Racing Helmets: Proper Fit, Use, and Care Guide
When it comes to safety equipment, fire retardant clothing like racing suits, gloves , and shoes, are often required in specific classes of racing. At the sportsman level of many racing sanctioning bodies however, such as autocross events, test and tune nights for drag racing, and so forth, racers may be able to use long pants and a long sleeve shirt if they stay under a specific performance limitation such as quarter mile elapsed time, or if running a slower road course with no passing allowed and lots of run off area. One safety aspect that is always in affect no matter the type of racing is the need for a quality, well fitting, and properly rated racing helmet. It should be the first safety item you buy in your motorsports endeavors.
There are three standards, or ratings, for helmets: DOT, Snell, and FIA. DOT, which stands for Department of Transportation, is commonly found on helmets designed for street and offroad use, including motorcycle helmets. While some club-level events may allow a DOT helmet for basic run groups or things like parade laps, the DOT helmet should not be considered for any sort of serious motorsports safety need.
A Snell rated helmet is what you will normally see being used in the majority of motorsports events in the United States. Snell rated racing helmets will feature a fire retardant inner lining (DOT helmets generally do not) and are subjected to special roll bar impact testing as well. The Snell standard is revised every five years, with the current year rating as part of the rating label. In the case of Snell helmets for racing cars the most current rating is SA2020 (Special Application plus date code of certification). Older SA2015 helmets may be able to be used depending upon the sanctioning body’s rules and generally up to 2025 but check with the track and sanctioning body’s rule book to be sure. We answer a lot of SA2015 vs SA2020 race car helmet questions in our Snell helmet rating guide.
While not as popular in the United States, the European FIA standard is like the Snell helmets certification process. Some European racing sanctioning bodies that have U.S.-based racing events will require you to have an FIA rated race car helmet to compete, so be aware of that when considering different racing series. If you’re considering the need for an FIA rated helmet to run a particular series, you may want to consider our dual rated helmets that offer both Snell and FIA ratings.
Lastly, the SFI Foundation generally is known for fire retardant safety gear standards and racing harness standards that many sanctioning bodies and rule books specify racers must have to compete. However, there are SFI standards for racing helmets as well. SFI 41.1 covers motorsports helmets, while SFI 24.1 covers youth full face helmets.
Having a properly sized race car helmet is imperative to ensuring your helmet does its job correctly in the advent of a collision. Too tight/small and you’ll suffer from headaches, double vision, and driver fatigue. All things you do not want to happen on the racing surface. Furthermore, a too small a helmet will not fit down over your head far enough, causing issues with the eye port/visibility, and the chin strap adjustment.
Conversely, too loose/large a helmet will allow the helmet to move around on your head, potentially blocking vision, and in extreme cases allow a concussion upon impact because your head will hit the inside of the helmet lining versus the helmet lining supporting your head with the proper snug fit.
Really the only way to have a properly fitted racing helmet is to measure your head's circumference, especially knowing that each race car helmet manufacturer’s sizing differs slightly from one brand to the next. The use of a cloth or other flexible measuring tape, or even a piece of string that can then be measured, is the best way to determine the circumference of your head. Our helmet sizing guide is something to read for further details on how to accurately measure your head for the best fit.
Modern racing helmets are constructed with a rigid outer shell made from composite materials like polycarbonate or fiberglass but can also be made with reinforced Kevlar or carbon fiber materials. Inside this rigid shell is an impact absorbing foam liner, usually an inch or so thick. This is the protective layer that cushions your head in an impact. Lastly, there is a cloth liner used for fitment and comfort. This liner will often feature soft foam wedges or pads for fitment needs and many are removable for cleaning or air drying. This cloth liner is also fire retardant as well. We’ll discuss each section in more detail below.
Racing Helmet Outer Shell Material
The outer shell of racing helmets is often the heaviest part of the helmet assembly since it has the most surface area and the material used is denser than the foam and cloth inserts or the clear visor assembly. The heavier the helmet the more fatigue the driver will feel when wearing it for extended periods. This is certainly something to consider in your racing. If you’re doing autocross or drag racing, where you might have your helmet on for 10 minutes the weight may not be that important. However, a 30-45 minute open track session or dirt track A-main feature race means more time with your helmet on.
The most common outer shell used today is fiberglass composite material. These are quite strong and easily pass any Snell testing but are often on the heavier side. Note that there are different thicknesses of the composite shells, so even though a helmet is made from fiberglass composite material, you may see different weights between brands and styles.
Carbon fiber has become a popular option for helmet outer shells now too. There is an increase in cost over fiberglass composite shells, but the helmets are much lighter, reducing that driver fatigue, and many come as bare carbon fiber with a clear urethane paint coating, making them extremely attractive looking options versus the traditional basic white or black helmet. For those looking to have the carbon fiber appearance at a reduced cost, some manufacturers offer a carbon composite model, which is a combination outer shell of fiberglass composite with a carbon fiber outer skin.
Racing Helmet Foam Liner Material
The inner liner of the typical racing helmet is made from expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. Think of the white foam blocks that fragile items are shipped in like TVs and other small appliances. This protective foam does the same thing for your head as it does for that big screen TV, it cushions the item during an impact, preventing damage. Only instead of preventing the corner of your big screen TV from breaking, the foam liner in your helmet is preventing a skull fracture! This protective crushable foam is intended for one time use, so if your helmet is involved in an impact of any major force, it is usually considered no longer safe to wear and the helmet should be replaced.
