As a driving instructor for the past decade, I work with a lot of novice drivers in high speed touring programs and driving schools. All of these programs provide helmets to their participants; however, once a student catches the “racing bug” they often ask me, “how do I find the perfect helmet?” And in typical lawyer fashion I answer, “it depends.” Finding the perfect helmet for you depends on what events you plan to participate in; whether you are touring or racing.
TOURING DRIVER HELMETS
The good news is, if you are a high speed touring driver, your helmet will be more affordable than a racing helmet. You will not need the bells and whistles associated with racing. The important thing is to find a simple, quality helmet to protect your noggin.
You will not need anchors on your helmet for a Head and Neck Support (HANS) device since street cars do not have racing belts which hold a HANS device down and in place. If your touring car does have racing belts (not just for looks but for utility), by all means get yourself a helmet with HANS anchors and a HANS device. In the alternative, you can purchase a helmet without the anchors and install the anchors later. The more safety devices you invest in, the safer you will be. As Jeremy Clarkson once stated so eloquently, “[s]peed has never killed anyone. Suddenly becoming stationary, that’s what gets you.” The ‘suddenly becoming stationary’ part is what causes internal decapitation. Gruesome, I know. The HANS device reduces the chances of head or neck injuries in a crash.
You will likely not need a radio port in your helmet. If you frequently utilize driving instructors (which I highly recommend), then instead of a radio port, you should invest in a Chatter Box or similar device. These 2 way communication systems allow driver and instructor to plug into a single radio unit to directly communicate with each other during a driving session. You can buy a microphone/earpiece combo to place in your helmet. This eliminates the need for shouting above engine noise and prevents your instructor from losing their voice (hence why I always keep cough drops in my pocket while coaching). If you get a helmet with the earpiece/microphone built in, you will still need converter cables to plug into the chatter box. If cost is important, it would be more affordable to buy a simple helmet and add the chatter box system. Again, this is for internal communication, not a radio system for communicating outside of the vehicle.
Last, if your touring car is a street car with airbags, you should use an open face helmet. You may be thinking, “isn’t that dangerous?” “Don’t all race car drivers use closed face helmets?” Yes, all race car drivers, except rally racers, use closed face helmets. The difference is, race cars do not have air bags. Upon impact, if your closed face helmet strikes the driver airbag, there is a high probability that the helmet could damage or even break your jaw. This is why most driving experience programs use open face helmets.
RACING DRIVER HELMETS
Generally, racing helmets are going to be closed faced (except for the aforementioned rally racers). You MUST have a helmet with anchors for a HANS if you plan on racing. There are no ifs, ands, or butts about it. Not only do most amateur and all professional racing leagues require the use of a HANS device, but you should use one even if your racing group does not require it. As previously mentioned, it can save your neck and head from serious injury. You can buy a helmet with the anchors already built in or install them yourself. Drilling holes into a brand new helmet is kind of like watching sausage get made; you like the finished product, but you don’t want to see the process. Just buy a helmet with the anchors already installed.
I personally use a Stilo helmet with the headphones and microphone already installed. It is more expensive, but so much easier to use. The microphone is very clear and I do not have to shove uncomfortable earpieces into my ears. The down side is when there is a glitch in the wiring, you have to send the helmet off to be fixed. It is usually cheaper to buy the microphone and earpieces separate from the helmet. The benefit of a separate system is when you have an issue with the microphone or earpiece, you are not without your helmet for a week or two.
Another important aspect of a helmet is whether or not you need a water port. If you primarily compete in sprint races, then you can go without a water port. If you compete in endurance races, it is highly beneficial to purchase a helmet with a water port. Note though, this is simply a channel to put your water tube through. The actual drinking device has to be assembled by you or a capable friend. A tube will run from your water pump container to another tube connected to your helmet which can be detached by a quick release. The mouthpiece will be inside your helmet. Most of us use a CamelBak bite valve. Every team I have raced for makes their own device. As a side note, watch the angle of the bite value, I accidentally sprayed myself in the eyes going down the back straightaway of Mosport once.
