone with a round head. It will be comfortable on the sides but tight on the front and/or back of an intermediate oval head. And it would have significant pressure points front/back coupled with gaps on the sides for someone with a long oval head.
This leads us to the question: “How do I find the right helmet for my head shape?” The simplest answer is to call Competition Motorsport at 844-438-7244 and talk to one of our experts. If you’re able to try on helmets at a local store the caveat here is, of course, you should be trying on the exact helmet(s) you’re interested in buying. Trying on one or random Bell helmets won’t do you any good. e.g. trying on a Bell Sport EV won’t tell you much if you’re planning on buying a Bell RS-7 because the head forms are completely different.
BRANDS AND FITMENTS
Here’s a break-down of the helmet lines we carry at Competition Motorsport (including links to each category page) and how they generally fit:
Arai: Intermediate Oval to Long Oval; Round heads need not apply.
Bell Racing: All Shapes. Bell has the largest line-up of helmets in the auto industry, with many different head forms ranging from round to long oval. The best way to pick a Bell is to call Competition Motorsport for help at 844-438-7244 and let us guide you to the best-fitting models for your head shape.
HJC: Round Oval to Intermediate Oval
Sparco: Round Oval to Intermediate Oval
Stilo: All Shapes. Sometimes I think Stilo uses black magic to manufacture their helmets, as they only have one head form made with varying materials and features, yet it seems to fit nearly every head shape. Stilo also offers the ability to customize the thickness of the cheek and crown pads, which can drastically change the fit. The ability to customize a Stilo is significant. I strongly urge you to talk with a helmet specialist to maximize this customizability. Call us at 844-438-7244 to speak with an expert.
It’s important to understand that auto racing helmet certifications differ greatly from those for motorcycles, karting, and other motorsports. Always wear a proper helmet designed to protect you in the activity you’re undertaking.
There are many types of helmet certifications for various uses, but we’re going to focus on auto racing certifications:
Snell Auto: This Snell standard is specifically for auto racing. Often abbreviated as SA followed by the year it was updated (e.g., SA2015 or SA15). This certification is updated every five years (e.g., SA2010, SA2015, etc.) Note: most racing organizations requiring a Snell rating mandate that your helmet be certified to the current standard or one previous. This means when the Snell 2020 standard comes out, you will be able to use either SA2020 or SA2015, but not SA2010.
FIA 8858: Helmets with this certification have female M6 threaded inserts installed at the time of manufacture. These inserts are used to attach the posts/clips/mounts of various HNR (head and neck restraint) devices to minimize injury in the event of an impact. Note: The Snell 2015 standard incorporated this into the SA2015 certification, so all SA2015 helmets have the M6 inserts built in at the time of manufacture.
FIA 8860: Currently the most stringent auto helmet standard, the 8860 certification is required for nearly all top-tier racing series, including Formula 1. These helmets offer far superior impact absorption to other certifications. They offer high levels of abrasion resistance (in case you flip upside-down in an open cockpit car) as well as increased penetration resistance to prevent intrusion by debris. FIA 8860 helmets are often the lightest helmets available, which significantly reduces neck fatigue when cornering at high speeds for long periods of time. The new FIA 8860-2018 advanced testing standards are the most stringent ever put in place, all designed to keep racers safe when things don't go according to plan.
WHY SPEND $3,000 ON A HELMET INSTEAD OF $300?
I get asked this question a lot. The answer is multi-faceted, so bear with me.
First off, helmet shell materials vary in terms of protection, weight, and, of course, cost.
Fiberglass is heavy, but inexpensive. Kevlar composite (typically Kevlar mixed with carbon fiber) is lighter than fiberglass and offers better impact absorption. It’s more costly and more difficult to work with, making Kevlar composite helmets more expensive than fiberglass. High-grade carbon fiber is typically lighter than Kevlar composite while offering increased impact, abrasion, and penetration protection. It is typically more expensive than Kevlar or fiberglass. (Low-quality carbon fiber found on low-priced carbon helmets often offers few, if any, of these benefits -- don’t be fooled.)
