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The Ultimate Auto Racing Helmet Buyer's Guide

From CMS auto racing helmet experts, the real lowdown on selecting the safest helmet to suit your needs and your budget. We go over the whys and hows of size, shape, certification, price, features, and maintenance so you have the tools you need to get the perfect helmet.
The Ultimate Auto Racing Helmet Buyer's Guide - Competition Motorsport

At Competition Motorsport, we’ve sold thousands of helmets and, in the process, answered a lot of questions from customers about how to choose one helmet over another. Over time many of the same questions come up, so with that in mind, we want to give you the real lowdown on selecting the safest auto racing helmet that suits your needs and your budget. We’ll go over the whys and hows of size, shape, certification, price, features, and maintenance so you have the tools you need to get the perfect helmet.

SIZE MATTERS

Let’s start with the first rule of helmet purchasing: size does matter.

Many (if not most) auto racers are wearing a helmet 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 among them. Even if you’ve measured your own head or had a friend measure it for you, 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 (often called a dressmaker's tape) or a string wrapped snuggly around your head. Starting just above your brow, go around the widest part of back of your head and return to the starting spot above your brow. Take a similar measurement three or four times, adjusting the angle of the tape up or down a little (about 1/8” or 3mm) as it circles around the back of your head. Using the largest measurement, measure again to duplicate it. This is the final measurement to use in sizing your helmet.

Proper helmet fitment comprises all of the following:

  • Firm, even pressure all the way around the widest part of your head (where you measured above).
  • No uncomfortable pressure points.
  • No gaps in pressure (i.e. areas where the helmet doesn't make firm contact with your head).
  • Pressure on your cheeks, so that moving the helmet with the chin strap fastened makes the skin on your cheeks bunch up.
  • No front-to-back movement, so a gentle pull up on the back edge doesn't slide the eye port down over your brow.

One thing to remember: comfortable does not equal safe. That’s not to say that you should be uncomfortable, but we’ll dive into that in the next section.

NOT ALL HELMETS FIT 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): Intermediate Oval (the most common), Long Oval, or Round Oval.

Head Shape vs Helmet Shape

In this illustration, the yellow ellipses represent the three common head shapes while the dashed black lines represent helmet shape. In the Intermediate- and Long-Oval cases, a Round Oval helmet causes pressure on the front and back of the head while fitting too loosely on the sides. In the case of the Round Oval head, an Intermediate Oval helmet pinches on the sides and fits loosely front-to-back. 

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. They are experienced in helping you find a helmet size and shape, even sight-unseen, that is very likely to fit you correctly. If you’re able to try on helmets at one of our stores, so much the better as we can make sure you're trying on the exact helmets you’re considering. Unfortunately, simply trying on one helmet won’t tell you much about other helmets, even within a certain brand. For example, trying on a Bell Sport EV won’t work if you’re planning on buying a Bell RS-7 because the head forms are completely different.

BRANDS AND FITMENTS

That being said, different brands do tend to specialize in certain shapes, giving you a starting point for your search. Here’s a breakdown of the helmet brands we carry at Competition Motorsport (including links to each category page) and how they generally tend to fit:

ARAI: Intermediate Oval to Long Oval; round heads need not apply.

BELL: All shapes. Bell has the largest line-up of helmets in the industry, with head forms ranging from round to long oval. The best way to pick a Bell is to call our helmet experts 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

SCHUBERTH: Intermediate Oval

SPARCO: Round Oval to Intermediate Oval

STILO: All Shapes. Sometimes it seems like Stilo uses black magic to make their helmets. They have one head form made using various materials and offering multiple features, yet Stilo helmets fit nearly every head shape. Stilo also offers the ability to customize the thickness of your cheek- and crown-pads, making substantial changes to the fit. Stilo's customizability is extensive, so we suggest talking with a helmet specialist at (844) 438-7244 to maximize this.

HELMET CERTIFICATION

It’s important to understand that auto racing helmet certifications differ greatly from those for motorcycles, karting, and other motorsports. Likewise, auto racing helmets are designed and manufactured with safety features relevant to the risks and forces involved in auto racing.

