Helmet Tips for Head Safety
While all safety gear is important, there’s not a piece of gear I’m more passionate about than my helmet. And like most drivers who are passionate about a certain area of safety gear, I’m passionate about it because I learned my lesson the hard way.
My history with helmets didn’t begin well when in one of the first races in my career, I flipped six times end over end, launching my helmet into the infield while I was flipping. Remarkably unscathed, I walked away from the wreck without any injury. However, four years later I wasn’t as lucky when I ended up on a stretcher after flipping violently at Knoxville Raceway in a sprint car, upon which another car collided with the driver side of the roll cage mid-flip. I sat out with a concussion for a month and returned to finish out the last few points races of the year. Although, returning too soon led my symptoms to return, causing me to take a break from physical activity over the offseason.
By the time I turned 18 going into the fifth season of my career, I learned that if I wanted to race for many years to come, I needed to step up my game when it came to the safety of my head. Therefore, I switched to a new, carbon fiber helmet, measured properly for my head by the manufacturer.
As someone who would never want to see another driver injured the way I was (or worse), I’d like to pass along my best helmet tips for those who will hopefully be more proactive than I was in head safety, with the goal of maximizing the longevity of racing careers of anyone who reads this.
- Lightweight – Yes lightweight helmets are more expensive, but I’ve only worn carbon fiber helmets ever since my last concussion. Most brain injuries in racing aren’t caused by racers being directly hit in the head by other objects. Rather, they’re caused by the brain bouncing around violently either on the seat, the head being stopped by a neck restraint, or another car colliding into the driver. The way I’d compare a lightweight helmet versus non is this – I’d rather be hit in the head by a whiffle ball compared to a baseball. They might not appear to be that much different in weight, but at high speed, I want my head in as light of a container as possible. Additionally, the more the helmet weighs, the more wear and tear on your neck and shoulders.
*As the owner of a youth driver development team, this is especially important for youth racers. Oftentimes kids look like astronauts out on the track in helmets half their size. Look for a manufacturer that not only makes a lightweight helmet for your young one but also one that is proportionate to the driver’s size.
- Proper Size – Heads come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t cut corners when trying to figure out what size you wear, let a professional measure you. The manufacturers not only know the best way to measure but also what helmets fit different styles, rather than just sizes of heads (for example, round heads versus narrow heads). Be proactive in determining when you might need your next helmet, and visit a manufacturer’s booth at a track or a trade show near you to get fitted.
- Speaking of manufacturers – There are companies that work day in and day out to continuously research, design, and innovate the latest and greatest helmets to keep you safe. The larger and more experienced the manufacturer, the higher the quality of research and development. Out of all the best and fastest parts to go on your racecar, the helmet is the #1 item you should want to be the “best of the best”. Many of these manufacturers provide trackside support, so support the companies that support the racers.
- Take care of your helmet – After you spend all that money on a nice helmet, take care of it to ensure it continues to do its job and lasts as long as possible. Dirt racers, clean the dirt off your helmet weekly, the longer you wait, the longer it takes to get off. Keep it in a clean, dry space during the week and a helmet bag during travel. Don’t set it down on the ground upside down, and especially don’t throw it (not that anyone would ever get angry enough in racing to do that anyway). Use helmet cleaner to keep the inside fresh, or after you race, put a couple dryer sheets in your helmet to absorb moisture and use odor eliminator spray to prevent odor. Replace padding and shields when need be. If you’re in a bad wreck, send it back to the manufacturer for inspection even if the helmet appears to be fine (they can usually get them back to you by the next race).
- Replace them! – Replace your helmet sooner rather than later. The best way to tell when it’s time to replace your helmet is if the padding is worn on the inside or begins to smell, or if the outside is chipped/scratched significantly. Regardless, when in doubt, change it out. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
For me personally, I prefer to wear a Bell RS7 Carbon and have loved using Bell products ever since my head injury. As much as we like to think we’re invincible, at some point in every racer’s career, we come to the unfortunate realization that we’re not. My hope is that all of you come to that realization before a head injury prompts you to realize it. After all, our brain is what really drives the car, so if you want to be the best, buy the best.