By Daryl Ecklund
“I’m not a very good business person,” 81-year-old Michio Arai admitted during a conversation at the Arai headquarters in Omiya, Japan.
For me, that statement brought up even more questions: “Why be in business if you aren’t looking to make a solid profit? Why not change the round, boring Arai shape? How about adding some sharp lines like the competition? A new edgy look would spike sales, wouldn’t it?” Mr. Arai agreed with me, but there was one thing he was not willing to give up—his pride. Michio prides himself on making the best helmets possible, delivering exceptional quality and providing rider comfort and safety, regardless of the cost. Everything else is subordinate to those goals. Arai’s philosophy puts strict constraints on the design features of an Arai helmet. I wasn’t going to argue with a man whose family heritage was built on making helmets. Instead, I tried to understand the Arai philosophy.
Arai flew me to Japan to visit all of four of its facilities. The kicker was I would do it on a 1084cc Honda Africa Twin instead of the bullet train that I was used to on previous trips to Japan. The ride to the Arai factories took some major detours (400 miles’ worth) on the way. I got in a lot of good riding, but the whole time I was in Japan I lived under the threat of constant downpours from a fast approaching Typhoon.
YOU’VE PROBABLY SEEN THE CLASSIC PHOTO OF A RIDER STANDING ON THE SEAT OF HIS MOTORCYCLE WEARING NOTHING BUT A STRAW HAT. YOU MAY HAVE ASSUMED THAT THE RIDER WAS SOME UNNAMED DAREDEVIL, BUT IT WAS HIROTAKE ARAI HIMSELF.
Michio Arai is the son of the original Arai founder, Hirotake Arai. Hirotake didn’t start out making motorcycle helmets. It was the purchase of a Harley-Davidson that ignited the desire to design the first-ever motorcycle helmet in Japan. Hirotake started out in 1926 as a straw hat maker at 21 years old. Over the next decade, Hirotake applied his hat-making knowledge to making hard hats for construction workers. In 1937, the first Arai factory was erected in Omiya. To this day, it is still the home of the Arai headquarters and where our conversation took place.
It was in this factory that the hard hats were developed and made. It was like going into a time machine as we walked through Hirotake’s original machine shop where workers are still building helmets today. Of course, a few updates have been made, but you could feel the history reverberating through the factory walls. Hirotake always loved motorcycles, so when he had earned enough money, he bought a Harley-Davidson. You’ve probably seen the classic photo of a rider standing on the seat of his motorcycle wearing nothing but a straw hat. You may have assumed that the rider was some unnamed daredevil, but it was Hirotake Arai himself. His antics on the bike soon brought him to his ah-ha moment. He realized he was making protective hard hats for workers but not for people riding potentially dangerous motorcycles. His passion for motorcycles and for protecting riders spread like a wildfire from that point forward.
Here is a brief history lesson on the first motorcycle helmets: They were made of shellacked canvas back in 1914, as a British physician got the idea when he was attending to a patient who had a concussion from a motorcycle accident. In that same year, the prestigious Isle of Man TT race required head protection to enter the event. Two decades later, British military officer and author T.E. Lawrence, best known as “Lawrence of Arabia”, died when his Brough Superior SS100 left the road at speed. This incident inspired research into the correlation between motorcycle accidents and head injuries. This study led to the British military ordering all military dispatch riders to wear helmets that were made of rubber and cork. History is a bit fuzzy on who revolutionized helmets by adding an EPS foam liner, but both Bell Helmet’s Roy Richter and Arai’s Hirotake Arai can lay claim to being the pioneers of this ground-breaking advancement in the early 1950s.
WHY WOULD A RACER LEAVE MONEY ON THE TABLE TO WEAR A HELMET THAT WASN’T PAYING HIM? A HELMET IS JUST A HELMET, RIGHT?
