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NHRA Rule Changes Rattle Pro Stock Motorcycle
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

NHRA Rule Changes Rattle Pro Stock Motorcycle

By Matt Polito

The turmoil in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class has subsided from near-frenzy earlier in the year as the NHRA struggles to maintain parity between the now four different “brands” of motorcycle regularly competing.

The last two rounds of rules changes riled the troops, causing representatives from different camps to throw up their arms saying that they are getting the short end of the connecting rod.

In the middle was Steve Johnson, one of the longest active racers in the class and the long-time leader of PRO2, the racer’s association charged with representing the class to the NHRA with a single voice.

Unquestionably, the NHRA has a monumental task: ensuring that motorcycles with drastically different engine configurations are evenly matched.  Piling on additional complexity, some of engines - the V-twins of S&S and Vance & Hines - are purpose-built and still in the early stages of their development cycle, while another - the GS-based Suzuki motors - are derived from production engines and have been raced in NHRA competition for over 20 years.

The hardest question for the NHRA to answer is this:  Should a race team that works to hard to find a performance advantage within the current set of rules be penalized with a rule adjustment intended to slow them down?

While the task is difficult, the payoff is worth the trouble.  Having a true “Ford vs Chevy”-type rivalry gets the fans emotionally involved.  This can be even more intense for the bikes with an “American V-Twin” vs “4-clyinder Import” aspect.

Keeping parity between the big V-twins and the inline fours is the toughest issue facing the NHRA with the Pro Stock Motorcycle class.

The NHRA has been making small changes to the PSM rules since the V-twins came onto the scene.  And while you can posture for any position you want, the fact is that they have done a pretty good job of keeping the class even.  Over the past three years, brands placing in the top ten are pretty well split:  in 2005 there were six inline 4 cylinder “metric” bikes and four v-twins.  In both 2006 and 2007 they were evenly split at five apiece.

No doubt if you mention this to any Suzuki rider they will fire back that while it is true that it was a 5-5 split in 2007 but of the top five were v-twins.  They will argue that they are losing ground.

Johnson leads the charge. “Nobody can argue with the facts,” he states. “Look at the Ringers Pro Bike Battle, look at the number one qualifying statistics.  Suzuki does not have any favorable advantage.  And every day there is going to be less and less Suzuki’s.”

As far as the latest rules adjustment, Johnson says it came based on criteria set forth in 2007.  “The NHRA said this is the rule, everybody knew about it, now they are doing it.”

According to Graham Light, NHRA’s Senior Vice President-Racing Operations, there is no specific algorithm for making adjustments but the conditions for which the situation is studied is outlined: If there is a 5 hundredths of a second performance differential between two brands at one event or a three hundredths differential between two brands over a three-race series, officials will look deeper into determining whether a rules adjustment is prudent.

At that point the science transforms into art.  Officials take into account anomalies that can skew the numbers: a perfect run by one team during a session with disproportionately favorable conditions; a typically competitive team running poorly, regional conditions (like the high altitude of Denver, for example) that favor one brand over another, etc. Once these factors are looked at, a rule adjustment may be implemented.

“With different brands competing it is never going to be perfect,” said Light. “The best we can do is to make sure every brand is competitive.  It is important to us to have all the multilple brands competing and we are going to do what we can to ensure that they are.”

The rule adjustment of choice has been to add or take away weight from a particular brand.  This method is effective, easily measured and inexpensive for the teams to implement.  The problem is that it has its limits.

There was a weight reduction implemented on January 8th of this year affecting only the Suzuki bikes with their minimum weight being reduced by 10 pounds. This was quite the talk at Gainesville especially when a rumor started circulating that Johnson personally went to NHRA headquarters to lobby that the Suzuki’s should be given a break. 

George Bryce feels the faster he goes, the more rules will be levied against him.

From the outside this seemed to be a conflict of interests as Johnson was using his stature at PRO2 president to gain access to NHRA brass and undercut more than half of the PRO2 membership – specifically the V-twin riders.  Many called for Steve Johnson’s resignation.

