Hued Helmets

Polka Dots have power. I scattered them over my helmet.

When I started racing in the mid-1950s, what we wore — headgear to footwear — depended more on whim and comfort than on safety. On hot days I went sleeveless and wore shorts. The low-tech Keds on my feet felt good, but more important, they came in bright colors. Helmets, however, borrowed hues from muddy newspapers — white, brown, black. Except mine.

Rules governing gear were beginning to creep into the regulations, requiring rather than merely suggesting drivers wear helmets. The most popular helmet was the Herbert Johnson model said to have evolved from polo gear. Stirling Moss began his competitive career as a boy equestrian and favored a white Herbert Johnson.

Given today’s flamboyant helmets with swirling colors, elaborate imagery, portraits, and sci-fi fantasy scenes, a plain white helmet seems bizarre. Four-time Formula 1 champion Sebastian Vettel’s helmet designer (yes, helmet designer), Jens Munser, created a helmet with twinkling lights in the crown for the Monaco Grand Prix in 2013. And for 2014, a mediaeval style made realistic with a thin metallic paint. Vettel has some six dozen Munser helmets and a new one every race.

My polka dots were considered extreme in the 1950s. They were simply stick-on dots by Dennison, but they were unique. Not that there weren’t helmets with patterns and designs, but they were properly sedate. Graham Hill’s was dark blue with oar-shaped white verticals that copied the cap design of his London Rowing Club. Innes Ireland’s helmet sported a checkered band, as did Jean Behra’s. It was the Behra helmet that inspired the logo of Competition Press, a racing newspaper that continues today as AutoWeek.

Helmets were changing in more ways than decoration. As safety concerns led to fire-resistant driving suits, the word “Nomex” entered our vocabulary. The death of William “Pete” Snell from a head injury in a 1956 racing accident led Dr. George Snively to helmet research. He headed the new Snell Memorial Foundation, which continues to certify protective headgear.

Helmets swelled to cover the ears and then became the all-encompassing full-face designs with energy-absorbing lining. In today’s racing, a decorative helmet is the only visible evidence of a driver’s identity. Bell was the first company to produce Snell-approved helmets; Jim Clark was the first champion to wear one and Parnelli Jones the first to win Indy thus hatted. With better helmets, we all won.

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