THE GREAT GAS CONSPIRACY

By: Ryan Cooley

Whether you love or hate the game of politics, it’s a fact of life. Politics go well beyond the traditional suit-and-tie, Washington D.C. brand that we’re all familiar with. They effect just about everything we’re associated with, including motocross. How so? Beginning with the kickoff of the 2004 AMA Supercross series in Anaheim, CA, on January 3rd, all AMA professionals will be required to run unleaded fuel in their race bikes. Big deal, right? Well, actually, it may very well be. The new regulation has the potential to drastically alter our sport as we know it, and all because of a few politics.

Some of you may recall the conflict between the AMA and Clear Channel Entertainment that occurred last year regarding the Supercross sanctioning agreement. The agreement stipulated that AMA Pro Racing maintains the exclusive rights to sanction Clear Channel’s events. Clear Channel, along with the FIM, however, was attempting to combine the AMA Supercross Series with smaller European events, creating a new series under the FIM banner. “Undoubtedly, this is not in the best interest of American racers, teams or Supercross fans,” said Scott Hollingsworth, CEO of AMA Pro Racing, and the feud was on!

According to Duke Finch, the AMA’s Manager of Motocross and Supercross, “When the board and manufacturers came to us to resolve our issues with Clear Channel rather than going another way, Clear Channel had already struck a deal with the FIM. In order for us to fit back into the picture, the one concession that we had to make was unleaded fuel.” The manufacturers lean on the AMA to resolve issues such as this, and in the words of Duke, “This is what had to be done! We felt that if that was the only thing holding us up from resolving our Supercross situation then we could live with it.” The AMA was given a reprieve for the 2003 racing season permitting the continued use of “leaded” fuel. Under the guidelines of their new contract, however, the AMA must enforce the unleaded fuel regulation beginning in January, 2004.

The fuel issue was originally addressed by the FIM, the worldwide motorcycle sanctioning body based in Geneva, Switzerland, as a direct result of environmental politics. The problem arose due to several European countries not permitting the use of leaded fuels. In order to fit in environmentally, the FIM was forced to implement the rule. According to Bruce Hendal of VP Racing Fuels, “The US is given an exemption on the use of leaded fuels for competition, so there wasn’t a governmental or legal reason to switch. It was purely political. From an environmental standpoint, unless you’re using catalytic converters, there’s absolutely no difference.”

To make matters even more “politically incorrect,” the AMA was not forced to implement the unleaded fuel regulation for 125 Supercross, or 125 and 250 outdoor nationals. The regulation was only intended for 250 Supercross initially. The AMA, however, made the decision to enforce the regulation in all classes in order to stay consistent across the board.

So enough of the political mumbo jumbo; what does all of this really mean to the performance of the race bike, and to the teams or individuals that field them? Many of the top industry experts believe that all it’s going to do is hurt the future of two-stroke motocross bikes, specifically 125cc two-strokes. Why, you ask? Allow us to explain…

Running very high-energy fuels that produce really good power has been one of the key ingredients to matching a two-stroke 125’s overall powerband to that of the new breed 250cc four-stroke. The components in exotic racing fuels that produce good power and have a lot of energy do not have very good octane. Octane, the rating of a fuel’s ability to resist detonation and/or pre-ignition, is a critical factorn the performance of a modified 125cc motor. The infamous “lead” component is the best octane improver on the market, from a cost and benefit standpoint. With lead you can use the higher energy components, maintaining that overall good combination. From a motor’s standpoint, leaded fuel doesn’t detonate as easily as unleaded fuel, so you’re able to use a higher-compression motor setting, which is a key factor to a 125’s performance. When more compression is run, the bike has greater acceleration. Pro Circuit’s Mitch Payton explains that “if you want to achieve 38 horsepower out of a 125 on leaded fuel, and 38 horsepower out of one on unleaded fuel, you can do it, but the bikes would run differently. The motor on unleaded fuel will have a softer, revvier feel because it will have less compression. The leaded motor with more compression may be a little flatter on top, but it will accelerate harder and won’t fall off of the power quite as easily.” As we all know, acceleration, especially on a 125, is a critical characteristic.

“The AMA says run the same thing we have now, but just take the lead out,” says Hendal. “This may sounds simple enough, but in reality it’s re-formulating everything, because you can’t just take the lead out and continue to achieve the high-energy combination.” In other words, take the lead out and there’s nothing else you can do to get that kind of octane back while maintaining the high-energy component. VP has been exploring other ways to get the octane level back up by using components that are considered unleaded, but those components don’t perform as well, they cost a lot of money, and they don’t offer as much octane. “Half the stuff we were testing on Pro Circuit’s dyno would sell for $32-$34 per gallon,” according to Hendal. Although dedicated to getting closer to a solution, the bottom line is that they are not yet able to design a fuel that produces the same horsepower. On the dyno at the Pro Circuit race shop, their 125 race motor is still down over a full horsepower to a horsepower-and-a-half when compared to last year’s 125cc racing motor on leaded fuel.

