Snell SA2020 Is Here. Should You Upgrade Your Helmet?

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Mar 18, 2021 | Helmet, Safety | Posted in Safety , Features | From the April 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

Is it time for a new helmet? Might very well be. How can we say that without peeking inside your gear bag? Two things: The Snell Foundation recently updated its regs for motorsports helmets and, let’s be honest, helmets lead tough lives–dirty, stinky, nasty lives.

Who’s Snell?

When it comes to American amateur motorsports, most groups require helmets that meet the standards set forth by the Snell Foundation. This nonprofit group has tested helmets–and worked to make them safer–since 1957. While born from motorsports, Snell has expanded its focus and now also sets standards for protective headgear designed for cycling, snow sports and equestrian use. 

The Snell Foundation certifies the helmets commonly used in American motorsports. The group’s name comes from the late Pete Snell.  He died from massive head injuries during a sports car race in 1956. Photograph Courtesy the Snell Foundation

Helmets intended for motorsports carry Snell’s SA designation. These standards are upgraded every five years, with the latest released this past fall. That newest designation is SA2020. 

“Typically, sanctioning organizations allow the current and previous standard,” explains Kyle Kietzmann, president and COO at Bell Racing. “Once the SA2020 standard was released, most organizations state the helmet should be SA2015 or above, requiring those that have SA2010-homologated helmets to upgrade.”

Where some past Snell upgrades have been rather major–mandating, for example, new testing procedures or attachment points for a head-and-neck restraint–the latest update is viewed as relatively minor. The most significant new requirement: alignment with the FIA specs found worldwide.

“SA2020 is very much an incremental change from SA2015,” notes John Ruther, president of Northstar Motorsports, a safety supplier for 25 years. “The primary aim was to bring the impact testing even more in line with FIA 8859-2015 requirements.

“Note that Snell SA2020 certification does not automatically grant FIA homologation!” he stresses. “A helmet which passes Snell SA2020 tests will theoretically pass FIA tests, but the helmet manufacturer must submit the helmet to the FIA in order to receive FIA homologation.”

Even though the SA2020 specs represent a small change, RaceQuip’s Roger Mealey offers something to ponder: “That increase in impact protection from SA2015 to SA2020 could become really important if you’re in a crash and that extra margin of protection is called upon.”

Time to Score a Deal?

Since the latest Snell update is relatively minor, does that mean it’s time to grab an SA2015-rated helmet on closeout? As usual, the answer depends.

“There is nothing wrong with a Snell 2015 helmet, especially if it is still new in the box,” notes Toto Lassally, founder of Roux Helmets. “You will save tons of money and still get five years out of it.”

However, he adds, helmets should still be replaced periodically. “You should replace your helmet every five years regardless of how many times you use it.

“A lot of people believe that it is okay to keep a helmet for 10 years just because that is what most organizations will accept. However, in reality, as a rule of thumb, nobody should be using a helmet for more than five years. And if you are racing more than a dozen times per year, you should consider changing your helmet every two to three years.”

Photography Credit: Perry Bennet

Regularly using a helmet accelerates the aging process of its building blocks. “When you sweat in the helmet, the foam starts to get hard and it loses some of its impact-resisting characteristics,” Lassally continues. “Think of outdoor furniture. When you first buy it, it is nice and soft and comfy. Then it sits in the rain and sun, and a few months later it’s hard as a rock and now your tushy hurts when you sit down.”

Steve Wu at motorsports supply house OG Racing paints an equally colorful picture. “The human head is a disgusting thing–it sweats, it’s covered in bacteria, and then we add all sorts of creams/gel/conditioners into the mix,” he notes. All of this builds up inside a helmet over time and will slowly degrade the quality of the lining and eventually the guts of the helmet.

One way to monitor helmet aging? Keep tabs on the foam. “Once you see signs of foam degradation, it is time to replace,” says Ken Joyce of safety equipment supplier KRJ Race Products

And should a helmet absorb an impact, it must be taken out of service. “Any time the helmet takes a big hit that may lead to a temporary blackout and/or concussion, you should have the helmet replaced,” Joyce continues. “I have also had customers say that the fit doesn’t seem as snug after a hit. I explained to them that the bead liner of the helmet had been compressed during the impact, and when that happens, the helmet has done its job and needs to be replaced–even if it is one race old.”

How to Shop

We live in a click-and-purchase world. But perhaps that doesn’t work as well for helmets. 

“Buying helmets online is never ideal,” notes Tim Wadsworth, owner of motorsports supplier Track First. “It is fraught with so many variables.”

He prefers that customers visit a showroom or trackside booth. “We also advise that they come with their track car,” he continues, “so we can check if the driver plus the helmet fits safely inside the car.”

The Snell Foundation and others have pushed along helmet development over the decades. Today’s helmets meet stringent requirements while remaining light and comfortable. Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

“I honestly don’t know how people actually select and purchase a helmet online,” adds John Ruther of Northstar Motorsports. “It is very difficult to tell how a helmet will fit and what it will feel like when it is on. For this reason, we encourage our customers to come into our store to try the helmets on if at all possible.

“Otherwise, we may actually send a customer two or three helmets to try on to select from once they have told us more about the type of helmet they need. Then they can return the ones that they don’t like.”

Visiting a store for a fitting is by far the best way to buy a new helmet, reiterates OG Racing’s Steve Wu. “Everyone’s head shape is different, and some manufacturers’ helmets are better suited for some head shapes over others. It’s easiest to try them all on in person to try and find the ideal brand; even within specific brands, pad materials and placement can be better suited for some individuals over others. The most expensive helmet is often not the best one to get!

“That said,” he continues, “shops that carry a full selection are far and few between. This isn’t exactly a hobby that can support a race shop on every corner.”

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