Me wearing that thing that I don’t trust an airline with. Photo credit: Brett Becker

If you’ve ever flown to a track weekend on a commercial airline, you know the paranoia of which I speak: no one really trusts baggage handlers, especially with vital items like helmets, which are supposed to protect your head. I don’t want a safety item like that to be accidentally mangled en route and be rendered less effective when I need it.

One famous internet car-person reminded me exactly why I’m so paranoid about my brain bucket recently. Roadkill’s Mike Finnegan couldn’t use the helmet he’d packed for the series’ Zip Tie Drags event this weekend in Ohio after it got obliterated by his airline en route.

As silly as I feel plopping a big round helmet into an overhead bin, this definitely reminds me why being ultra-protective about that bag with the helmet in it is totally worth it.

Check Which Plane You’re Taking

Something I’ve learned in my long, slow quest to drive as many places as possible is that smaller planes (which I call “puddle jumpers” or “scary turbulence horror chutes”) don’t have overhead bins that are tall enough for a racing helmet.

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Between that and the tendency to leaving my lower intestines feeling like one of James Bond’s martinis mid-air, I really try to avoid flying on a smaller plane. Usually, the plane you’ll get is listed in the information about the flight you’re taking when you buy tickets. If it’s something smaller than an MD-80, beware. Your helmet probably won’t fit in the overhead bin.

If taking a dinky plane is unavoidable, I’ll wait to gate check the bag with my helmet in it for that leg—just in case. This is mostly so I don’t have horrifying visions of it falling off an airport’s luggage trailer somewhere along the way.

However, some of my friends refuse to do even that—opting to wear their helmet on the plane or trying to awkwardly stuff it under the seat instead. After all, what’s a couple hours of funny looks when you could be unable to run all weekend because you have no helmet?

Your Checked Stuff Will Eventually Break In Weird Ways

While the worst that usually happens to me is a lost bag that arrives the next day, I have found checked items broken in unexpected ways. One United flight managed to snap my hair straightener in half, despite the fact that it was packed in the middle of my largest bag in a protective sleeve with everything else I could put around it there to keep it from getting knocked around.

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When I found the damage and called United to say that it looked like a baggage handler must have elbow-dropped that specific spot in my bag, they were about as unhelpful as it gets. Instead of offering at least a mere “I’m sorry” as other airlines have done when there’s damage to my bag, United’s rep stuck to the letter of the contract and said that it was my fault for checking a breakable item which no other airline had broken up until this point, and that I was out of luck since I didn’t find the damage until after I’d left the airport.

One representative finally directed me to a form I could fill out to alert the airline of the damage, but still insisted that it was unlikely I’d have any luck. I was going to take care of it after my race weekend was over, but this was also the weekend where I got the worst concussion of my life. After our car was done, I was having trouble merely putting thoughts into words, much less figuring out a damage form.

Fortunately, the worst that happened with that broken item was frizzy hair. However, that is not an experience I’d like to relive with a pretty carbon fiber helmet that would cost around $1,000 to replace, counting the electronic bits, Hans posts and tinted visor I’ve added on.

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If anything, that weekend in particular proved why I needed my helmet to arrive in working order when I show up to race. Had anything been weakened by a hard hit at the airport—particularly around the Hans posts—two cars speeding into my rear bumper at highway speeds could have been potentially fatal.

Anyone who suggests that checking other expensive or potentially fragile items like laptops (the likes of which I need to do the basic functions of my job) is no big deal should be forced to check theirs on a string of United flights just to see what happens.

Inevitably, you may get a similar “no big deal” attitude from the check-in counter when they see you carrying a bag with a bulbous helmet in it. I had one make the argument that if it’s built to withstand impacts in a car, it should be no big deal in a plane’s cargo hold, right? Well, um—no.

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So, here’s my advice: if possible, don’t check the bag with your helmet in it! Alternately, you better hope you have enough cash to replace it on-site, as airlines can be pretty shady about owning up to what they destroyed.