Johnson bit back stating that he went to Glendora as a representative of the Suzuki racers and not as a representative of PRO2.  He further stated that he did not use any PRO2 funds for the trip and that any other “brand” representative was free to take a trip to NHRA headquarters and speak their mind as well.

“I don’t have any control over what NHRA does,” stated Johnson.  “As a brand manager I just need parity. PRO2 doesn’t represent the class [in terms of performance issues]; PRO2 represents the facts that are going on with the economic issues of the class. PRO2 just sets back and watches NHRA do what they do.”

Further, Johnson noted that his visit to California came on January 28th – nearly three weeks following the January 8th rule change.  Although he later admitted that he was in telephone contact with NHRA officials discussing the topic in December.

It looked mysterious as the rules were apparently just changed out of the blue with no current statistics to warrant it.  But Light stated that the rule change came about with data gathered during the end-of-season “Countdown” championship chase.  Light stated that the NHRA did not want to make late-season rule changes.  “We try not to make rules changes in the middle of the Countdown”, he said. “We want the racers to race under consistent rules.  When the season was over we looked a the races that occurred during the Countdown to make a determination on whether an adjustment was needed.”

The NHRA’s Don Taylor, the Senior Director – National Technical Operations stated that while the technical department made the change before the season began, “we thought there might have been a little more needed.”

“There are developments in the off season but until they are shown on the track we can’t make a change,” said Taylor.  “We can’t make an adjustment based on testing numbers, only what we see at our events.  We have to go by what we see on the track.  People say there is a lot of potential in the Buells.  Until that potential is shown we can’t make a change.”

Following Gainesville, where Matt Guidera showed a wholesale performance gain and won the race from the pole, another round of adjustments was implemented.  This time multiple brands were involved and caused even more heated discussions.

Suzuki’s were given another 5-pound weight reduction while the V-Twin Buells had five pounds added to them. Fifteen pounds were taken off the 4-valve Kawasaki’s while the Harley-Davidson V-Rods were left untouched.

The five pounds didn’t seem to hamper current champ Matt Smith who wheeled his Buell to the top qualifying position and the first win of his championship defense.

George Smith feels V-rods and Buells should be treated the same.

“I think it is bogus,” said Smith of the second round of rule changes. “I think it was a knee-jerk reaction.”

“There are teams that did their homework over the winter and those who didn’t,” Smith continued. “A lot of people went out fishing and playing golf.  We got beat up at Gainesville and we went home for a week and half and found some things.  I didn’t go to California crying, I went home and found more power.”

The Buell camps were livid that they were singled out and separated from the V-Rods. Light stated that the two brands should be separated, as there are differences in both fairing and airbox design.

George Smith, co-owner of G-Squared motorsports who produces the S&S-powered Buells that now account for half the field at an NHRA event, disagrees.  He says that the S&S Pro Stock motor was developed under the same restrictions as the V-Rod motors and if anything the V-Rods have an aerodynamic advantage because the required body of the Buells gives them a larger frontal “profile”.

“To separate some of the V-twins from other V-twins when they operate from the same set of specifications doesn’t make sense,” said George Smith. “Pro Stock cars have one engine classification and multiple body types.”

Beyond the inequity he perceives in separating the V-Rods and Buells, George Smith does feel that the NHRA is on the job.

“The NHRA is doing the best that they can,” he said. “I agree that we have to keep the Suzuki’s in.  I have no problem taking weight off the Suzuki’s.”

Byron Hines thinks the NHRA should make quick changes – but also back them out quickly if needed.

Byron Hines, who changed the face of the sport with the development of the Pro Stock “V-Rod” V-twin engine for NHRA competition, thinks the NHRA is doing an admirable job.  “In NHRA’s defense, they have never had four brands competing and high-profile sponsors,” he said. “They have to define the specifications of each class to achieve parity.  In terms of making changes quickly I feel that they absolutely have to have a quick response.  They can’t waste time but they also have to have accurate data to base their decision on. They also have to be as quick to take it off if the data indicates that is the direction to go.”

