News & Media

Helmet choices based on safety, then preferences

October 31, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM,

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Brightly painted to promote sponsors, teams and special events, racing helmets can be vibrant works of art.

They're also a driver's first line of defense in preventing head injuries, including concussions.

If Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s two-week hiatus to recover from concussion symptoms wasn't enough to make the NASCAR community reassess safety, his decision to switch helmet manufacturers prior to his return at Martinsville Speedway certainly put protective headgear in the spotlight.

"We make sure we pay for everything [we wear]. So, if somebody makes a better product -- a fire suit, a shoe, a helmet -- we can move on. I've switched helmets two or three times in my career and fire suits probably twice. I like it that way."


Sunday afternoon, Earnhardt's new helmet was kept under wraps, sitting in a soft, protective sack atop his No. 88. When the national anthem was over, Earnhardt unceremoniously unveiled a primarily black model with Diet Mountain Dew lettering and slipped it over his head.

Earnhardt's latest helmet is made by Stilo, an Italian brand. But NASCAR's perennial choice as the sport's Most Popular Driver, made it clear that his switch from the head gear used in other races this season, Impact brand helmets, might not be permanent.

He said the timing in relation to his concussions was purely coincidental.

"I don't want anybody to put two and two together, thinking that I'm changing away from my Impact helmets because of the concussions," he said. "That's not the case at all. I just wanted to try the Stilo helmet since they've made some modifications.

"It's definitely not a final decision. I'm just checking it out because I liked [the Stilo] before. It's a nice helmet. But I've enjoyed my Impacts, too. I'm just going to try this one out and see how it works. I've enjoyed working with Impact and I do like their helmets. I don't want anybody to get the wrong idea."

It's not unusual for drivers to change helmet styles or switch manufacturers, especially as tweaks in comfort and safety are introduced.

Earnhardt was actually fitted for his new STW4 Carbon series helmet before the start of the season in Daytona according to Joe Marko, president of HMS Motorsports, exclusive importer for Stilo.

"The model Dale [Earnhardt Jr.] is wearing is quite lightweight compared to most helmets out there -- under three pounds," Marko says. "That's something that helps combat neck strain. In terms of safety, fit is the most important factor. The main thing to protect against concussions is making sure the helmet fits tightly around the crown of the head and above the ears."

Stilo also touts its air system that delivers fresh air to the top of the head and face and its noise reduction and communication systems, enabling drivers to choose between using ear buds or ear muff speakers.

In a testimonial, Kyle Busch says his Stilo integrated ear muffs "cut the noise by about 30 percent compared to my old helmet. I can hear more of what's going on with my race vehicle which allows me to focus on racing with less distraction."

Still, fit is paramount when it comes to comfort and safety. All NASCAR helmets must meet the same safety standards.

Stilo offers a thin, main layer of padding around the main shell; compressible crown pads of varying thicknesses above the head; left and right check pads in a choice of four thicknesses; and smaller pads behind the earmuffs. Shims permit further adjustment around the ears. Marko says NASCAR drivers often opt for more padding on the left side than right because they lean that way in turns.

Every driver is custom-fit. Marko says that Carl Edwards, for instance, requires a tad extra space in front of his forehead.

Impact -- which continues to supply helmets to Brad Keselowski, Elliott Sadler, Todd Bodine and others -- continues to vie for market share along with Simpson, Bell and Arai in the Sprint Cup market. Edwards had been wearing an Arai, which proudly put drivers Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. on the Pocono Raceway podium in August.

"Dale [Earnhardt's] switch, while unfortunate for us and even worse in terms of timing, was already kind of in the works prior to the concussion issue," says Robbie Pierce, owner and CEO of Impact. "A lot comes down to driver preference and we certainly have drivers who adore our helmets for many reasons -- performance levels, weight, sound.

"We take great pride in what we do -- for one thing, the fact that I believe we are the last helmet entirely produced domestically. We're always looking for innovations through [research and development]. The biggest selling point for us is comfort. We have our own style of ear muffs now. I know Brad [Keselowski] likes our helmet for air flow. Our intake design seems to work a little better for him."

Pierce notes that Impact does well in the open-wheel market, just as Arai does well with cyclists. There are different style helmets for drag racers, motorcycle racers and go-karters. Sam Hornish Jr. says there are subtle differences between his NASCAR helmet and the one he wore as an IndyCar driver.

"In stock cars, because of where the gauges are mounted, the helmets run a little bigger eye port so you can see down without moving your head," Hornish says. "And Indy car helmets, of course, don't have the A/C unit."

Hornish has remained loyal to Simpson helmets for 20 years.

"Why change something you're comfortable with?" he reasons. "My first helmet -- I think it was called the RX -- was kind of like what drag racers wear now. I liked the way it looked, so I bought it and I liked the way it fit. I've tried others and, generally, just never been as comfortable. Most times there are things that I don't like -- something that doesn't fit as well or pinches my ears or my cheeks."

Impact was founded by Bill Simpson, the original force behind Simpson Performance Products. Jimmie Johnson currently wears a Simpson, but says he would change in a heartbeat if he found a helmet he liked better.

"We make sure we pay for everything [we wear]," Johnson says. "So, if somebody makes a better product -- a fire suit, a shoe, a helmet -- we can move on. I've switched helmets two or three times in my career and fire suits probably twice. I like it that way. There are no hard feelings if you're paying for your equipment."

Although weight and fit are factors, Johnson says the noise factor was foremost in choosing his current model.

"It just fits around my head better and dampens and blocks any sound from coming up in the car. Since going to the Car of Tomorrow, where the exhaust is placed has made it so much louder in the cars. It was really important for me to get [the noise reduction] right."

Johnson says he's checked out the Stilo that Earnhardt and others, including Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano, are using.

"I've tried that helmet on a couple times and for me it was the noise I struggled with. It was a lot louder than [the Simpson] I've been wearing."

Ultimately, each driver has his own preference.

Camping World Truck competitor Justin Lofton was drawing pre-race attention with his special-edition Halloween helmet, a smiling jack-o'-lantern smiling on the back to the Martinsville crowd.

"I've bounced back and forth between different helmets," Lofton says. "There can be distractions. So, you want something that makes you feel like you're not wearing a helmet at all. I went to Impact for a couple years and recently switched back to Bell, basically for communication purposes. Ultimately, it's all about which one is most comfortable and which one works the best for you."