Racing Helmet Inner Lining Material
The last aspect of the racing helmet’s main construction is the inner comfort liner. This is a thin layer of material used provide a comfortable surface for the head to be in contact with instead of just the foam inner liner. On a standard DOT style helmet this is often just a simple sewn or formed cotton material, or possibly nylon. For helmets for racing cars that are Snell or FIA rated, the inner lining is instead made from fire retardant materials like Nomex, Aramid, or other FRC product. These inner liners are most often glued to the crushable foam insert and not removable, though some models do provide a way to remove the liner for gentle cleaning and some brands of helmets offer liner inserts such as foam cheek pads or ear cups to enhance the helmet’s fit.
Having some form of airflow through your helmet is indeed most welcomed, especially during those scorching summer months and with extended use during a long track outing or feature main. Most helmets for racing cars come with some form of airflow ventilation feature. The most commonly found vents seen on racing helmets are fresh air inlet vents around the chin and mouth area with hot air extraction vents often found at the top rear of the helmet. Some helmets may have inlet vents in the front forehead area as well. Some helmet brands allow closing of these vents for when the weather cools or say a wet dirt track that is slinging a lot of mud at your helmet.
A secondary option, especially useful in dusty track environments is a forced air system option. You can find forced air helmets with either top or side forced air inlets molded into the helmet that connects to a forced air system. You can also find forced air adapters that work with Zamp and Bell helmet brands to convert the helmet to a top mount or side mount forced air inlet setup as well.
If you’re not familiar with how a head and neck restraint system works, it is quite simple. A rigid collar, usually of composite or carbon fiber material, is worn by the racer and secured via your standard shoulder harnesses/belts. A set of retaining tethers, or anchors, attach between the collar and your helmet to prevent your head from whipping forward in an impact. Like how an air bag in your production daily driver keeps your head from moving forward violently, the head and neck restraint system does the same thing for you in a race car environment. These systems are usually mandated by certain sanctioning bodies or tracks, and while they are an added expense to your safety gear budget, we highly encourage their use, as they are proven to prevent neck injuries.
You will find in your search for a racing helmet that most current helmets offered, come with M6 metric thread inserts for attaching the anchors. Snell SA2020 rated helmets are required to have the anchors preinstalled as part of the SA2020 helmets standard of certification. If you’re using an older Snell SA2015 rated helmet you can add the head and neck restraint anchor kit to properly secure the helmet to your device of choice. For more information on the right head and neck restraint for you be sure to read our buyer’s guide for all the answers to your product questions.
Helmets see a lot of dirt, sweat, and track debris in their use. This can take a toll on not only the exterior appearance and the clarity of the visor (for dirty environments we suggest helmet tear offs!) but the liner can end up with quite an odor due to perspiration build up. Most helmets feature a clear coating of paint over the raw carbon material or painted fiberglass, and this allows for easy cleaning with a non-solvent based cleaning product and a microfiber towel.
The inner lining is a little bit trickier, as many are not removable. Even the ones that are removable should not be machine washed for fear of running the risk of lowering the flame retardant capabilities by washing them out of the materials. Your best bet is once you’ve removed your helmet from use, open the visor and fresh air vents and place the helmet in front of a fan to dry the liner as quickly as possible. We also encourage the use of a head sock to minimize transfer of sweat from your head to the helmet’s liner too.
We also stress not stuffing your helmet with other safety gear post-race. Shoving gloves, and other items inside your helmet impedes the drying of the liner. If your liner is removable, it can be gently hand washed but do not place it in a clothes dryer. Simply let it air dry. Another option is spray-in helmet deodorizer products. We offer several helmet care products to keep your helmet looking and smelling its best, race after race. Lastly, be sure to use a helmet bag or gear bag with helmet storage to protect your helmet investment.
While the typical sportsman racer might be perfectly fine with a white or black helmet (or the exposed carbon fiber look), many racers look to have their helmets painted to match their car’s paint scheme and graphics. Generally speaking, painting your own helmet is not recommended, as certain paints can react with the helmet’s outer shell. Only urethane enamel or air dry acrylic paints should be used, and we highly suggest using professional helmet painters that do custom helmet painting to maintain the helmet’s Snell and/or FIA ratings. A good option may be small racing/sponsor/number decals, automotive striping tape, or a full vinyl wrap. A combination of the options, such as a full vinyl wrap with striping tape and small number decals can really make for a great looking helmet at low cost. Also take a look at our helmet graphics kits too!
A general rule of thumb for motorsports helmets is to replace them every ten years. Due to Snell helmets and FIA helmets standards updates, the ten year replacement thought ensures you have a helmet that is up to the current standards. This is of course barring any serious impacts or drops of the helmet that might reduce the helmet’s effectiveness to protect you. If your helmet is involved in a wreck with impact the shell it should be replaced, just like you would your harnesses. A small drop, like falling off your trailer fender, should be OK, but always inspect the shell for cracks or other damage and replace if found. The track or sanctioning body you race with may have age requirements for your helmet as well, so confirm you ca use your current helmet before showing up for race day. When in doubt just buy a new helmet (and never a used one!), a brain injury is a serious matter!
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