Over the years I have heard rumors of incredibly famous riders getting out of their big-money helmet contracts to switch to Arai helmets for little or no money. Did the rumors make sense? Did they know something I didn’t? Why would a racer leave money on the table to wear a helmet that wasn’t paying him? A helmet is just a helmet, right? What’s the difference between a $150 helmet and a $650 helmet? How strict are the DOT, ECE and Snell certifications? If a helmet passes certification standards, is it just as good as any other helmet that passed the same standard? How about the lab results for all these different helmets? Do you crash in a lab? If each helmet company can test its own helmet, as with some certification standards, how do we know they are tested to the highest standard? Which is the best and safest helmet on the market? Strangely, there is no easy way for customers to know exactly what they are buying.
As for me, I crashed a lot growing up. For the most part, I had hand-me-down gear in my developing years of racing, except for helmets. My dad believed in Shoei helmets. His reasoning was simple. They were the most expensive helmets on the market and therefore should protect his son’s brain better than the rest. As I got old enough to make my own decisions, I naturally went with the most lucrative helmet sponsorship offer. My own belief system at the time was a helmet was just a helmet, regardless of cost. I had suffered concussions in top-of-the-line $600 helmets and cheap $150 helmets, and I couldn’t remember which concussion was worse. Now that I have a son of my own, I have adopted my dad’s way of thinking. After years of landing on my head and now having a son to look out for, I hope he’s not as stupid as I was.
HELMET CERTIFICATION STICKERS WORK ON THE PASS/FAIL SYSTEM. BUT, MUCH LIKE IN COLLEGE, YOU MAY PASS, BUT THERE WERE PEOPLE IN YOUR CLASS WHO ALSO PASSED BUT WERE MUCH SMARTER THAN YOU.
It takes money to build better helmets. That higher cost shows up on the showroom floor. Although each helmet company has its own philosophy about what makes a good helmet, which one is right? We don’t know. And despite what their always-optimistic advertising agencies proclaim, the helmet companies don’t know either. Now you may think that the certification sticker on the back of a helmet proves that it is the safest helmet around. It doesn’t—proven by the sticker inside the helmet that reads, “Some reasonably foreseeable impacts may exceed this helmet’s capacity to protect against severe injury or death.” Helmet certification stickers work on the pass/fail system. But, much like in college, you may pass, but there were people in your class who also passed but were much smarter than you. A smarter helmet is one that is based on a rigidly defined philosophy—one that they follow to a T—as opposed to just trying to pass the certification test.
What MXA does know is there are people doing their very best to make the safest possible helmet they know how. On the opposite side of the spectrum, however, there are people who put profits ahead of going the extra mile. Guess which side is winning? The best-selling helmets, by far, are at the cheapest price point—around the $150 mark. To a businessman, these figures paint a picture that is clear as day. If you can sell boatloads of helmets at $150 or just a tugboat full at $600, many manufacturers choose to keep the money flowing and the shareholders happy. Luckily, we live in a glorious time of helmet creativity.
Six years ago when 6D arrived on the market with a philosophy about how to build a safer helmet, the motocross helmet business changed dramatically. Prior to the 6D ATR-1 helmet’s arrival, helmets were basic commodities of fiberglass and foam. The science involved was limited to the crush zone of EPS foam and little more. 6D changed the play book and, to their credit, a handful of helmet manufacturers joined the safety revolution with a fervor that hadn’t been seen in helmet technology in decades. They began to experiment with more than colors, decals, ridges and fins. They engaged in what is known as “real science,” and that improved the $150 helmet market as well. It is a great time to be a helmet buyer.
Arai has always had a strong philosophical stance when it comes to helmet design. Think about this: Arai only makes one motocross helmet. There are no lower-price-point Arai motocross helmets. It is a $600-plus helmet that is, to a large extent, handmade. And, it is a family-owned business with zero shareholders calling the shots and clamoring for higher profit margins.
Arai’s philosophy is based on the idea that the roundest helmet is the safest helmet. Why? Well, a helmet can only manage so much internal energy due to the fact that the space between the shell and rider’s head is severely limited. Even with the best internal foam densities and thicknesses, if you don’t dissipate energy before it gets to the inside of the helmet, you are making the task very difficult. The strictest certification standards in the world test a direct impact onto an anvil at 17 mph. That may not sound very fast, and it isn’t. Any modern motocross bike can reach 17 mph in first gear. Guess what? A 17-mph crash can be life ending. Arai always wants to do better, which is why they spend so much time and money on technologies that can’t easily be measured on a machine, but they know their design principles work wonders in real-world situations.