Hines added that weight changes would only be effective for so long.  “Eventually there will be a stopping issue and a reliability issue.  There is going to have to be a cubic inch adjustment at some point.”

The ever-opinionated George Bryce, team owner for six NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championships, weighed in on the topic.

“Angelle and I ran 7.04 at 605 pounds with a 1500 cc motor with 305 horsepower seven years ago,” said Bryce.  “As far as I can see the Suzuki program hasn’t improved very much in years. With the V-twins we have 10 different camps developing their own hardware and figured out how to go fast.”

Bryce cites his oft-mentioned statistics that sets the standard performance for the bikes at each event.

“We traditionally run three tenths behind what the Pro Stock cars run,” he said. “When somebody steps out from under that three-tenths umbrella they should be scrutinized. If you run .32 or .33 behind the cars like Matt Guidera did at Gatornationals then I think it is perfectly in line.  If everybody else is going slower then that means they need to go back to work and stop worrying about the guys that are going almost fast enough.”

DSM crewchief Steve Tartaglia has kept Suzuki’s competitive with the big V-twins.

“Right now we are working hard at weighing a lot,” Bryce continued. “Right now we have people saying ‘Don’t work on the bike because the NHRA is going to help the slow people’.  It is like the public school system where they leave no child behind. In a public school system, everybody advances at the rate of the slowest child.  I believe the mentality with PSM is that we count backward to the slowest bike and we make sure everybody runs as fast as the slowest bike.”

As for Steve Tartaglia, crewchief of the Don Schumacher team and tuner to the quickest Suzuki in the field, he doesn’t see what all the hoo-hah is about. 

“I don’t think it was a big deal one way or another,” he said. “I don’t think five pounds is going to make or break anybody.  A lot of the Suzuki teams are struggling and maybe it was just a way for NHRA to throw them a bone.”

As for the rule change made after the first race of the season, Tartaglia was again un-impassioned. “It was a little premature maybe,” he said.  “I would have liked it to play out for two or three races and then make a decision.”

As for Steve Johnson, he wanted more. “I can tell you that the Suzuki racers don’t feel [the current reduction in weight] is enough,” said Johnson. “It may work at sea-level tracks but when we go to tracks with altitude we are going to get our teeth kicked in. There is no replacement for displacement.  Bigger engines are going to work better in worse conditions.”

“At the end of the day I just want to race and have a chance of winning,” he said.

Following Houston the NHRA made no changes to the rules despite the fact that Matt Smith dominated in a similar fashion to Matt Guidera in Gainesville. 

One thing that did change is Johnson’s tenure as PRO2 president.  On a conference call with the PRO2 members on April 8th, Johnson announced his resignation. 

“I understand that we are going to have difference of opinion,” said Johnson.  “We are never all going to agree.  In the end they could not separate me representing Suzuki on the racing side and me representing the whole class. I am totally OK with it. I am not upset.  Now I can put the same effort into my race team that other teams do.”

George Smith was quick to praise Johnson’s efforts but noted it was time to move on.

Steve Johnson resigned as president of PRO2 over Pro Stock Motorcycle rule issues.

“Steve Johnson worked his tail off on behalf of Pro Stock Motorcycle drag racing and I applaud him for that,” said Smith.  “But the class has changed.  Now there are multiple platforms competing. We need to have the class represented by an individual not associated with any team or manufacturer.”

Members of the group identified Melvyn Record as a possible replacement for Johnson at the help of PRO2.  Record has a strong history with NHRA and Pro Stock Motorcycle working for both National Dragster (the NHRA “house organ”) as well as the NHRA’s marketing department.  He is currently Vice President of Marketing at Laguna Seca Raceway.

While Record has stated that he has not made a decision on taking the position, if he were to take it, his primary focus would be generating revenue for the NHRA through the bike class, not fighting a rules war with the NHRA.

