Few drivers alive today can say they’ve gone from wearing leather helmets to open-face units to sparking the closed-face revolution. Even better, the legendary Mario Andretti continues to aid in the development of new head protection technology with Bell Helmets, his chosen safety solution of more than 50 years.
“It was a leather type of thing, something close to what they used to have with horse racing,” Andretti said of the first helmet he owned, made by Cromwell, that was shared with his brother Aldo in the 1950s. “That was en vogue at the time. It was as good as you could get. Here again, Aldo had the accident that he had at the very last race of the season, he bad a [basal] skull fracture. That helmet obviously didn’t do the job. Safety has to be a work in progress.”
Andretti wore Bell’s open-face helmet on the way to Victory Lane at the 1969 Indy 500—replete with a scarf and goggles to protect his exposed skin. Years later, closed-face Bells would be part of Andretti’s world championship 1978 season in Formula 1 all the way through to his final victory, a WSC class win at the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans.
As the 78-year-old icon recalls, the closed-face Bells would have been handy earlier in his career.
“The biggest change, of course, was going from open [to closed helmets],” he said. “But then, at the same time, all of a sudden, ‘oh well, I think I’m going to have teeth at the end of the day now!’
“Because I had cracked teeth a few times on the dirt tracks. One year, I think in ’64, I had a cracked tooth in Redding and one in the Hoosier Hundred, same time, same year. We were not protected very well in that respect. Again, we were always looking forward to the next improvement.”
Catch the full interview and helmet evolution timeline with Mario Andretti below: