When F1 driver Felipe Massa got hit in the head with an errant spring from another car in August, his helmet, along with his skull, got seriously damaged. Massa was wearing a top-of-the-line carbon-fiber/composite helmet-which meant, despite almost a couple of weeks in the hospital, he survived with few after effects. The same could easily happen to one of us in the short track world.
Recently, I was at a racetrack where I saw a teen sitting behind the wheel of a Street Stock wearing a DOT BMX helmet. When I questioned the teen about his choice of head protection he thought it was no big deal since the track rules only said he had to wear "a helmet." By the letter of the rulebook he was legal, but in actuality he was taking a serious risk with his life. The Snell Foundation, the non-profit group that tests and certifies all types of helmets, has standards for every brain bucket you can think of including bike, motorcycle, and auto racing. Its tests and resulting certifications are geared to each helmet's intended use. For example, to gain certification, Snell performs a number of application-specific tests on motorsports helmets that are not performed on bike helmets. Check them out:
Chin Bar Test In this test, the helmet is affixed to a rigid base with the chin bar facing upward. An 11 pound weight is dropped through a guided fall to strike the central portion of the chin bar. Maximum downward deflection of the chin bar must not exceed a predetermined distance.
Penetration Test As the name implies, this test will determine whether or not a helmet can withstand, or at the very least protect the wearer from, the situation that Massa experienced. The helmet is affixed to a rigid base and a sharply pointed 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) striker is dropped in a guided fall onto the helmet from a prescribed height. In order for the helmet in question to pass the test, the striker must not penetrate the helmet or even achieve momentary contact with the head form.
Faceshield Penetration Test
This is a typical rig to perform...
This is a typical rig to perform a drop test on various parts of the helmet. Manufacturers will often have a rig like this in house to test their helmets from a variety of angles including the back, front, top, sides, and more. Bob Bolles
Many drivers wearing full-faced helmets also have faceshields. But did you know that the faceshield on Snell-certified helmets also has to pass a rigious test? We here at Circle Track just love the fact that this test involves a firearm (albeit an air rifle, but it's a gun nonetheless). Here's how it works. The faceshield is affixed to the helmet and shot along the center line in three separate places with an air rifle using a sharp soft lead pellet. The pellet achieves a speed of approximately 500 kph (310 mph) and must not penetrate the faceshield, nor is it allowed to leave any resulting "bump" on the inside of the shield greater than 2.5 mm. In Massa's case, the spring hit him in the left temple, such that the left-side attachment point of the faceshield was broken, but the shield itself was largely in tact.
Flame Resistance Test This is our favorite here at Circle Track and one we tested on an M2005 helmet in the Feb. '08 issue. This test is conducted using a propane flame of approximately 790 degrees centigrade. The flame is applied to the shell, trim, chin strap, and faceshield for a specified number of seconds, and any resulting fire must self extinguish within a specified time after flame removal. During the whole process the temperature of the interior lining of the helmet must not exceed 70 degrees centigrade. You can take a look at the Circle Track version of that test by turning to page 65.
The EPS inner liner on the...
The EPS inner liner on the right is damaged and obviously compromised. If your liner looks like this, the helmet is junk. Your liner should always look like the one on the left.
Now, we didn't use a propane flame-a standard long-tube Bic-style lighter is all we had. Our goal was to show how fast a motorcycle helmet, the choice of many local racers due to cost concerns, would catch on fire. Our theory was that fire coming through the firewall in the cockpit could easily travel up the driver's body to a point where it would contact the lower or underside of the helmet. If that helmet was not rated for motorsports use, in other words, fire retardant, the driver could get burned. We thought that the helmet would burn quickly given the lack of fire retardency and the abundance of foam and fabric, we just didn't know how quickly. Boy were we shocked, when we introduced the flame into the chin strap area of the helmet, it took a mere six seconds for the cheek pads to become fully engulfed.
Now, try this little test. Get all you're gear on and strap into your car, steering wheel on, and window net up. Get a friend with a stopwatch to time you and then answer this question: Did you get out in six seconds?
Some of these tests may seem extreme but that's the whole point. Racing cars is an extreme sport, particularly in the oval track realm. Bad things can happen without warning and having the proper helmet can greatly increase your chances of surviving even a freak occurrence like Massa's. That increased chance of survival begins with having a certified helmet that is designed for the activity you're pursuing. BMX helmets, like our teenaged friends, have no place at a motorsports facility.