The major auto racing certification standards are as follows:

Snell Auto: This Snell standard, often abbreviated "SA", is specifically for auto racing. It includes the year it was updated (e.g., SA2020 is the most recent Snell Auto certification). Snell standards are typically updated every five years, and most racing organizations requiring a Snell rating mandate that your helmet be certified to the current standard or one previous. That means most auto racing governing bodies currently allow helmets meeting the SA2020 or SA2015 standards, 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 SA2015 and SA2020 standards incorporated this requirement as well.

FIA 8860: Currently the most stringent auto helmet standard, the FIA 8860 certification is required for nearly all top-tier racing series, including Formula One. 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 at high cornering speeds. The latest FIA 8860-2018 features advanced testing standards that are the most stringent ever put in place, aimed at keeping racers as safe as possible when things don't go according to plan.

WHY SPEND $3,000 ON A HELMET INSTEAD OF $300?

We get asked this question a lot. Like most things, it comes down to getting what you pay for. But what, specifically, am I paying for?

To start, helmet shell materials represent a trade-off in terms of protection, weight, and cost. As the old saying goes, "Pick two." A fiberglass helmet with acceptable impact absorption is usually cheaper and heavier. Kevlar composite (typically Kevlar mixed with carbon fiber) is lighter than fiberglass, with better impact absorption, but it’s more costly and harder to work with. So Kevlar composite helmets are typically lighter and more expensive than fiberglass.

At the top of the range, premium-grade carbon fiber is lighter than Kevlar composite while offering increased impact, abrasion, and penetration protection.  It's more expensive than Kevlar or fiberglass, and requires more precise manufacturing processes. So a premium carbon fiber shell is the foundation of a very strong, light, and safe helmet but will come at a higher price.

Beyond the shell itself, other components of a racing helmet (foam layers, adhesives, interior padding, visor mechanism, etc.) have a large effect on safety, comfort, and performance. Here, too, there’s wide variance in the materials, testing, and cost involved in making helmets to a high standard versus a minimum standard. Given a certain certification, there's a big difference between simply meeting a certification and significantly exceeding it. This is one of the biggest contributors to the price disparity between an entry-level helmet and a more expensive one.

This might best be illustrated with a hypothetical example:

Company X is focused on producing helmets that meet SA2020 standard at as low a price-point as possible. Part of their cost-saving is that they do little, if any, in-house testing. The ventilation in the helmet is largely cosmetic; they don't test it for air flow or effectiveness. The shell is fiberglass or a low-grade Kevlar composite, made from a single mold and with various-sized helmet liners mass-produced for low-cost helmets by a third-party. Company X uses an EPS foam impact-absorption layer that performs well enough to pass Snell testing. The result is an inexpensive racing helmet that meets the SA2020 standard.

Company Y, on the other hand, uses high-grade, lightweight materials for their helmet shells, using different shells for different helmet sizes and shapes. They test in-house for impact absorption and penetration resistance, and they engineer ample ventilation and test for proper air-flow and heat extraction. Company Y designs and makes soft and comfortable fire-resistant liners with an array of interior padding thicknesses to customize fitment. 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. Company Y's helmet significantly surpasses the SA2020 standard, as well as offering safety features the Snell standard doesn't address.

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 exceeding that standard. Still, there is a substantial difference between the two hypothetical helmets above.

We spend countless thousands on our cars, but often racers skimp when it comes to the safety equipment we wear. The forces at work in an auto racing impact can be extreme and violent. If you stretch your budget for anything, it should 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, and our experts are here to guide you to the best helmet for you -- not just the most expensive one. We’re not interested in carrying “Company X” style helmets; it's just not the place we're comfortable advising racers to save a few dollars.

WHO DOESN’T LIKE BELLS & WHISTLES?

On the other hand, many excellent helmet manufacturers integrate features such as communication options, forced-air, driver hydration, and helmet eject systems into their helmets. These are "good to have", but not "must have" attributes that add functionality, comfort, and, in some cases, an even wider margin of safety.

