How About the Helmet?

Of course, all SFI certified head-and-neck restraint systems (at least all that we're aware of) require the use of a helmet to work, and helmet technologies have evolved as well. Todd Stratton, G-Force Racing Gear's head of R&D says that new Snell requirements for its latest helmets have been a big driver in updated helmet designs.

An up-to-date Snell certification is generally considered mandatory for all stock car racetracks and sanctioning bodies. A new Snell rating comes out every five years, and although there are rarely any big changes, the 2010 update was a big one.

"Snell has two basic ratings that are used," Stratton explains. "There's the ‘M' rating, which stands for motorcycles. That is sort of your standard helmet for everything, and lots of racetracks allow an M-rated helmet. Then there is the ‘SA' rating, which stands for ‘Special Application.' It takes everything from the M rating and adds fire retardancy, a roll bar impact requirement and a penetration test for the face shield—all of which the M doesn't require. The additional tests are pretty heavy-duty. For example, for the face shield test they basically shoot a pellet rifle at it, and it's not an easy test to pass.

"Up until the newest standard, which was 2010, the only difference between the M standard and the SA was fire retardancy and one impact test. So you would have a lot of manufacturers offer helmets in either ‘M' or ‘SA.' You would have the cheaper M version and then the exact same helmet with a fire-retardant liner that was rated SA.

"But for the 2010 certification, they really made a lot of changes and now to get the SA rating the helmet has to pass not only the fire retardant requirements, it also has to pass a lot of different impact tests that it didn't before for the roll bar portion and then there's the all new face shield impact test. The SA really is a completely different helmet now than the M. So G-Force has decided to drop all M rated helmets from our lineup and just focus on designing and manufacturing SA helmets."

Bad things can happen when fire is introduced to an M rated helmet. But it makes logical sense. In the event of an accident, a motorcyclist will fall away from the bike and any resulting fire. Therefore, a helmet manufactured for motorcycling does not need to be fire retardant. The situation becomes completely different when you add into the equation an enclosed car with a rollcage, six point harness, and speeds often times well in excess of 100 mph. The bottom line is M helmets are for bikes, SA for cars—do not bother to even think about taking the chance of running the wrong helmet for the application.

The takeaway here is that while the rule book will often allow helmets with a Snell certification that's up to 10 years old, if you are looking to purchase a new helmet it is really worth your while to limit yourself to 2010 Snell SA rated helmets because they really are held to a higher standard. All Snell-certified helmets carry a foil sticker on the inside of the shell. Usually, you will have to pull back the padding a bit to find it, but the decal will be reflective foil that's approximately 1 x 3 inches and have the year of the certification printed on it.

But even if the helmet is the best ever made, it has to fit properly to be able to provide maximum protection. Again, Stratton has very particular instructions on fitting a racing helmet: "It's important when you get a new helmet that it is tight. If it is real comfortable right off the shelf, then it is probably too loose. One, the liner must be tight in order to conform to your head so that it can absorb an impact properly. And two, all liners will compress a bit after breaking in. You should never depend on the chin strap to hold the helmet in place; once you start getting tossed around in your race car, you will find out how loose that helmet really is.

"But you don't want your helmet too tight because it can give you headaches and just be uncomfortable. I would recommend you try on several different types of helmets and find the one that fits snug but you are still comfortable in. And make sure whoever you buy it from allows you to exchange it as long as you haven't raced in it. Sometimes you can get in your car and realize the helmet sits too high and is rubbing against the roof of the car, or it restricts your vision and you didn't realize it until you got into your racing seat."