Protecting the Old Noggin

Under the heading of protecting vital components, you’ve discovered by now that a safety helmet is required for most track days and autocross competitions. If you’re getting tired of grabbing a smelly, old beat-up driving helmet from the pile on the pit wall, or using that motorcycle helmet you borrowed from your neighbor, you might want to think about getting a decent driving helmet of your own.

There are two types of helmets that are generally accepted for casual autocrossing and track days: motorcycle helmets and automobile racing helmets. The major difference is that motorcycle helmets are not made of fireproof materials and consequently are not acceptable for any kind of sanctioned auto racing.

Within both categories of helmets, there are open-face and full-face helmets. Full-face helmets are designed to provide full protection in open cars, and are somewhat safer for all applications, but are heavier and less comfortable. Open-face helmets are legal for use in closed cars in most sanctioned events, and will be lighter and more comfortable, but don’t offer as much protection against facial burns in the event of a car fire.

A general factor to consider when selecting a racing helmet is the material with which the helmet is made. Basic helmet shells are generally made of fiberglass, which is perfectly safe, but is heavier than high-tech composite materials. Generally, the lighter the helmet, the more expensive it will be. If you don’t expect to use the helmet often or be wearing it for very long at any one time—such as in autocrossing—the cheaper one may be just fine.

Another factor to evaluate in picking out the helmet is the size of the facial opening. This is largely a matter of personal preference, though helmets with smaller openings will be slightly safer. If you always wear glasses with your helmet, or get a little claustrophobic, you may prefer the largest opening you can find.

No matter what, you want to check the “Snell Rating” that is required by virtually all santioned racing organizations. A Snell-rated helmet is certified for compliance with accepted safety standards by the Snell Institute and carries a cetification sticker on the inside of the helmet under the lining. The sticker will have an S, followed by an A for automobile or M for motorcycle, followed by two digits, indicating the rating year.

The Snell Institute is an independent, non-profit group that tests driving and riding helmets for safety, giving its rating to those that pass. The standards are changed periodically, and it is generally accepted that helmets become less safe as they get older, so the Snell rating number is changed every five years. Most organizations accept a helmet that was certified within the last ten years.

To be sure that you have an acceptable helmet, the last two digits should be 00 or 05, indicating the helmet was certified after 2000 or after 2005. Be sure to check this rating if you get an opportunity to buy a second-hand helmet from someone else.

Keep in mind that the protection in a safety helmet comes from compressible foam between the shell and the liner, and that foam can only be compressed once before it looses its protective capability. If you do buy a used helmet, make sure that there is absolutely no indication of any damage. A helmet can look all right, but if it’s been dropped, then the inside foam may have been compressed to the point where it will no longer offer any protection.

When you’re buying your helmet, you want one that is Goldilocks-right, not too tight and not too loose. For this reason, you should consider buying one in person, rather than just ordering one through a catalog. The correct size should be very snug and actually a little tight to get on, but you shouldn’t feel any uncomfortable pressure points that would give you a head-ache in a long on-track session. Once the helmet is on, you should try pulling the back up. A correct helmet shouldn’t move much, certainly not enough so that your vision is obscured. Similarly, grasp it under the chin and pull up. It shouldn’t move unless your head moves. To find the correct helmet, you may need to try several brands. Considering the price of brain surgery, the difference in prices shouldn’t matter much to you.

Typical helmets can cost as little as $250, or as much as $1000, depending on material and design. Of course, the sky’s the limit on costs for those fancy helmets you see the professional drivers wearing on Speed Channel. But then, they have been custom-molded to fit the individual driver’s head, equipped with radio equipment, and given that trick paint job. Whichever you buy, make sure that it is certified, and that it gives you a snug but comfortable fit, so that you get your money’s worth.

Safety Belts

For autocrossing and casual track-day events, you will need only the standard three-point safety belts with which your MINI is equipped. However, for added safety and better times, you may want to seriously consider purchasing a supplementary belt system with shoulder straps as well as lap belts that can be clipped into your regular safety belt system.

One good example of such a belt system is the Schroth Profi II Flexi Competition Belt, which is available through racing and MINI aftermarket suppliers. The biggest advantage of this system is that it will give you much more stability in active autocrossing. Instead of having to brace yourself with your hands on the steering wheel and your legs against the interior panels, the safety belt system itself will keep you positively anchored into your seat.

The nice thing about this system is that the lap belts fasten to the same points as the stock front belts, and the shoulder belts snap into the regular stock belts in the back seat. One drawback is that the shoulder belts come up at a pretty steep angle from the rear clips. This won’t be a major issue in keeping you in place, and won’t even make much difference in a slow-speed collision.

However, we wouldn’t recommend these belts by themselves for use in highway use. In the event of a high-speed collision, the force of your body against the shoulder belts would likely result in severe spine compression, probably causing a more serious injury than you might sustain with the stock three-point belt.

There is a fix for this problem, however. Most of the same suppliers from which the Schroth belts can be purchased can also supply a harness guide bar from Stable Energies that will fit the MINI Cooper S. This bar fastens across the car and attaches to the clips of the shoulder portion of the standard three-point seat belt. Then the shoulder portion of the auxiliary belts is fastened to the guide bar to prevent spinal compression in the event of a high-speed collision.

The four-point auxiliary harnesses are available for under $250, and the guide bar can be purchased for about $100. They are legal in all SCCA autocross classes and will probably contribute as much to lowering your lap times during your first year of competition as any piece of speed equipment that you might buy.

For the person who participates in occasional track days and time trials, the combination of the four-point clip-in system and a guide bar would probably be marginally safer, and also help maintain car control. However, we should note that this system probably wouldn’t be accepted for wheel-to-wheel competition use on the track. When you’re ready to get involved in motorsports at that level, you’ll want to install a roll bar or roll cage set-up, with a full five- or six-point racing harness.