While some of these options have been around for years as aftermarket products, they were often difficult to install and left you with dangling cables, tubes, Velcro, and zip-ties. (Extra stuff to look out for when pulling on your helmet or getting in and out of the car.)

Integrated solutions to many of these add-ons make some helmets more than just a safety system. And with myriad option combinations, let’s take a look at when you might consider a helmet with each feature.

BUILT-IN COMMS

Doing track days (HPDE) and routinely have an instructor with you? Built-in comms can make life much easier. Make sure you have a few different adapter cables on-hand for the most popular in-car intercom systems such as Chatterbox or Trac-Com.

In endurance racing, 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 shorter sprint races in NASA, SCCA, PCA, etc., being able to communicate with support people in your pit improves safety and can make a big difference in how you run your race.

The best helmet on the market for built-in comms is the Stilo ST5.1 GT Composite. It also comes in high-grade Carbon Fiber and FIA 8860-2018 variants, all of which share the same design integrating a host of communication features directly into the shell. This makes plugging/unplugging comms a breeze, and leaves nothing dangling from your helmet when not in use.

FORCED AIR & HYDRATION

Overheating leads to dehydration, which contributes to a loss of reaction time and attentiveness. This can lead to bad things happening. Integrating a drink tube and/or forced air into your helmet can go a very long way in mitigating these effects, even when temperatures aren't particularly hot. Any opportunity to stay focused is an advantage you should take. Many manufacturers build hydration and/or forced air accommodations into their higher-end helmets.

HELMET EJECT SYSTEM

This system makes your helmet much easier to remove in an instance where you are unconscious or have possible head or neck trauma. Typically triggered by track emergency personnel, they require the emergency crew to have the appropriate tool to inflate the eject system. Check with event organizers or track operators about the availability of this equipment to their emergency crews.

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 dos and don’ts to help keep your helmet safe, clean, and protected:

DON'T leave your helmet sitting in the sun, even on cool or cold days. The adhesives used during manufacturing will break down over time, and prolonged exposure to sunlight will significantly speed this process up.

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 Dry-Tech Helmet Bag or the Simpson Equipment Sterilizer & Dryer. The key to properly drying your helmet interior is moving air through it; leaving it in your trunk or a closet isn’t as effective as having a dedicated helmet dryer.

DON'T use cleaners that aren't 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. Molecule Helmet Care Kits are made especially for cleaning and refreshing your auto racing helmet.

DO check the visor hardware and HNR anchors for tightness before each use.

DON'T use Windex or other glass cleaners to clean your helmet visor.

DO use only a visor cleaner approved by the manufacturer of your helmet. When in doubt, just use a mild soap and water.

WHEN TO REPLACE YOUR HELMET

This is a subject of much debate. Spending as much time as we have with auto racing helmets, we have found ourselves replacing a helmet I replace a helmet every three to four years regardless of the apparent visual state of things. Call it an abundance of caution, call it paranoia, call it what you will. We see it as self-preservation, an assurance that if the day comes when we have to rely on a helmet to prevent a serious head injury, our helmet will work as intended. If that's more often than you want to invest in a new helmet, a good rule of thumb is to buy one when each new Snell standard is issued (every five years). Beyond that, the materials and adhesives in any helmet can degrade significantly.

On the other hand, if your helmet is dropped from a height of more than 12 inches (30 cm), it must be replaced without exception. Auto helmets are designed to protect your most vital organ – your brain – from a single impact. The helmet shell and foam liner are designed to spread impact energy around the helmet as much as possible before transferring energy to your head. If your helmet takes fall from over a foot onto a hard surface (e.g., falling to the ground while practicing driver changes), replace the helmet.

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 certifications 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 that requires FIA 8860 helmets. Check the GCR for said organization, some will require you to wear the most recent certification. 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 helmet 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 they're representing.

THANKS FOR YOUR TIME

We hope you feel more confident in choosing your next auto racing helmet after reading this article. As we've said, our helmet specialists are here to help, so feel free to call (844) 438-7244 and let us help you make the best choice in your most important piece of racing equipment.

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