Innovation in racing helmets

14 June 2012

INDIANAPOLIS–The most elegant solutions to problems are often the simplest. I ran across another prime example of that here at the recent Indianapolis 500.

During a short side-trip off our Drive for Innovation, I was covering KV Racing's Tony Kanaan as he tried to shed the mantle of the "best Indy driver never to win the 500." (He finished third). Thanks to our friends at Littelfuse, we had access to the entire engineering team for most of the weekend. As we experienced at the American Le Mans race last summer with Bobby Rahal's team, it was amazing.

So here's the story: I got a chance to chat with Mike Held, a mechanical engineer by education and training. He's been in the racing business for at least 20 years in various capacities, including team owner. He now runs a marketing business that works with race teams and sponsors.

Years ago, Indy-car engineers had done a strong job of evolving the aerodynamics of the open-cockpit vehicles to reduce drag. One day, the four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears pulled into a pitstop complaining to car-designing legend Nigel Bennett about his new helmet.

"My jaw is killing me," Mears said. Turns out, because of the drag on the new helmet in the redesigned cockpits, he had to open his mouth to move the chin strap to lower the eye ports so he could actually see going into turn one.

Driving blind

"It was creating that much lift, the eye port was drifting up," Held recalled the conversation.

Held continued:

"Nigel says 'No problem' and goes to his tool box. He pulls out some tape, puts a little wicker of tape on top of the helmet. What is it? A gurney flap on top of the helmet.

"As the helmet guy, I designed it into the helmet to have ripples on the top of the helmet. What happens then? The air comes in and hits the (helmet's) speed bumps and keeps the helmet down."

That, of course, caused another problem: increased drag on the helmet. But after trial and error, they came up with a little chin-spoiler to minimize the drag effect.
Held, racing hall of famer Bill Simpson, and two others won the 1990 Louis Schwitzer Award for outstanding engineering and innovation at the Indy 500 for their "Beadall" helmet.

Simple has a lot to recommend it.


Rick DeMeis June 19, 2012 at 10:59 am

Vote -1 Vote +1

As we aerospace engineers might put it, the spoiler he put on the top of the helmet killed the lift from the airflow over it.

Flollaorams December 17, 2012 at 8:19 pm

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