Buying a Helmet for Track Use

What to buy

There are two major types of helmets: SA-rated and M-rated (aka Snell-rated, DOT-approved Motorcycle helmets). The major differences between the two are that SA helmets are designed for use in a car, and have been tested to absorb impacts on rollbar-shaped anvils. SA helmets are also required to have fire-resistant liners, and typically have slightly smaller eye ports. Those are the major differences, and they make SA helmets preferable to DOT helmets, which are designed for motorcycles and undergo different impact tests. This means that as of this writing, you should be looking for an SA2000 helmet at the oldest, but preferably a SA2005 helmet. New SA-ratings are done every 5 years, so there won’t be a new SA helmets until SA2010 helmets are released in about February of 2011 or so.

Who is Snell / SFI / FIA?

Snell is an organization that sets standards as well as testing helmets. Snell issues SA (Special Applications, aka auto racing helmets), M (Motorcycle, Department of Transportation approved), as well as K-rated standards (karting helmets).

The SFI and the FIA are two other standards organizations. The SFI rating 31.2 simply says the helmet has been tested to meet that SFI helmet standard for auto racing applications, which is similar to the Snell SA2005 rating. Usually, helmets sold in the U.S. which meet SFI 31.2 will meet SA2005, and usually they’ll be marked as such. However, keep in mind that most track organizations will specify that they want to see SA ratings, rather than SFI ratings. Though a given SFI rating may be acceptible to your organization, you should check if the organization does not specifically mention the rating in question. The default in the U.S. is for SA-ratings, which are accepted by everyone I know of.

Full-Face vs Open Face

This seems to be an age-old debate amongst drivers. Many prefer the ventilation and/or “feel” of an open-face helemt over a full face helmet (which encloses your chin and has usually has a closeable visor), but in my opinion I’d say full-face is definitely the way to go. One much overlooked consideration is that when you’re on the track, your windows are down, and it’s not at all rare to have rocks / bugs /whatever come through the window and hit you in the face…which is a definite advanage to the full-face helmet (with visor). In an accident, well, I’d just much rather have the full-face protection, as things happen, restraints don’t always work the way we’d like them to, and even when they do belts always stretch. It may seem impossible that your face could hit the steering wheel, but it happens.

The SCCA recently issued a pretty surprising opinion that they’re not sure full-face helmets helmets are compatible with airbag equipped cars. Their statement read:

It has been brought to the attention of SCCA Technical Services that the use of full-face or closed face helmets while driving vehicles with active airbag restraint systems may result in injuries in the event of a crash that deploys the airbag. Because of the location of the steering wheel relative to the driver’s position, the airbag axis is on a level with the driver’s chin. In a crash with airbag deployment, contact with the chin area of a full-face helmet can be so powerful “that fractures to the jaw cannot be ruled out”.

(Hubert Gramling, FIA Institute, FT3/AF, 18.5 1999)

Personally, I’ll stick with Full-face helmets, and probably would even if I only drove cars with airbags (one of my cars still has its airbag). What appears to be a slight possiblity of a jaw fracture is outweighed by the other benefits of full-face protection, in my humble opinion, but that is a personal decision everyone has to make for themselves. I am not a doctor or safety engineer, after all.


Of course there are many brands on the market, but it’s probably wisest to stick to the established brands, such as Bell, Bieffe, Arai, Sparco, OMP, Stand21, and probably a lot more I’m not thinking of at this time. Personally, I go for Bell as a great, long-established brand with good technology at a reasonable price. I would approach with great caution purchasing a helmet made by a company no one’s ever heard of. This is your head we’re talking about, and typically it houses some pretty valuable stuff, so you might as well spend some $$ to protect it.

Ah, yes, before anyone jumps on me for being Anti-American, there’s also Simpson, G-force, Pyrotech, Crow and some others. All I’ll say about these is that imho I’m not sure these manufacturers are in the same tier as the others listed above. My limited experience with Pyrotech vs Sparco (I’ve had items by both) have led me to believe Sparco makes much better stuff.


Helmets are made of a broad range of materials, and the prices vary broadly to match. F1 helmets are made of carbon and kevlar, and cost several thousand dollars, where as thermoplastic DOT helmets can be had for under $100 if you look around. One good reason to look for kevlar blend helmets is that they’re lighter, and a lighter helmet = less neck strain under normal driving, and less risk of injury under rapid deceleration (read crash). For this reason, you should always consider the weight of the helmet alongside the price. A good indicator of the weight, which is often not available online, is the material. A kevlar-blend helmet is almost always lighter than thermoplastic, for instance. If the manufacturer doesn’t tell you what a helmet is made of, it’s pretty safe to assume it’s a cheap, heavier material, so keep that in mind.


Your helmet should fit tightly enough that it you can’t rotate it at all on your head, yet shouldn’t smash your cheeks in and make you look like a bulldog or a fish. It should be snug but not tight. Look for pressure points, often on the forehead, as a slight pressure point when trying a helmet on can turn into a migraine-inducing torture session over the course of a track day.

Where to find helmets

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, we don’t have a long list of locations that have helmets in stock for you to try on, but here are a few:

Cardini Motorsports in Hollywood (323) 462-7223 (corrected wrong number)

SubeSports 714-847-1501 17161 Palmdale St. Huntington Beach, Ca 92647

Wine Country Motorsports (800) 708-RACE Sonoma, CA

Bell Motorsports (510) 536-2355 3227 14TH Ave Oakland, CA 94602-1014

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