Fit Beyond all of the proper certifications, a helmet is only going to do the proper job if it fits correctly, is positioned on your head correctly, and is securely fastened. The first step in making sure your helmet fits is to measure your head. Use a cloth tape (or a string) and take the measurement about one inch (2.54cm) above the eyebrows in the front and at a point in the back that results in the largest possible measurement. Most safety companies offer a conversion chart for this measurement and the corresponding helmet size.
Now helmets should be worn low on the brow-just slightly above your eyebrows. When properly positioned, the helmet should fit your head snugly with firm and uniform pressure all the way around. It also must touch the top of your head.
To check the fit of your helmet, put it on and stand in front of a mirror. Gently rotate the helmet first from left to right and then from front to back. If the skin on your brow moves with the helmet as it is rotated, congratulations, you've got step one of proper fit completed. If the skin on your brow does not move, the fit is too loose.
On to step two: remembering that a good fit and a properly fastened chin strap are all that keeps the helmet on your head during an accident. Make sure the chin strap is correctly fastened and pulled snugly up against your throat each time you wear your helmet. Do not use chin cups or wear the chin strap on the point of the chin. This will increase the risk of the helmet coming off in an accident.
Bobby Clark demonstrates how...
Bobby Clark demonstrates how a properly fitting helmet should look on your head. Notice how his cheeks are slightly pushed in, that's one indication of a snugly fitting helmet.
With the helmet properly positioned, and the chin strap fastened, try to remove the helmet from your head. Grasp it securely and make a serious effort to roll it off your head in both the forward and rearward directions.
If you can remove the helmet, or are able to roll it backward far enough to expose your forehead or forward far enough to block your vision, the helmet either fits too loosely or the straps are not properly adjusted. If you can still remove the helmet, it's too large. Do not use it. Replace the helmet with a smaller size.
If you can't remove the helmet and it doesn't roll either backward far enough to expose your forehead or forward far enough to block your vision, you have a proper fit.
Wrapping it up A properly fitting, properly rated helmet is the key to ensuring your safety when you climb behind the wheel. If your helmet isn't SA 2005-rated get rid of it and go buy a new one. Consider this, a G-Force Pro Eliminator carries this rating and costs only $279. That's money you can't afford not to spend.
And when you get your new helmet, store it in a cool dry place; the back of a locked trailer in South Florida in August is not it. Temperatures in excess of 150 degrees can cause damage to the polystyrene liner many inner shells are made out of, thereby degrading the helmet's protective capabilities. Finally, if you are involved in an accident, send your helmet back to the manufacturer for a safety check. Many provide this service free of charge. Don't forget the helmet manufacturers are often the best resource to get your questions answered.
Follow these basic principles and you can have years of enjoyment behind the wheel.
Not A Good Decision
In the course of this story, we had a number of helmet manufacturers bring up the fact that if you race cars, you should not wear a motorcycle helmet. While just about every track and sanction specify Snell-rated helmets, some don't differentiate between the Snell rating for motorsports (SA-2005) or those for motorcycles (M-2005). Consequently, at some tracks you can legally race in a cheap Snell-rated motorcycle helmet. However, that could be the worst decision of your life. Motor-cycle helmets are not made for race cars. First of all, most motor-cycle helmets are not made with fire retardant materials. They don't have to be. They are designed to absorb impacts of your head bouncing off the ground going 55 mph, not protect you from fire.
"On these things (motorcycles) you slide away from the fire, in a car, you're trapped in the fire," says AMA motorcycle racer Glen Castle.
Any helmet manufacturer worth their weight in padding will tell you the same thing. And in fact, many take steps to prevent racers from buying the wrong helmet. For example, Simpson's policy is that they won't install HANS clips on a motorcycle helmet.
HANS clip mounting aside, we decided to find out just what happens when you have a motorcycle helmet that gets near a little heat. (Our apologies to the ozone layer.)
Think about these pics next time you go helmet shopping and remember to buy the right helmet, there are plenty of SA-2005 helmets that are value priced. The moral of this exercise? Don't wear a motorcycle helmet, it can melt to your head.
After just six seconds, your...
After just six seconds, your cheeks are burning.
Nineteen seconds and the faceshield...
Nineteen seconds and the faceshield is melting.
We were surprised at how quickly...
We were surprised at how quickly the helmet became engulfed.
R.I.P. Glen needs to buy his...
R.I.P. Glen needs to buy his wife a new helmet.