Helmet selection

Before you head (no pun intended) to the store to pick up a helmet for you first HPDE event, you should first understand the helmet safety standards, types, and ratings to select the right helmet. 

Safety Standards

In the U.S., the Department of Transportation (“DOT”) is the most common. The DOT sticker label is applied to those helmets that meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) Number 218. While DOT standards are federally defined, the standard is not a highly regarded among track clubs, largely because it works on the honor system.  Meaning, that the manufacturers declare a helmet to conform to DOT standards themselves, and label it accordingly.  DOT helmets are also generally for motorcycle use.

The Snell certification is issued by the private non-profit testing organization, Snell Memorial Foundation.  The foundation was established after the tragic death of race car driver Pete “William” Snell. In 1956, during a SCCA event, he died of head injuries when the helmet he was wearing failed to protect his head.    

The ECE R 22.05 (Economic Commission for Europe) standard is the EU version of the DOT standard, though its tests are more rigorous, and independently test.  It is recognized by over 50 countries, and by every major racing organization in the world.  Other less common certification schemes are the SHARP rating system in the UK, and CRASH in Australia.

The FIA 8860 or “super helmet” standard was developed first in Formula 1 by the FIA to improve overall helmet performance and safety. The 8860 standard is known as the most intense racing helmet certification in the world. The FIA 8860 specification requires the helmet to be certified to the Snell SA standard as well as pass an additional single impact from 5 meters to help protect against more massive impacts and withstand a special shell hardness test to help prevent objects from penetrating the shell. Thing about pieces, or projectiles hitting the helmet at high speeds during a crash.  The new standard, called FIA 8860-2018, offers several improved safety features: the increase in energy absorption, an extended area of protection for drivers and the ABP – Advanced Ballistic Protection.

Helmets can pass one, two, or even all three standards, so you may have a helmet that is simply DOT, DOT and SNELL, or DOT and ECE approved.

Snell Ratings

There are three different classifications for Snell-rated helmets:

SA Helmets (designated as Snell SA2020 or SA2015).  SA stands for Sports Application. SA-rated helmets are professional-grade. They are designed for auto racing and provide the highest levels of impact resistance and fire protection.

Snell M Helmets (designated as Snell M2020 or M2015).  M stands for Motorcycle. M-rated helmets are designed specifically for motorcycle racing and similar motorsports, and offer less protection than SA-rated helmets.

Snell K Helmets (designated as Snell K2020 or K2015).  K stands for Karting. K-rated helmets are designed for karting applications and meet the same impact standards of SA helmets, but not the same level of fire-retardant protection.

Some differences between SA- and M-rated helmets include:

  • Snell’s SA standard requires flammability testing. The M-rated standard doesn’t.
  • SA-rated helmets pass a roll bar impact test. The M-rated helmets aren’t put through that test.
  • The SA standard allows a narrower field of vision than the M standard. Some SA helmets aren’t street legal for this reason.

Helmet Expiration

When should you replace your helmet?  Even the best materials degrade over time, and the high-performance, lightweight materials currently in use are no exception. Heat, sweat, sun exposure and everyday knocks take their toll on the shell and the inner liner. Snell recommends helmet replacement after 5 years of use, or immediately after any accident. Only use safety equipment that is in top condition. When in doubt, replace it.

Helmet Fit

The fit of your helmet is very important and a very personal choice. You will spend a bit of time inside it – some of it in unpleasantly hot weather.  Fundamentally, the helmet should fit as tight as you can stand to wear it. Once fastened, make sure the helmet cannot be pulled off the head in any direction. If the helmet moves significantly, the helmet is too big.  First time helmet buyers tend to choose helmets that are too loose or too big.  

It is recommended that you look at local suppliers where you will be able to try on various helmets and get good advice as to selection. Not all same-sized helmets feel the same and by trying them on, you will be able to make a much better choice. Various styles are available.  For example, some helmets are designed primarily for open cockpit racing and have a small eye port, others have a larger eye port to allow for glasses to be worn, some have full-face protection, others are open face, some have a visor, others don’t, etc.


Once you have done a few events and your cornering speeds increase, you may find yourself bracing yourself against parts of the car. The car’s stock seat belts are great for every day road use.  However, cornering and braking from high speed ideally calls for a harness to keep you firmly secured in your seat. Most popular nowadays are 5- or 6-point harnesses using 3-inch webbing.  I would not recommend a 4-point harness, as it lacks the anti-submarine capability.

There are different mounting options and in many cases can be installed without drilling holes in the car.  While you can opt for a full cage, half cages are available, as well as a simple harness bar.  What ever restraint system you make available for yourself, many clubs require you to make the same safety available to your passenger seat. 

Many clubs requires the use of slotted seats for the shoulder harness and submarine straps for 5 and 6 point harnesses. Most OEM seats do not have these slots. If you want the 5 or 6 point harnesses, you must also have the correct seats.  We’ll cover seats in a later post.  Otherwise, the original 3-point belt is still acceptable.


You may see some drivers wearing a donut-shaped neck support around their necks. Its main benefit is as protection from hyper-extension of the neck. In an accident, the head is forced to move in ways that it was never intended to move. Restricting travel by placing a foam shim between the shoulders and helmet can help prevent paralysis.  No one knows for certain, but it suspected that had had this safety device been required (rather than optional in 2001), Dale Earnhardt may have experienced a different outcome. 

All SA 2015 helmets (and newer) are equipped with anchors for HANS-style head and neck restraint devices, which means it is no longer an issue that has to be decided by the customer, your helmet will come with those anchor positions already.

Helmet Cost

The question “How much should I spend on a beginner’s helmet?” is best answered with another question “How much is your head worth?” A Snell rated helmet is a Snell rated helmet.  You don’t have to spend $1000 on a carbon fiber helmet.  A $250 Snell rated helmet will provide the same protection is the one with the cool paint job, or one that weighs 8 oz less. 

Helmet Manufacturers 

The list is extensive, there’s Racequip, Conquer, Zamp, and G-Force, which are on the lower end of the cost range. Generally, you’re looking at $200-$550.  On the mid-range, there’s Bell, Simpson, and Sparco, which run between $500-$900.  On the high-end, manufacturers Stilo and Arai, range from $1000-$5500, of which some are the highest rated 8860 standard.  In that instance, you’re paying for the most stringent of standards in auto racing. 


So which one?  Ultimately, its up to you and your budget.  As I mentioned, most auto racing clubs require a Snell SA2010 or newer.  With the SN2020 standard coming into existence in late 2020, we would recommend not going with a SA2010, opting for at least the SA2015.

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