Backmarker: Helmets Optional in MotoAmerica?

MotorcycleUSA Staff | April 1, 2015
MotoAmerica: “Helmets recommended but not mandatory” for most racers

It’s very possible that if you follow the top American Superbike-class championship this year, you’ll see something you couldn’t possibly see in World Superbike or MotoGP, and that is a racer competing without a crash helmet.The very idea is shocking, but that’s definitely the implication of a few lines that I found buried deep in a draft copy of MotoAmerica’s still-evolving technical rules.

“10.2.5 Competitors under 18 years of age must wear a crash helmet approved by either DOT or Snell Foundation, or which carries ECE 22.05 approval.”

When I searched the rest of the book without finding some other rule enforcing helmet use for competitors over 18, I thought I’d found a mistake or misprint.

I put in calls to two of the three KRAVE Group partners, both of whom agreed to speak under strict condition of anonymity. I was shocked to learn that, indeed, the only helmet rules applied to competitors who have not yet reached the age of majority.

“We’re sanctioned by the AMA,” a certain ex-champ explained. “And I mean the real AMA, in Ohio, not ‘AMA Pro Racing’ in Daytona. So they have the final say on our rules. As an ex-racer, I know how stupid it is to ride without a helmet, and I don’t even want to talk about it.”

With that, he hung up.

Another KRAVE partner was a little more forthcoming, and he provided a few more details on the situation.

“We made everyone wear helmets at the Austin test,” he told me, “but we got real push-back from Ohio. It turns out that the AMA has a strict official position that – at least for adults – helmet use should be voluntary. And as our sanctioning body, they’ve got the ultimate authority.”

After he’d cooled off, the ex-racer called me back and told me, off the record, that they’d argued long and hard with “those pickerheads from Peckerington” (his words) but that the best they could do was ensure that competitors under 18 wear helmets, hence the wording of the rule I cited above. Needless to say, my next call was to the AMA.

“I don’t like that term, and it’s ‘Pickerington’ not ‘Peckerington’,” one AMA exec told me. “But it’s true that the AMA does not oppose laws requiring helmets for minor motorcycle operators. At first, I thought that meant that we didn’t oppose helmet laws for people riding minor brands, but that we thought people riding major brands, like Harley and Indian, should be free to ride bare-headed. But then I learned they meant ‘minor’ as in ‘under 18’. With that in mind, our Board was cool with a rule that enforced helmet use among young racers.” Then, he remembered that he was contractually forbidden from interacting with sport riders, and he referred me to an official AMA spokesman.

In clarifying the situation, that guy went on to say: “The AMA notes there is a clear distinction between the voluntary use of helmets, and mandatory helmet rules. Furthermore, the AMA holds that a common principle should be applied when consideration is given to mandating personal safety, whether it be for motorcycle racing or any other risk-related activity: Adults are capable of making personal safety decisions for themselves.”

Other sources who insist on remaining anonymous have told me that there was some real shouting over the phone between California and Ohio (incidentally, between a state where helmets are mandatory and one where helmet use is mandated only for kids under 18.) At the end of the day the best compromise MotoAmerica could make was to protect the youngest riders, and let adult racers decide for themselves.

I followed up with officials with Dorna and the FIM, who expressed frustration with the AMA’s stance, but were resigned to letting the AMA set its own rules.

Via email, a very senior FIM official commented, “You talk about ‘American exceptionalism’. Well to us, some of the things you do just seem exceptionally stupid. But what are we gonna’ do? We can’t ignore the huge U.S. market, and the AMA swears that if Americans have to wear helmets, they’ll just drive pickup trucks. Besides, they told us that if we made helmet use optional, Harley enter a team.”

Most of the racers and team officials that I reached out to had just assumed that MotoAmerica’s helmet rules would be similar to last year’s AMA Pro Racing rules. One conspicuously vocal team owner was better-informed and he clarified that most of the KTM class competitors, as well as many if not most of the Superstock and Supersport 600 racers are under 18, and as such they’ll all wear helmets no matter what. Since all the 1000cc class riders have to be over 18, helmet use in that class will be voluntary.

Although he insisted that he not be quoted, the team owner told me that MotoAmerica was secretly hoping that, since half their race weekends take place in states that mandate helmet use, those states’ attorneys general might step in to enforce helmet use across the board at those events.

When I called the AMA back to ask whether their legal department would challenge such a ruling, they got snippy with me and before hanging up said: “Mandatory helmet rules do nothing to prevent the crashes that injure or kill motorcycle racers!”

As it stands, MotoAmerica officials will be walking through the paddock in Austin (Texas requires helmets only for riders under 21) and adding a sticker to everyone’s rulebook that clarifies the organization’s official position on helmets.

The sticker, which has already been printed, reads: “The American Motorcyclist Association, as part of a comprehensive motorcycle safety program to help reduce injuries and fatalities in the event of a motorcycle crash, strongly encourages the use of personal protective equipment, including gloves, sturdy footwear and a properly fitted motorcycle helmet certified by its manufacturer to meet the DOT standard.”

Get it? They encourage helmet use but they won’t make it a rule. By the time I wondered just how they might ‘encourage’ helmet use, without supporting a rule to enforce it, the AMA had stopped returning my calls and emails. Maybe they’ll let helmet wearers have an extra practice session.

It’s too early to tell if any racers will actually choose to race without a helmet. Since MotoAmerica is a brand-new series, everyone licensed to race in it came up through some other series. And since every other series has helmet rules, no one’s ever raced without a helmet.

Most of the racers I spoke to were incredulous at the idea; several top guys have helmet sponsors and they’ll obviously wear them. I did talk to one racer who told me, “My helmet fogs up in the rain, so I might not wear it if we have a wet race.”

Several cash-strapped racers were pleased they’d be able to use helmets with old, out-of-date stickers. And at least one bro, aspiring superbike star Digby Scallop admitted that he’d seen that rule, identified the same loophole that prompted me to write this column, and sent a sponsorship query to New Era, a maker of popular trucker caps.

Since Scallop has, so far, only ridden on Florida roads without curves, I have a feeling that he’ll have trouble qualifying. I can, however, imagine a few racers coming out of the CMRA who might show up in Austin with sponsorship from Stetson, now that they can wear their Stetsons in the races.

There’s no word on whether assless chaps will also be approved as race wear. But, just as this edition of Backmarker was about to go live, I heard one last rumor, that the AMA has installed their own guy as MotoAmerica’s tech inspector for rider safety gear. According to my source, they’ve hired the former Chief of Police of Sturgis, South Dakota, to handle that job.

Update: In case you missed it… this edition of Backmarker was published on April 1, 2015 and is MotoUSA’s annual contribution to April Fools shenanigans – MotoUSA Editorial