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The Snell Game

In order to race cars in the U.S., participants almost always must wear a helmet carrying a Snell certification sticker. Before that approval can be assigned, the helmet must first pass a battery of tests. The big question to be answered: Will the helmet protect as intended?

If a helmet has received a Snell approval, look for a sticker inside, usually beneath the lining. Most road racing groups require helmets carrying Snell SA approval, and Snell updates those specs every five years. Many groups require the latest Snell rating or at least the previous one.

What's a Snell?

Snell is also known as the Snell Memorial Foundation, an independent nonprofit devoted to testing helmets. That little sticker found inside your RaceQuip PRO15? Snell assigned it.

Where’d It Come From?

The organization gets its name from William “Pete” Snell, a popular racer in the 1950s. He sustained a fatal head injury in 1956, when his TR3 rolled at 80 mph. Snell was wearing the common headgear of the period: Think “leather cap with goggles” and you’ve got the right picture.

Donations in Snell’s name from fellow racers were the catalyst for building the Snell Memorial Foundation as we know it today.

Who Started It?

George Snively was a doctor and racer, and by the time Snell died, he’d been testing helmets on his own for a few years. Snell’s death convinced Snively that the industry needed some real oversight, so he went to work.

He enlisted Clinton O. Chichester, another racing doctor, and the pair started testing helmets in earnest. Their mission: “to establish some standard for the performance of helmets so that an individual can at least distinguish which will offer a known level of protection versus one that will offer practically none.”

What Made It Different?

The two doctors were the first to test helmets on cadavers rather than head-shaped forms. The results were surprising: Only one of the helmets in their experiments provided an acceptable amount of impact protection.

These findings were published in the SCCA San Francisco Region’s newsletter in 1957, and the trustees of the Snell Memorial Foundation took notice. They decided to devote the donations in Snell’s name–all $713 worth–to the doctors’ work.

When Was the Standard Adopted?

This donation helped expand the testing, and the press was invited to watch. The larger test found only two acceptable helmets: the Bell 500 TX and the Toptex Competition Model. These test results were published in Sports Car Graphic, Sports Car Journal and MotoRacing during the summer of 1957, and they sparked quite the controversy among racers and manufacturers.

That didn’t last for long, though: The SCCA decreed that by August 30, racers had to wear one of the two approved helmet models. In 1959, the Snell foundation established its first set of standards, and they’ve updated them roughly every five years to this day.

How Does Certification Work?

For a helmet to be certified, the manufacturer must send five helmets to the Snell Memorial Foundation and pay a fee. Then, the foundation subjects four helmets to different extreme environmental conditions–think of all the hot, cold, damp or dry places yours has been in the past five years. The fifth helmet is archived, just in case.

Once each helmet has endured this abuse, it’s put through Snell’s battery of tests. If every one passes, then the manufacturer signs a contract to buy a certain number of certification labels, and Snell retains the right to randomly retest certified models at any time. It’s worth noting that each model–and each shell size of that model–must be certified separately.

What Does a Racing Helmet Need to Pass?

The SA standards cover helmets intended for competitive autosports. As such, SA helmets have to endure two unique tortures: fire and impacts.

Every external component, and the helmet’s padding, must be flame-resistant. And every helmet must manage the energy of three consecutive impacts against a roll bar-like structure.

Note that “M” helmets are certified for use with motorcycles and aren’t fire-retardant. They’re often less expensive, though, and many autocross clubs allow competitors to wear them.

Notable Certification Changes for 2015?

Snell’s requirements for certification are constantly evolving, with a new standard released every five years. The SA2015 standard requires mounts for frontal head restraints, meaning nobody will have to drill holes for their anchors. It also now requires low-velocity impact safety, meaning helmets can’t be too rigid in a low-speed crash. Lastly, Snell SA2015-certified helmets must have passed low lateral impact tests, which focus on the key area around the ear and temple.

This article is from an old issue of Grassroots Motorsports. Get all the latest how-tos and stories for just $20 a year. Subscribe now.

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View comments on the GRM forums
trucke Dork
2/16/17 3:38 p.m.

That picture of the green helmet on the test stand reminds of today at work. I should have brought my helmet to the office!

carguy123 UltimaDork
2/16/17 3:46 p.m.

That's what I've been doing all day and it sucks! The newer helmets apparently have more padding around the neck and it almost requires ripping your ears off to get them on.

Plus apparently my head is rounder than most peoples so very few fit once you get them on.

Also the eye holes must be smaller because none of them played well with glasses.

I ended up finding an Arai, they have 3 different shapes interiors on theirs, and lucked into a store that was discontinuing the brand and got it for half price.

This is one item you definitely cannot buy online.

Brian MegaDork
2/17/17 5:14 a.m.

How long is SCCA permitting '05 helmets for autoX? By the time I can commit to a membership and a full season, I will need something new.

dean1484 MegaDork
2/17/17 6:37 a.m.

Very good read Tom. Thanks for posting that!!

drdisque HalfDork
2/17/17 8:13 p.m.

Snell 2005's will be legal for SCCA Autocross until the Snell 2020's are widely available, so at least through 2020.

jimbbski Dork
2/18/17 9:35 a.m.

I purchased a new helmet this winter. A Bell brand with a extra large eye port since I wear glasses.

Of course I always take them off when ever I put on or take off my helmet. That part is a bit of a pain but of well I don't like contacts and I have heard both good and bad things about Lasik eye surgery and despite the fact that both of my sisters had it over 10 years ago without issues.

I choose Bell because that's the brand that the last two helmets I bought were, I like the fit, the style, and the fact that the company has a plant in Rantoul, Illinois.