Clearly there are serious issues with the two-stroke, but what about the four-stroke? Four-stroke motors make better power right out of the box, and they make that power over a broader rpm range. With the rule change, the four-stroke is not affected the same way by the unleaded fuel. Four-stroke motors run on lower octane fuels as a rule, and are designed to basically run on pump gas. “We make high energy four-stroke fuels that make real good power that are between 88 and 90 motor octane, or MON (which is different than the yellow decal at gas stations),” says Hendal. “The fuels for the two-strokes, because they have to get power through more compression, and have more aggressive ignition timing, require more octane. Those fuels are about 100 motor octane.” When comparing the effects of both fuel types on both motor types, the four-stroke on unleaded fuel experiences a 1-2% power loss, while the two-stroke drops a whopping 5-7%. “When you’re already down on power compared to a 250cc four-stroke, matching power with the new fuel is tough,” says Payton.

Where exactly does all of this leave the state of two-stroke motocross bikes? It may still be a bit up in the air, but there’s no doubt that under the new rules, AMA pros will be at a disadvantage running a two-stroke. The only equalizer may be that in Supercross the tracks are tighter and the lightness of the two-stroke might still be an advantage. It seems to be the popular opinion that when the outdoor nationals begin in May 2004, two-stroke 125s will be few and far between. “I guarantee that when the outdoors come you won’t find anybody on a two-stroke,” says Hendal. “The unleaded fuel regulation is basically putting the nail in the coffin for two-strokes.”

Things will not get any easier for the manufacturers, either. Still very much interested in producing and supporting two-stroke MXers, the bike manufacturers will have a tough time keeping the spark and interest alive when the consumer sees all of the top professional racers aboard four-strokes. “Kawasaki would prefer to see us field half two-strokes and half four-strokes, because if none of the kids race two-strokes, it’s going to be very difficult for dealers to sell those bikes,” according to Payton. Race teams and manufacturers are certainly not giving up on their research to keep 125s on the track, but it’s been an ongoing difficult task.

At this point in the game it’s tough to predict whether or not two-strokes will be totally phased out. From a functional and mechanical standpoint, they certainly still have some advantages. They’re generally easier to work on, and quite possibly cheaper in the long run to maintain. They’re lighter and easier to start, and manufactures are still claiming to be doing R&D on them. One thing is for sure, however, and that’s the fact that the 2004 AMA Pro Racing Supercross and outdoor national motocross series’ events will surely predict the fate of two-stroke MXers forever. And should they someday become extinct, we can blame it all on politics.

SIDEBAR

EVERYONE ELSE EXCLUDED!

If you’re a die-hard two-stroke fan who, like the majority of us, has no plans of racing an AMA sanctioned Supercross or outdoor national, have no fear! The new unleaded fuel regulation does not affect you. The rule is an AMA Pro Racing regulation that applies to AMA Supercross and outdoor nationals ONLY! Those of you who wish to continue benefiting from the power improvements of exotic racing fuels like VP’s C12 and MR2 can have at it!

 

 

 

basically putting the nail in the coffin for two-strokes.”

Things will not get any easier for the manufacturers, either. Still very much interested in producing and supporting two-stroke MXers, the bike manufacturers will have a tough time keeping the spark and interest alive when the consumer sees all of the top professional racers aboard four-strokes. “Kawasaki would prefer to see us field half two-strokes and half four-strokes, because if none of the kids race two-strokes, it’s going to be very difficult for dealers to sell those bikes,” according to Payton. Race teams and manufacturers are certainly not giving up on their research to keep 125s on the track, but it’s been an ongoing difficult task.

At this point in the game it’s tough to predict whether or not two-strokes will be totally phased out. From a functional and mechanical standpoint, they certainly still have some advantages. They’re generally easier to work on, and quite possibly cheaper in the long run to maintain. They’re lighter and easier to start, and manufactures are still claiming to be doing R&D on them. One thing is for sure, however, and that’s the fact that the 2004 AMA Pro Racing Supercross and outdoor national motocross series’ events will surely predict the fate of two-stroke MXers forever. And should they someday become extinct, we can blame it all on politics.

SIDEBAR

EVERYONE ELSE EXCLUDED!

If you’re a die-hard two-stroke fan who, like the majority of us, has no plans of racing an AMA sanctioned Supercross or outdoor national, have no fear! The new unleaded fuel regulation does not affect you. The rule is an AMA Pro Racing regulation that applies to AMA Supercross and outdoor nationals ONLY! Those of you who wish to continue benefiting from the power improvements of exotic racing fuels like VP’s C12 and MR2 can have at it!