PEOPLE CLAIM THAT ARAI IS OLD FASHIONED BECAUSE THEY HAVEN’T EMBRACED MIPS, ANGULAR ACCELERATION TESTS OR ROTATIONAL INJURY MITIGATION AS PART OF THEIR DESIGN. HIROTAKE ARAI SCOFFS AT THAT IDEA.
Arai is proud of its tough shell, multi-density EPS liner, hand-laid workmanship and high-tech Zylon cloth and resin. But, they scoff at people who claim that Arai is old fashioned because they haven’t embraced MIPs, angular acceleration tests or rotational injury mitigation as part of their design. Michio Arai scoffs at the idea that his helmets don’t address the new crop of head injury issues.
One of the first questions that I asked Mr. Arai was how relevant they were if they haven’t addressed the hot topic of rotational energy? Guess what he did? He laughed. I was confused. Was he laughing at me? Did I say something funny? He explained Arai has been minimizing rotational energy for decades, just in a different manner than others. “It is nothing new to Arai,” he explained. He told me that Arai helmets have changed many times over the years without ever announcing to the world their latest update, and this applied to Arai’s focus on rotational energy also. Arai calls its rotational technology “Mitigation of Rotational Energy” (MoRE). This system works with the helmet’s egg-shaped, smooth and strong shell. As the helmet slides across an uneven surface in a crash, it is able to glance off obstacles to help keep oblique impacts from creating rotational forces. The MoRE system overrides the need to add internal features inside the helmet that take away from the limited interior liner’s space, which reduces the liner’s ability to absorb impact energy.
Arai believes the best way for a helmet to mitigate energy is by keeping the energy from getting inside the helmet. The rounder the helmet, the easier it is for it to glance off of the terrain. For example, if a helmet has a ridge, it can catch on the terrain, which can cause your head to bounce off the ground, causing an additional impact and putting strain on your neck. Most helmets try to manage a blow by absorbing the impact energy with the foam liner. This energy management system is achieved as the outer shell deforms and the inner EPS liner crushes. An Arai helmet, by virtue of its egg-shaped design, can slide on the ground, which minimizes the impact energy that might otherwise be transferred to the limited thickness of the foam liner.
EVERY ARAI HELMET SHELL INCORPORATES A CONTINUOUS CURVE RADIUS OF AT LEAST 75MM, MAKING AN ARAI SHELL ROUND, SMOOTH AND STRONG.
Every Arai helmet shell incorporates a continuous curve radius of at least 75mm, making an Arai shell round, smooth and strong. I thought there wasn’t much to making a round helmet. Boy, was I wrong. Arai goes to extreme lengths to accomplish the roundness of its finished product by combining its absorption management system (the shell and EPS liner) into one unit that is light, protective, comfortable and offers a low center of gravity. It was astonishing to watch the intricate process of each helmet being made by Arai’s 300 workers (housed in four separate facilities in Japan). Mr. Arai told me that he pays his workers well and instills in them the knowledge that every work day they are saving the lives of others. He quoted the old saying, “The whole can do it far bigger than the individual.” His goal is to save lives, and he knows he has a better chance of doing that with people around him who have pride in their work.
There is no way to understand what actually goes into making a premium helmet unless you see it for yourself. The finished product hides the quality and the craftsmanship that make them safe. My original plan was to write a story about how Arai manufactures its helmets, but, the truth is, after visiting all four factories, watching every step of the process, filling up countless notebook pages and recording 10 hours of tech info, I realized that what impressed me most about Arai was its dedication to perfection, a strong belief in a philosophy of helmet design that flies in the face of popular helmet shapes and the pride of Michio Arai, who inherited the company from his father Hirotake and plans to hand the reins over to his son, 45-year-old Akehito.
On the way back to Tokyo, after visiting the last Arai factory, I rode my Africa Twin into Typhoons drenching downpour. There were times when I couldn’t see my front fender as the rain and wind pelted me with ferocity. I was terrified but glad I had a trusted Arai helmet on my head.