Next, it’s important to realize that there’s a significant difference between simply meeting a certification and going well beyond it. This is one of the biggest reasons for the price disparity between entry-level helmets (i.e. $200 to $300) and those costing significantly more.
I’ll set the stage for you with a hypothetical example:
Company X is focused on producing helmets that meet SA2015 standards for as little cost as possible. Part of that cost-saving is that they do little to no in-house testing. They don’t design ventilation into the helmet, or, if they do, don’t test it for air-flow or effectiveness. They use the lowest-cost shell material (usually fiberglass) and fire-resistant helmet liner that will pass Snell certification. Company X also uses a EPS foam impact-absorption layer that performs just good enough to pass the Snell standard. The result is an inexpensive racing helmet that meets the SA2015 standard, but just barely.
Company Z, on the other hand, uses high-grade, lightweight materials for their helmet shell and tests in-house for impact absorption and penetration resistance. They engineer ample ventilation and test for proper air-flow and heat extraction. They employ soft and comfortable fire-resistant liner materials and design an array of interior padding thicknesses to customize the fit. They use a multi-stage injection-molding process to bond five types of EPS foam together to optimize impact absorption in different areas of the helmet. This helmet isn’t designed to pass the FIA 8860 protocol, so it, too, carries the SA2015 certification.
At the end of the day, both helmets carry the same certification because the certification is simply a minimum standard. Snell and FIA test only to the standard they’ve developed and have no way of identifying those helmets which far exceed their standard. But rest assured there is a substantial difference between the two hypothetical helmets above.
My closing thoughts on helmet pricing are this: We spend countless thousands on our cars but so often skimp when it comes to the safety equipment we wear. The forces at work in an auto racing impact are significant and violent; if you stretch your budget for anything it should really be for a helmet. That said, you don’t have to spend $3,000 to get an excellent helmet. Competition Motorsport carries high-quality helmets in a wide range of prices. We’re just not interested in carrying “Company X” helmets.
WHO DOESN’T LIKE BELLS & WHISTLES?
These days, many helmet manufacturers are making quality-of-life features such as communication options, forced-air, driver hydration and helmet eject available. It’s not as if these options haven’t been around as aftermarket products for years, but those solutions were often difficult to install and left your helmet with cables, tubes, Velcro, and zip-ties dangling from various places. Not only did it make an otherwise cool-looking helmet seem janky and cobbled-together, but it meant you had extra stuff you needed to look out for when putting on your gear or getting in and out of the car. It also meant if you weren’t using everything every time you got behind the wheel, some of it was useless and in the way.
Rather than discussing the myriad options for each bell or whistle, let’s discuss when you should consider a helmet with each feature.
When to use built-in comms
Doing track days (HPDE) and routinely have an instructor with you? Built-in comms can make life much easier. The caveat here is to make sure you have a few different adapter cables on-hand for the most popular in-car intercom systems such as Chatterbox and Trac-Com. Side note: If you run in an advanced group without an instructor and you have friends you regularly HPDE with, plugging an adapter cable from your helmet to your phone allows for some serious smack talk while on track. Or so I’ve heard...
Running any type of endurance race like NASA or SCCA Enduros, ChumpCar, LeMons or WRL, having comms is a must! Any time you’re working as part of a team, the ability to communicate info regarding flags, cautions, and pit stops becomes integral to your success. It’s equally important for the driver to communicate issues with the car back to the team. Depending on the type of radio system in the car, you may also need an adapter cable.
Driving standard sprint races in NASA, SCCA, PCA, or other organizations with someone available to communicate race start, flags. etc.
In my opinion, the best helmet on the market for built-in comms is the Stilo ST5 GT. It comes in Kevlar composite, high-grade carbon fiber and two 8860-grade carbon fiber shells and was designed to integrate a host of features directly into the shell, leaving nothing dangling from the helmet when not in use. In this respect, the ST5 GT accommodates everything you need without the hassle of being in the way when you don’t need it.
