Art That Protects Your Head
Mike Mueller, January 03, 2013
As a racecar driver my helmet is a priceless item because I can’t race without it. As it turns out, without racing helmets I might never have become a graphic designer. As a kid several of my favorite professional racecar drivers had helmet paint schemes that I thought were really cool. These helmets all shared one common trait, they were painted by a designer from California named Troy Lee. I was immediately a fan of his work and this became one of my earliest interests in the profession of design.
In the earliest days of motorsports the helmet was a purely utilitarian object, no frills, worn strictly for safety. Now the helmet is a unique form of personal expression and is often the signature visual for which a racecar driver is known. In the 60’s helmets were painted a single flat color, usually just black or white. Gradually drivers began to add simple graphics to make their helmet unique from their competitors. Usually this consisted of simple lines or elements from their nations flag. This continued to be the style well into the 80’s when sponsors began to add their logos to the helmets as well. Starting in the 90’s and moving into the present day a far more complex style has taken over. The increasing demand of racers wanting their own signature style on their helmet has allowed helmet painting to blossom as an art form. Some regional styles developed with Americans trending towards bigger, bolder graphics, which would often incorporate outlandish cartoon figures. In Europe the style was more about layering of geometric shapes and bright colors. The line between regional styles now seems to be blurring while various artists have carved out niches in the market as they develop the own unique styles. The complexity of modern helmet painting and the talent of the artists who do it well is something I have a great appreciation for.
Ironically enough, despite my great interest in helmet paint design you might have noticed from my website bio photo that my helmet is white as a cue ball. This is not for lack of creativity as my computer is full of files with various designs I’ve kicked around in my head for years. I vowed that my helmet would remain white as the driven snow until I could afford to have my favorite designer from my childhood, Troy Lee, paint it for me. So this off-season I will finally bust the checkbook wide open, send my best design to California and have one of the pioneers of the craft help give me a little color.
The progression of helmet painting from the 1960’s to present day is dramatic. Jackie Stewart of Scotland utilized a uniquely Scottish pattern on his helmet. Ayrton Senna turned the colors of his homeland, Brazil, into one of the most iconic helmet designs in history. The modern European style isn’t afraid to use every shape and color imaginable.
Mario Andretti’s two tone pointed stripe on silver has been passed down to his son and grandson, with Michael and Marco adding their own unique elements to the design over the years.
Troy Lee’s style is a varied as his clients, from cartoons for motocross racers to special 24 kart gold-leaf helmets for the University of Notre Dame football team.
Sebastian Vettel of Germany completely changes his helmet design after each race win. His painter, Jens Munser, is no doubt very happy about this!