Almost anyone familiar with stock car racing can point to Dale Earnhardt Sr's tragic death in the closing laps of the 2001 Daytona 500 as the point when safety technology for drivers took a dramatic upward spike. Better containment seats, soft walls, head-and-neck restraints, and many other safety measures are now a common sight at racetracks across the country because of the heightened awareness of the dangers drivers are subjected to as they compete in our favorite sport.

At first, head-and-neck restraints were limited to the HANS and Hutchens devices. There was still much to be learned when it comes to the best way of protecting a driver from a basilar skull fracture in the event of a frontal impact while still allowing enough range of movement. This, of course, is necessary so that the driver can still pilot the race car properly without becoming a danger to himself or others.

As testing data accumulated and more and more sanctioning bodies and racetracks began requiring a certified head-and-neck restraint, more options became available on the market. Some worked better than others, but at least there are more options available so that racers can find the best setup that fits their frame, their race car, and their budget.

One of the newest head-and-neck restraint systems available is the NecksGen, and it has definitely caught our eye. The NecksGen is made in the USA from lightweight carbon-fiber composite material and is SFI 38.1 certified and tested, which is the current highest standard for competitive head-and-neck restraint systems.

The NecksGen uses the familiar collar system that rests between the driver's shoulders and upper restraint straps. The helmet is restrained with straps tied to the upper section of the collar so that in the event of a frontal impact the helmet (and driver's head) can't move too far forward, and the force of restraining the head is transferred through the collar into the driver's shoulders and chest (while avoiding the more fragile collar bones).

So far we're talking fairly standard operating procedure for most head-and-neck restraint systems, but one of the things that makes the NecksGen different is its adjustability. Just like the rest of society, race car drivers come in all shapes and sizes, so it is hard to make one restraint system fit everyone perfectly. The NecksGen is available in three sizes. The Large fits most adults taller than five-and-a-half feet tall. The Medium fits drivers between 5' and 5' 6" and over 100 pounds. Compared to the Large, the Medium is 1-inch narrower to fit smaller frames. And finally, there's a Youth version designed for developing drivers between 7 and 16 years old that are under 5 feet and 100 pounds. Compared to the Large, the Youth model is 1 inch narrower both across the neck and at each shoulder platform to better accommodate 2-inch-wide seatbelts.

Jay Fogleman is a longtime racer who has made a career racing asphalt tracks across the Eastern United States. He's made over a dozen starts in NASCAR's Nationwide Series but had his most success in the ultra-competitive Super Late Model class. Fogelman has been coaching his 13-year-old son, Tate, who recently moved up from Bandoleros to full-size race cars.

"As a racer I'll admit to sometimes putting performance over my own safety," Fogelman says, "but when Tate decided he wanted to go racing my priorities completely change as a parent. So even if the track didn't require it, I knew he would be using the best safety equipment we could get, including a head restraint.

"Tate's using a NecksGen and I really like it," he adds. "What's neat about it is its adjustability. Tate is really slim, and some of them we've tried leave a large gap where they are curved to fit a grown man's chest. Being able to adjust the brace so that it sits flat against his chest just seems like it will transfer the force more evenly, plus it's also more comfortable. And as he grows, we can continue to adjust the restraint so that it always fits him right."

Fogleman also recommends fitting young drivers with a head-and-neck restraint that's similar to what they will use when they are grown. He admits that when he first began wearing a head-and-neck restraint he was already a veteran driver and getting comfortable wearing the additional safety equipment took some time. "But kids seem to take to it right away because they aren't used to anything else. Then they develop the habits, not only wearing a head restraint but also getting into and out of the race car, so that it becomes second nature to them."

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."

Besides the updated Snell rating, one of the other biggest changes when it comes to helmets used by Saturday night racers is the proliferation of lightweight models using carbon-fiber shells. Simpson's Debbie Bishop says that the carbon-fiber helmets are held to the same safety standards as helmets with the more standard fiberglass/kevlar shells and can be trusted to provide the same levels of protection. When mounting anchor points for a head-and-neck restraint, the same methods that are used with standard helmets will work without worry of fraying the carbon-fiber strands or otherwise weakening the helmet.

"Carbon fiber is stronger and lighter weight when compared to composite shells," she explains. "All racing helmets are certified to current Snell or FIA standards, but if you are looking for a light-weight helmet, consider carbon-fiber construction."

The lighter weight helmets can be very helpful, especially for younger racers, because it places less strain on the neck. Just sitting on your head a helmet may not feel very heavy, but the g-forces created when rolling through the turns in green flag conditions can turn ounces into pounds and that adds up quickly.

Simpson has five carbon-fiber helmets in its line from the top of the line FIA 8860 Approved X Bandit Pro Carbon to the more affordable Carbon Devil Ray. Most helmet manufacturers today have carbon fiber offerings and often times they can be had over a wide range of price point and usually feature some very advanced construction techniques. Take for example, G-Force's new CFG helmet is a carbon fiber helmet that features a multiple density, ConeHead impact liner made to react to differing impact situations. The impact liner is covered by a soft knit, hypoallergenic, padded CoolTec, flame retardant liner for comfort and fit. The CFG helmet carries the Snell SA2010 rating and at an average of 48 ounces, this is the lightest helmet in the GFORCE line.

When things go wrong

When a helmet does its job of absorbing the impact of a crash, the immediate damage might not be noticeable. Remember in an accident there could be upwards of three separate impacts. The helmet against the roll bar, your head against the inner liner of your helmet and then you brain against the inside of your skull. For more on that last one refer to Bob Bolles' article One Hit Too Many in the October 2012 issue of Circle Track featuring racer Jeff Vochaska. We're going to deal with the first two here.

If you smack your helmet against a roll bar it is possible that you'll end up a huge crack in the outer shell. That's obvious damage and the helmet is junk and needs to be replaced. But it's not the savage hit we have to concern ourselves with, it's that one that is just hard enough to "ring you bell". The damage to the outer shell might not be obvious. You could have a small hairline crack barely noticeable to the eye, but that crack could be hiding a bigger problem, damage to the inner liner. The first line of defense to your head is that inner-liner and if it gets damaged it can't perform the job of keeping you safe should you have a second crash. Now you can inspect an inner liner on many helmets by removing the internal fabric liner but often times it is better and safer to send it back to the manufacturer.

Now, you wear a head-and-neck restraint? Don't forget to also inspect the anchor points after a hard wreck, particularly if you mounted the anchors yourself (meaning you drilled the holes into the helmet). A hard enough hit could compromise the holes where the anchors are attached. Like the inner liner, once those points are damaged they are now useless.

It almost goes without saying that after any accident you should always thoroughly inspect all your gear, helmet, belts, head-and-neck restraint, and so on. If there is any question, send it back to the manufacturer. After all, they built it and they are the ones who will be able to tell you whether or not it is still functional.

G-Force Racing Gear
328 FM 306
New Braunfels
TX  78130
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