It’s that time of year again – spring is turning into summer quicker than we can keep up with, and you still don’t have a helmet for the racing season.
Even if you “just want to do autocross”, you’re gonna need a helmet for that – the same goes for just about everything. But not all helmets are created equal, and not all are suitable for every race application.
But what makes a good racing helmet? And what’s the difference between helmets made for motorcycles, auto racing, and karting? How do you pick which one is right for you?
Our goal with this article is to answer every question you’ve ever had about helmets, and even some you haven’t. Think of something we missed? Let us know in the comments below.
/ Safety Ratings
Most helmets are grouped into categories by what they’re designed to do – and each application calls for different construction. As a general rule of thumb, the higher the race class, the more stringent the helmet requirements are (and more expensive as a result).
You’ve likely seen the colorful stickers on the inside or bottom back of the helmet – SA2020, SFI 31.12015, DOT, etc. But what do these letters and numbers mean? These codes represent the helmet’s safety rating, and it’s not as confusing as it sounds.
Safety ratings are assigned by a few key organizations – namely the DOT, FIA, SFI, and SNELL. The first half of this code generally denotes which of the safety rating organizations’ standards the helmet was manufactured to. Each of these organizations distributes different safety guidelines, with some of the most popular below:
DOT / Motorcycle helmets in the US
Snell SA / “Special Application” (Auto racing) in the US
Snell K / Kart racing in the US
Snell M / Motorcycle helmets in the US
SFI 41.1 / Motorcycle helmets in the US
SFI 31.1 / Auto racing in the US (Fire Resistant)
FIA / Suitable for anything through F1
The second half of the safety rating code is usually a year – like SA2020 & SA2015 for Snell, or FIA 8859-2015 for FIA helmets. Snell, SFI, and the FIA all release an updated set of safety regulations every 5 years or so – the date code helps to determine which set the helmets were manufactured under.
/ Shape & Fit
Now that you’ve settled on a safety rating, it’s time to talk about the other single most important factor when choosing a new race helmet – the way it fits.
To start, different manufacturers use different head molds, even for different models from the same brand. Therefore, it’s highly recommended you head (no pun intended) to your local helmet retail store and try on some of the helmets you’re looking at purchasing.
There are roughly 3 main head shapes when it comes to helmets – long oval, intermediate oval, and round. Some manufacturers are known for favoring one over the others, though it really does come down to the individual helmet model, and how it fits you. In general:
Oval head shape: HJC, Arai, Simpson
Round head shape: Bell, Zamp
Many people would be surprised to learn that their racing helmet might be too big for them. Most often, the most comfortable fit is not necessarily the safest, you should definitely know it’s there. The helmet should make firm, consistent contact with your head on all enclosed areas (your entire head except for your eyes & mouth). Chin straps must always be fastened securely, and while it should feel tight, you shouldn’t feel any discomfort.
A helmet should meet all the following fit criteria:
Firm, even pressure around your crown (like a baseball cap)
No discomfort to forehead, or squeezing of temples
No pain or obvious discomfort in general
No loose areas or gaps
Closely cradle cheeks (firm contact)
Helmet stays firmly on head when moved from all axes
Eyes centered, helmet just over brow
/ Function & AKS
One thing to keep in mind when choosing a helmet is what you’ll be using it for – beyond the obvious (safety), choosing the wrong helmet can be a real pain in the neck during your race.
Partaking in an endurance karting event? Might want to think twice about a helmet that’s very top-heavy, as the sustained lateral g’s will leave you with one massive sore neck over the course of a multiple-hour race. Racing in 98° heat? Forced airflow and a hydration system can be the difference between dehydration (and unforced errors) or victory.
Airflow: Depending on what you’re racing, airflow might be necessary to keep you comfortable and performing (like in the 130° interior of a NASCAR on a hot summer day), or Baja racing.
Comms: Many helmets support radio comms installation, and some at the professional level even have it built-in on a seamless level. Entry-levels comms kits can be very helpful for endurance events (karting, LeMons) or club racing. Communication is key.
Hydration: Racing can be very physical, and staying hydrated is important. Hydration systems or “drink” become necessary in long races, high heat environments, or under heavy physical load.
/ Shelf Life
Helmets have a shelf life of about 10 years from the date code on the safety rating sticker, or whenever they’re involved in a collision – whichever comes first. Even if it hasn’t been 10 years, some events may not accept SA2015 helmets, while others with less injury potential (like AutoX) might still pass inspection on an SA2010 – make sure to check the rules for the event you’re running.