That would leave each “brand” manager to lobby the NHRA for their case.  The NHRA appears to be wanting to keep the status quo for now, recently rejecting for approval a new billet GS cylinder head produced by Blake Gann and a new Buell 1125R-based body produced by Matt Smith. 

On the other hand, the NHRA has given the 4-valve Kawasaki being developed by Rob Muzzy a 15-pound weight break.  The challenge for Muzzy is to build the motor housed in the production ZX-14 engine case which was mandated by the Kawasaki factory.  There is a consensus among competitors to give Muzzy even more of a weight break until the Kawasaki becomes competitive.  Ironically Blake Gann stated that he has been contacted by Muzzy to possibly produce a billet cylinder head for the motor.

By far the biggest thing on the horizon is the modern billet engine being produced by Don Schumacher Racing for Suzuki.  The 4-valve engine is being designed and prototyped by McLaren and reports are that the fist version is running on a dyno. 

Some feel that the new Schumacher Suzuki motor has more potential than the larger V-Twins currently running.  Any talk about reducing the cubic inches of the V-twins should be shelved at least until the Schumacher Suzuki shows it’s potential. 

NHRA’s Don Taylor is the man on the firing line over any rule adjustment.

So what is the answer?  Most of the Suzuki racers say that they need something to help them keep up. They got bigger engines and fuel injection last year and a weight break this year. They point to the new Gann cylinder head or even being allowed to run hotter fuel.

Taylor addressed both those options.   As far as the decision to no allow the Gann head, “We did debate allowing the new head we had different opinions,” Taylor said of discussions within the technical staff at NHRA.  “You are dealing with a situation where teams would be potentially increasing the performance of the Suzuki’s on the eve of a new motor for Suzuki with the factory having a considerable investment. Then if you let one new head compete, other teams would want to get their new heads approved.  It would be an escalation. We did not feel this was the best course of action at this time.”

In reference to the fuel option, “We rejected that based on history,” said Taylor.  “There is trouble policing these things. Consistency in the fuel is a problem and there are contamination issues.  C-25 is what we are using. You don’t want to introduce another variable.”

There is a strong argument that the Suzuki’s don’t need any more right now.  In Atlanta Chip Ellis held the low e.t. and top speed of the meet on the DSR Suzuki and while Andrew Hines was consistently better than him throughout the event, he was only a little better than Chip in the final.  In St Louis Chip’s Suzuki was the third quickest bike of the event, behind the V-Rod of Hines and the Buell of Matt Smith.  They Hines, Smith and Ellis currently rank first, second and third in the points.  Long-time Suzuki racers like Karen Stoffer and Craig Treble are always a threat and both have won races in the last year.

It can be said that a majority of the GS Suzuki’s are sliding to the back of the field, but the teams with the most money and resources are selecting V-Twins.  Does that put a bias on the results?

POWERade champ Matt Smith says stop changing the rules and let’s race.

Taylor feels the current weight distribution is working fine.  “In the last couple of races we have seen a variable within a couple hundredths,” said Taylor.  “It is a tough job being in an environment with different engine types. Things change quickly.  We might have parity one race and not the next. Some people don’t take this into consideration.”

“We try to not be tempted to make short-term changes,” he continued.  “We need to look long term. We don’t want to change the rules race by race.  No one wants to change race by race. We are heroes to some people and do a terrible job in the eyes of others.  We are doing the best we can.”

Matt Smith has a novel approach:  Just go race. “Someone always dominates,” he said.  “But I don’t think someone will dominate the whole season. Everyone will run different at different tracks. I personally don’t think they should be changing rules in the middle of the year at all.  At the end of the year you need to make a change, fine.”

“People have got to stop whining about the rules,” continued Smith.  “Let’s go out and race. This is a heads-up class.  They gave us the rules, you run with it.”

And maybe we should let the final word come from one of the greatest ever.

“The late great Dave Schultz used to say,” recalled George Bryce, “the longer they leave the rules alone, the more competitive the class gets”

Amen to that.



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