What’s the Difference Between a Motorcycle Helmet and an Auto Racing One?

“Helmet,” “head protector,” “brain bucket,” whatever you want to call it, a helmet is a helmet, right? It’s made to protect your head in the event of an accident and we all know that anyone that races cars, rides a bike or a motorcycle needs to wear one. But what you might not know is that not all helmets are created equal and there is indeed a difference between a motorcycle helmet and an auto racing one.

There is a difference between helmets

While a motorcycle helmet and an auto racing one may look the same, the difference is in the details. Both types are offered in a full-face, open-face, or hybrid configuration – depending on what kind of facial protection you want – and both of them come with DOT and Snell ratings. These ratings are the most important delineation between the two types of helmets.

rider on a sport bike
CRIENCESTER, UNITED KINGDOM – JUNE 17: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 24 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) Prince William arrives, riding his Triumph Daytona 600 motorbike, to play in the Burberry Cup polo match at Cirencester Park Polo Club on June 17, 2005 in Cirencester, England. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

What does the DOT rating refer to?

The DOT certification refers to the standard of safety enforced by the Department of Transportation, in which each helmet goes through a series of impact tests that it must pass to get the certification. According to Bike Bandit, the testing procedure is as follows:

DOT Helmet Tests

  • The helmet is dropped onto a spherical anvil from a height of 1.83m
  • The helmet is dropped onto a flat anvil from a height of 1.83m
  • A pointed striker is dropped onto the helmet
  • Weight is applied to the retention system (up to 300 pounds of force for 120 seconds)
carbon fiber helmet
Technicians are reflected in the visor of a helmet during works on the car of Mercedes’ British driver Lewis Hamilton ahead of the first practice session at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Spa on August 24, 2018 ahead of the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix. – (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images)

What does the Snell rating mean?

The Snell rating, on the other hand, is a lot like the DOT rating, however, the certification is conducted by the Snell Memorial Foundation, a non-profit entity founded by William “Pete” Snell. In the helmet world, the Snell certification is considered the gold standard in testing as the procedure is more rigorous than that of the DOT testing. However, Snell certification is optional for the helmet manufacturers.

The Snell testing procedures is as follows:

  • Snell uses 5 different shaped anvils instead of two
  • Helmets are dropped from multiple heights (all of which are higher than DOTs)
  • Snell tests the chin bar along with the dome of the helmet
  • The visor is also tested, by shooting it with three lead pellets from an air rifle

The Snell testing must be done every five years as the current testing certification standard is “SA2020” for each helmet.

1991: General view of the helmet belonging to McLaren Honda driver Ayrton Senna of Brazil before the US Grand Prix at the Phoenix circuit in Arizona, USA. Senna finished in first place. \ Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

The main differences between auto racing helmets and motorcycle helmets

  • Fire rating: Auto racing helmets must pass the fire testing since drivers have the possibility of being trapped inside a burning car. In that case, you might notice that auto racing helmets have Nomex linings on the inside of them because it’s a flame retardant material, and the lining around the visor is made to melt and seal the helmet from the flames.
  • Types of impact: Motorcycle riders are more prone to crashing and sliding, so those helmets are tested for that kind of impact. Whereas an auto racer may experience hits to the head upon impact and rollovers, but no sliding.
  • HANS device: All SA (special application) rated auto helmets by Snell have threaded inserts for a HANS (Head and Neck Safety) device. The reduces the risk of head and neck injuries by keeping the driver’s head more stable in the event of a crash.
  • Shape/Ventilation/Aerodynamics/Noise: Unlike auto racers, motorcycle riders have to contend with the outside elements when on a bike, so their helmets are more aerodynamic, have wider eye ports, have more vents for cooling, and are quieter when worn.
A rider on a cruiser bike
A rider on a cruiser bike | Getty Images

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Don’t mix them up

While you can technically wear a motorcycle helmet for some auto racing events, granted that it’s Snell approved, it’s recommended not to mix them up. Considering the number of differences between the two types of helmets, it makes sense that you would want to buy a motorcycle helmet if you ride and an auto racing helmet if you race your car.