The most important piece of safety equipment a racer can wear—the helmet—is more complicated than some people might think. For the committed race fan, this information probably won’t be any big shock. For the rest of the populace, however, what’s inside a racing helmet may come as a surprise. The helmet isn’t just a supremely detailed paint job with a chin strap. It contains engineering, technology, and science designed to keep the driver safe and comfortable.
Communication between the driver and the crew chief is important, so the driver will have a two-way radio in the car. The radio is linked to the helmet with a connecting wire that hangs from a side portal. Inside the helmet are foam or molded earpieces, which the driver inserts so that he can hear the crew. A microphone is also situated near the mouth so that the driver can speak openly and freely during the race. The driver will give the crew updates on the car and how it’s performing. The crew can then prepare for the next pit stop and fix whatever needs tending to.
An air conditioning system may seem like extra dead weight that will only slow the race car, but the A/C system in a race car isn’t like what you’d find in a passenger car. It’s more of a forced air system that only marginally lowers the internal temperature of the cockpit. Temperatures inside a NASCAR can reach 130 to 160 degrees, so air hoses are crucial to blow cool, fresh air into the driver’s helmet to keep them cool. The fresh air flows from outside the car and funnels through a CO2 filter to eliminate any exhaust fumes and whatever else is hanging out in the air. The air blows into the helmet from the top of the head and over the face.
During an average race, a driver can lose up to ten pounds of water weight. The extreme heat on the track, from the engine, and inside the car create very hot conditions. Over the course of a race, therefore, drivers need to hydrate. Crews will strap a water pack to the back of the seat and run a tube to the inside of the helmet so that the driver can get a quick sip.
Of course, there’s the main safety element of any helmet: the padding. Inside that beautifully painted shell is layer after layer of protective foam and padding. Manufacturers have also developed composite materials that reduce vibrations and noise. The driver needs to hear the information coming through the earpiece from the crew chief, but track noise coming from his own car and the dozens of other cars around him can drown out all communications. Noise-cancelling technology has made it easier for drivers to hear through the earpiece.