You would expect a sport as competitive as IndyCar to embrace all sorts of space-age materials that improve performance and hold down weight. IndyCar teams use plenty of carbon fiber. No surprises there. One particular component, the helmet, is a carbon fiber work of art. There is more to it than just the carbon fiber itself though.
IndyCar helmets are technological wonders designed to accommodate driver safety, driver comfort, and racing aerodynamics. You have to remember that Indy cars sport an open cockpit. Unlike stock cars, an Indy car leaves the driver’s head completely exposed.
The Carbon Fiber Shell
You can visit the IndyCar website to learn all the finer details of the sport’s officially sanctioned helmet. It starts with a carbon fiber outer shell designed to disperse impact energy and protect against flying debris. The shell is made of a carbon fiber reinforced plastic with an ultralight woven fabric at its core.
IndyCar says each helmet is handmade with a specialized tool. That makes sense, according to Salt Lake City-based Rock West Composites. Helmets have to be custom-made for the drivers wearing them. Thus, automation would be out of the question. Manual layups are the only reasonable way to go.
An IndyCar helmet has to be aerodynamic for quite a few reasons. For starters, you want a helmet that reduces wind resistance. This makes the car and driver faster. And that’s important when races can be decided by hundredths of a second. Yet aerodynamics is more about driver safety than anything else.
Check out these features:
- Aerodynamic Plate – A small piece added to the outside of the shell to create down force on the helmet. This makes it easier for the driver to maintain control of his head.
- Aero Wickers – Rubber strips placed at strategic locations on the outer shell to limit buffeting and prevent air from pulling the helmet off. They stabilize the driver’s head as well. Aero wickers are actually specific to each track on the circuit.
- Lid Balance – A molded piece along the bottom of the helmet that prevents wind from getting underneath and pulling up on the driver’s head. At 200 mph, the lid balance is crucial.
Next to the carbon fiber shell, nothing is more important to driver safety than these three elements. They prevent all sorts of damage that would otherwise occur driving in an open cockpit vehicle at high speeds.
The remaining components of an IndyCar helmet are designed to increase comfort, add functionality, and otherwise make it easier for the driver to do what he does. For example, a specially designed lining inside the helmet offers a fireproof layer and absorbs moisture. It even pulls heat away from the driver’s head.
For more competitive purposes, an IndyCar helmet features built-in audio systems that facilitate two-way communication between driver and crew. Speakers allow the driver to hear the pit boss and spotters while a microphone mounted in the foam at the front of the helmet allows him to talk to his team as well.
The crowning achievement, as it were, is a small inflatable balloon built into the top of the helmet. Mounted inside, it can be inflated to allow emergency workers to quickly remove and injured driver’s helmet without putting any undue strain on head or neck. This is a safety feature designed to avoid further harming already injured drivers.
And now you know. There is more to an IndyCar helmet than its carbon fiber shell. There is a lot more going on than meets the eye.