Look at the helmet of any Formula 1 or NASCAR driver, and you’ll see a high-tech piece of equipment. With a price tag in the thousands, the average racing helmet is a far cry from the first iteration. They were engineered and re-engineered over decades, and now they’re as sleek as the car. Today’s helmets are made from durable, carbon fiber composites, and they have fireproof linings, forced air, and radios. It wasn’t always that way; the evolution of the racing helmet took a long time.
From the first time an engine and vehicle met, some guy was there to race it and prove he was the fastest. Racing motorcycles and cars gained traction at the turn of the 20th century. Safety wasn’t a huge concern, and they didn’t have the materials available that we do today, so early helmets were made from cloth. Governing bodies that oversaw racing in the early days prior to WWI required all drivers to wear helmets and goggles. The helmets looked like they were more to keep the driver’s hair in place, however, and not to protect his head. Around the 1930s, drivers became more concerned about their own safety faster than improvements on helmets came about. Some drivers wore football helmets, and even fireman’s helmets, for protection. Leather helmets made an appearance, probably thanks to the popularity of the NFL and drivers’ preference for them. They weren’t a massive leap forward in helmet technology, but it was progress in the right direction.
The first hard shell helmet debuted in the early 1950s. They were clunky and goofy looking to say the least. Bell Sports receive the credit for making the first mass produced racing helmet. It was an open-faced helmet with a visor, and it was a quantum leap beyond its predecessors. Not long after that, goggles attached to helmets and the full-face helmet became compulsory around this time, and establishing standards became extremely important. Even though it was better and had more protection, the full-face helmet was not a requirement in NASCAR until 2001 when Dale Earnhardt died in a race. Once helmets became standard equipment for racing, the technology behind them took off and better stronger helmets started appearing on all circuits.
The 1980s saw the addition of the dirt skirt to protect drivers from fire and dirt during the race. Arguably the biggest innovation for all of racing came in the 80s too: communications. Two-way radios were added to helmets and cars so that the driver could communicate with his team during the race. New composite materials developed over time that made the helmets lighter and reduced driver fatigue. Visor tear offs helped drivers see better in race. They can pull off a dirty layer on their visor and see clearly once again. More recent additions include fresh air ducts, drinking hoses, and the Hans system, and they make the helmet look like something an astronaut might wear. Today, a driver’s helmet kit plays an important role that can’t be understated.