When to use forced-air and/or a hydration system
Overheating leads to dehydration, which leads to a loss of reaction time, which can lead to bad things happening. Any opportunity you give yourself to stay focused is an advantage you should take.
When to use a helmet eject system
Note: These systems require the emergency crew at the track to have the appropriate tool to inflate the system. If you’re not sure those tools are available at the track(s) you drive, check with the event organizer or the track operator.
MAINTENANCE: SIMPLE BUT CRUCIAL
Taking care of your helmet is easy, but you need to remember that not all problems are visible. Here’s a simple list of do’s and don’ts to help keep your helmet clean and protected:
DO NOT leave your helmet sitting in the sun, even on cool or cold days. The adhesives used during manufacturing will break down over time, and you will significantly speed this process up if the helmet is bakes in the sun.
DO air out your helmet after each use to allow it to dry thoroughly. Bacteria from your skin will lead to mold in your helmet if you don’t dry the interior properly. To aid in this, you can purchase a helmet bag with a built-in fan like this Sparco Cosmos Helmet & HANS Bag. The key to properly drying your helmet interior is moving air through it; leaving it out in your closet isn’t as effective as having a dedicated helmet dryer.
DO NOT use cleaners that are not designed specifically for use on racing helmets and Nomex fabrics. Most household cleaners contain detergents that can inhibit the fire-retardant properties of the materials used in your helmet.
DO check the visor hardware and HNR anchors for tightness before each use.
DO keep your helmet clean and fresh with an appropriate helmet cleaner such as Molecule Refresh. Think of it as Febreze for your helmet and the other Nomex racing gear you own, plus anti-microbial protection to prevent the padding and lining from getting moldy and ruining the helmet. You’ll enjoy pulling on your helmet instead of dreading it and holding your breath.
DO NOT use Windex or other glass cleaners to clean your helmet visor.
DO use only a visor cleaner approved by the manufacturer of your helmet. If in doubt, use water.
WHEN TO REPLACE YOUR HELMET
This is a subject of much debate! After spending as much time with helmets as I have over the years, I’ll tell you that I replace my helmet every three years, regardless of the apparent visual state of things. Call it an abundance of caution, call it paranoia, call it what you will. I see it as self-preservation, and I need to know that if the day comes when I have to rely on my helmet to prevent a serious head injury, it will be there for me. None of us want to get hurt while racing or driving HPDEs, but I especially don’t want to sustain a head injury that was preventable.
If your helmet is dropped from a height of more than 12 inches, it must be replaced. No exceptions! These helmets are designed to protect your most vital organ – your brain – from a single impact. ONE. That means the helmet shell and foam liner are designed to spread the impact effectively by diverting the force around the helmet as much as possible before the remainder of that force thunks you on the noggin. If your helmet takes an impact along the lines of a fall of more than 12 inches, falling to the ground while practicing driver changes, hurriedly exiting the car and cracking your head on the roll cage -- you get the idea -- replace it.
This ties back into my rule of replacing my helmet every three years: even if I’m certain I haven’t dropped it in that time, am I 100% certain no one else knocked it off something when I wasn’t there? I can’t be certain of that, and so I replace it whether it appears to need it or not. I strongly suggest you do the same.
Even if you think that’s a bunch of helmet-expert hooey, you’ll be required to replace your helmet under the following circumstances:
Your organization requires the latest Snell certification or one previous and your helmet is now out of date. For example, SA2020 comes out, NASA requires you to wear SA2020 or SA2015 and your helmet is SA2010.
You race in a professional or semi-professional series which requires FIA 8860 helmets. Check the GCR for said organization; some will require you to wear the most current standard, while others may allow the previous FIA 8860 to be worn for 10 years from the date of manufacture (found on the inside of the helmet).
Your gear doesn’t pass tech inspection or has significant damage that would hinder its ability to protect you in an impact. This is typically at the tech inspector’s discretion based upon the guidelines of the organization he/she is representing.
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME
We hope you’ve learned at least a few things in the process of reading this article and thank you for reading to the end! Feel free to call and speak with a helmet expert at Competition Motorsport at 844-438-7244 with any questions.