When you go shopping for a new engine for your Late Model, you don't simply pick one off the engine builder's floor because he says "they're all pretty much the same, anyhow." No, before you write the check, you want to see the dyno sheet, compare the numbers, one engine against the next, and find out which one will do the best job for you based on where and how you race.
Yet, when it comes to buying a racing helmet-what may be the most important piece of safety gear-drivers often look at only the price tag when deciding which one best protects them. To paraphrase motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, if you have a $25 head, it's OK to wear a $25 helmet.
Many tracks and racing organizations compound the helmet-buying dilemma by not having, or not enforcing, helmet standards. Show up with just about anything that covers your head and you can climb into a Street Stock and sit only 2 inches away from a steel rollbar.
It's hard to tell a good helmet from a poor one just by looking at it. And helmets "age" over a period of years, so one that was state of the art a decade ago won't do the job it did when new, and it doesn't begin to compare to what is on the market today.
Both the federal Department of Transportation and the private Snell Memorial Foundation set standards for helmets. In the DOT's case, a manufacturer attests that its helmets meet the standards. It is something of an honor system. The Snell standards are much tougher than the DOT's, which is the reason they are the requirement in many racing organizations.
A racing helmet goes through...
A racing helmet goes through testing at the Snell Memorial Foundation.
In its 2002 rule book, NASCAR requires Snell-certified helmets. They have to meet either Snell's 1995 or 2000 criteria.
Snell set its first standards in 1959 and used them as a carrot for manufacturers to improve their products.
"We picked the top 10 percent of the helmets based on their performance and used that as the standard," explains Edward Becker, a mechanical engineer who is the foundation's executive administrator. "It made the other 90 percent scramble to try to match the best ones."
From 1959 to 1975, improvements to helmet design and performance were rapid, Becker says. "At that point we got to the limits of what could be done and still have a helmet that people could wear to drive a car. Now the changes are much more incremental. The best helmets from 1995 could probably meet Snell's 2000 standards."
To obtain a Snell certification on any helmet line, the manufacturer pays a testing fee of about $1,200 to the California research center and must submit five samples to be tested. The certification process begins by cutting one helmet into pieces to examine how it is made. The technicians look at material thickness and strength and how the inner liner is manufactured.
Snell technicians use everything...
Snell technicians use everything from guns to blowtorches to test a helmet's effectiveness under extreme conditions.
A helmet works by taking energy from a crash and first dissipating it over as large an area as possible to reduce the force at the point of impact. The energy is then diminished further before it gets to the head by the impact-absorbing material that forms the inner liner.
During testing, helmets are mounted on machines that drop them against pieces of metal that resemble the shapes of things normally found in a race car-the rollcage, door opening, etc.-to see how the helmets hold up. The testing equipment also records how much of the impact is transferred to the sensor-loaded "head" inside the helmets. Another machine puts a load on the chin strap to see if it will fail under a simulated racing crash. Yet another test determines if the helmet can slip off the driver's head in a crash (Yes, it can happen if the helmet isn't the right size or the chin strap isn't tightened properly).
One machine used by Snell...
One machine used by Snell puts a load on the chin strap to see if it will fail under a simulated racing crash.
Standards differ depending upon how a helmet will be used: auto racing, karting, motorcycle riding, etc. Among the major differences between a motorcycle (M) helmet and a racing (SA) helmet are the types of impacts they are designed to withstand and the material that covers the inside liner. A motorcycle helmet is lined with nylon while an SA helmet is lined with a flame-resistant material such as Nomex. An SA helmet also is tested with a torch. The fire-resistant material must self-extinguish the flame once the flame is removed. The standard exists to allow a driver enough time to get out of a burning car without serious injury. That's seldom an issue with motorcycle riders.
If the helmet is a closed-face style, the chin bar is also tested for strength and the face shield is hit with metal pellets from an air-powered rifle to be sure it will protect the driver from track debris or exploding engine parts.
The opening on a motorcycle helmet may also be larger than on a racing helmet because peripheral vision is more important on a street bike than in a race car. An SA-certified helmet usually requires 180-degree vision, while the range of vision may be larger on a motorcycle helmet.
Snell destroys four helmets submitted for testing and keeps the fifth to compare it to those being produced by the company over the life of the model. In addition to the initial certification test, Snell researchers will randomly purchase helmets from suppliers to retest them and ensure that quality hasn't been compromised since the initial examination.