All visors will scratch even if they are “scratch proof” or “scratch resistant.” It is important to keep tear offs on your visor to protect it. Your helmet will come with a clear visor. I recommend replacing it will a tinted visor. What’s more uncomfortable than wearing thick sunglasses inside of a helmet? Tinted visors eliminate the need for sunglasses. Each helmet brand will have a selection of tinted visors which are compatible with your helmet. Keep your default, clear visor on hand always. I hopped into an open wheel car at Lime Rock in the pouring rain with only my tinted visor on hand; needless to say, I could not see a thing. Additionally, helmets can have a wide or regular view. My helmet has a wide visor view and I love it. The more you see the better you can race.
If needed, you can purchase a helmet with aerodynamic features installed. If you are a sports car racer you do not need aero on your helmet. If you primarily race open wheel, yes, you will need aero on your helmet. If you do not, you will have the pleasure of turbulent air trying to rip your helmet off of your head on every straightaway. Aerodynamic elements built into a helmet can greatly reduce this unpleasant, shaky head effect. If you neglect to buy a helmet with the components built in, many helmet brands offer “add on” parts.
For endurance races, heck even for sprint races, cool air induction for your helmet is divine. A cool head can greatly increase you concentration and stamina in a race car. Helmets can be purchased with the induction port already built in or you can add it later (if your helmet is compatible). Cool air induction can be connected to a compatible CoolShirt Box or even an A/C unit. I used cool air induction when I raced in the GT3 USA series, it certainly helped when I was waiting in the pits or on the grid. But, once you start racing the cool air is not as noticeable. My tube would often detach from my port. So, unless you buy a top of the line cool air induction system for your helmet, it is not worth buying the cheaper version because it will not work very well. Again, the need for this will depend on what type of racing you are competing in and whether or not you are racing in the South during the middle of the summer. COTA in July is hot, hot, hot!
Now that you have picked the right helmet, what about the fit? Fit is incredibly important to maximize the effectiveness of the helmet in the event of a crash. Each helmet company will have a sizing chart with directions on how to measure your head. However, the best fit comes from trying on the helmet. Find a friend with the same helmet brand to test. If you can not find one to try on first, follow the sizing chart exactly and order the closest fit. A helmet should fit snug on your head. It should not give you a headache! The helmet should give you a little resistance when you place it on your head. The cheek pads should be touching your cheeks with your eyes in the center of the opening. The top padding should be just above your eyebrows. Now for the shake test! Shake your head side to side and up and down. If the helmet moves easily, it is too big. You will be able to tell if the helmet is loose.
Make sure to use a balaclava when you use your helmet. Not only does it provide fire protection, but it also keeps the padding of your helmet from deteriorating too quickly from sweat. Also, pay the extra few bucks to get a black balaclava. The white ones get dirty fast and it is impossible to get stains out.
HELMET REMOVAL SYSTEM:
The helmet removal system is essentially a small air bag that is installed in the helmet after purchase. It sits inside the lining at the crown of your head. In the event of an accident, the emergency responders can inflate the inner air bag to pump the helmet off of your head without causing further damage to the neck or head. If you plan to race professionally you will be required to install a helmet removal system. These systems cost around $60. Even if you are not required to use one, the helmet removal system is another safety feature that you should purchase. They do expire sooner than helmets, so make sure to stay on top of the expiration to ensure functionality. As a final note, you may have to tell the EMT to use the helmet removal system. After my big accident at Road America, the responders asked me to remove my helmet myself. I was still in shock and not thinking clearly, or else I would have asked them to use the system which had been installed in my helmet at the beginning of the season.
All safety equipment will expire, including helmets. Every five years a new safety rating for helmets is released. Whether or not your helmet has “expired” depends on your sanctioning body. Some may require a safety rating of not more than 10 years old while some may require a safety rating of not more than 5 years old. Even so, most organizations will allow a one year grace period to comply with the rules. The SA rating sticker can be found inside of your helmet, under the lining.
Having a customized paint scheme on your helmet is definitely not required, but it can be good for branding purposes! Have sponsors? Put them on your helmet. Have a charity you support? Put them on your helmet. I treated myself to a paint job on my helmet for around $800. It was a good chunk of money, almost the cost of my helmet, but it looks great it photos! I had Texas artist, Jeff Long, paint my helmet. I gave him an idea and he took creative license from there. The design turned out better than I imagined! Some other popular artists include Troy Lee and Patrice Harvey.