Manufacturers wanting Snell...
Manufacturers wanting Snell certification must submit five samples of their helmet for tests. Four are destroyed in the testing process, and one is retained for future comparisons.
The manufacturers pay for the initial testing and also pay Snell about $1 each for the "Snell Certified" stickers that go on the inside of the helmets to indicate they meet its standards.
If it's a Bell helmet, that's not all that's on the inside. You've probably never seen it, but if you wear a Bell, somewhere inside the shell is the signature of the craftsman who laid it up by hand. It is like an artist, signing his or her work.
"We take a lot of pride in how we build our helmets," says Bob Weiss, chief executive officer of Bell Racing. "Signing our work is just one of the ways we show it."
Once the hand-laid-up helmet shell is dried and released from the mold, it is checked for weight and thickness. Those that don't pass are destroyed. Then eyeholes and molded vent openings are cut and trimmed smooth. All helmets get a coat of fire-resistant primer before the final color coat is applied.
While helmets used in stock car racing have changed little in the past few years, those used in open wheel series, such as World of Outlaws, CART and the Indy Racing League, have been designed to eliminate aerodynamic lift.
"In an open car, that is a real problem," says Weiss, a former off-road racer. "The air just wants to lift it off your head."
Extensive detail work goes...
Extensive detail work goes into creating helmets with individual statements, like the Joker created for Coy Gibbs
Snell also reviews every helmet line it certifies every five years, so some helmets will carry a "Snell SA1990" sticker while others are marked for 1995 or 2000. The laboratory recommends changing helmets every five years because they can degrade with use (especially the inner liner) and the technology changes rapidly enough that a helmet produced today won't be as good as the ones being built in 2005. The lab also says that once a helmet has done its job in a crash, it should be replaced with a fresh one.
Fitting A Helmet
Here are hints from Bell Racing on how to get a helmet that fits right:
* The helmet must be properly positioned on the head. It should be worn on the brow to protect the forehead area.
* When you put the helmet on, it must fit snugly, with uniform, firm pressure all around. It must also touch the top of your head.
* Stand in front of a mirror with the helmet on (or have someone go with you to help) and gently rotate it from left to right and front to back. If the skin on your brow moves with the helmet as it is rotated, the fit is proper. If the skin on your brow doesn't move, the fit is too loose. Try another size or style until you find one that fits.
* Tighten the chin strap correctly to be sure it fits snugly against your throat. Despite its name, the strap should never be worn against the chin like a football helmet.
* With the helmet in position and fastened, try to take it off by rolling it forward and backward. Make a serious effort to do that. In an accident the helmet will have to stay on under some serious g-loads. The helmet should not come off or roll backward far enough to expose your forehead or forward enough to block your vision.
So you've chosen your headgear, feel good about its safety specs, and you're ready to go racing. Only thing is, the helmet is a little too bland for your style-a little too conservative for a guy who likes to press the pedal all the way to the floor. What do you do? You call Mark Kerttula or any one of a growing number of paint specialists who focus on custom paintwork for racing gear.
Kerttula, whose shop, Pitpaint.com, is in Charlotte, North Carolina, has created personalized masterpieces for local racers all across the country and for several NASCAR drivers, including Stacy Compton, Coy Gibbs, Kenny Wallace, and Mike Wallace. With an airbrush and a little imagination, Kerttula can make even the most basic design stand out.
Kerttula says custom paint designs generally fall into two categories: geometric schemes (employing lines, blocks, bubbles, etc.) and artistic schemes (which essentially are freehand renderings of people, animals, or whatever else a racer may choose). Even drivers in the big leagues often aren't sure what they want in helmet design, Kerttula says. So choosing a design that suits your personality may be your biggest challenge.
"Find somebody you feel you can trust," he says. "Either use a helmet painter who's been recommended from somebody you know or choose one based on his portfolio and allow him to make some suggestions based on what he does best. Then you can bounce ideas off each other until you come up with a scheme that fits your personality."
Custom paint jobs for helmets represent an investment of several hundred dollars.
"You don't want to be spending all that money and not get a helmet that makes people say, 'Wow!'" Kerttula says.
"In my opinion, a good custom paint job on a helmet, on average, shouldn't exceed $600 to $800. That's a lot of money if you are paying for it out of your own pocket, so you have every right to price shop and be demanding when it comes to getting what you want."