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After a national uproar and months of insisting it had no intention of regulating auto racing, the Environmental Protection Agency has reversed course on plans to prohibit the modification of street cars for competition.

The issue came to a head last week after House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman and Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy demanding clarification of the agency’s intentions. Upton’s letter followed a storm of protest from weekend racers, state attorneys general, the Global Automakers Alliance — even former presidential contender Marco Rubio. They said the EPA’s action would have chilled grassroots racing and threatened a $30 billion parts industry.

The EPA told Congress late Friday it was withdrawing its language.

Critics were quick to celebrate, although they said that congressional legislation to exempt racing from EPA’s emissions rules — first reported by the Detroit News — still was necessary to prevent future EPA meddling.

“We want to thank Congress for pushing EPA to withdraw an ill-conceived proposal,” said Chris Kersting, head of the Specialty Equipment Manufacturer’s Association, which represents racing parts manufacturers. “However, confusion reigns. Only clarifying legislation ... will confirm that such activity is legal and beyond the reach of future EPA regulations.”

The so-called RPM Act (Recognizing the Protection of Motorsports), a bipartisan bill introduced last month, would put in law the decades-old intent of Congress to exclude off-road vehicles from federal emissions regulations.

The firestorm erupted early this year after the agency inserted new language in the Clean Air Act’s Heavy-Duty Greenhouse Gas rules. It said “certified motor vehicles and motor vehicle engines and their emission control devices must remain in their certified configuration even if they are used solely for competition.”

EPA claimed the new language was necessary to clarify the act’s regulation of vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. SEMA claimed the agency was rewriting 46 years of law that had exempted competition vehicles. A national petition to rescind the EPA’s rules gathered more than 168,000 signatures. Congressional hearings and grassroots protest ensued.

“The wording of the EPA rule would have destroyed the world of racing and the billions of dollars that go with it,” said Speed Sport chief Ralph Sheheen, who testified at the hearing and whose publications cover every form of motorsport. “From Saturday night short-track dirt racing to local drag strips, as far up the line as the Pirelli World Challenge which is based on production vehicles — it would have ripped the heart out of racing for thousands of people.”

On April 1, seven state attorneys general — including Michigan’s Bill Schuette — sent a letter to the EPA saying its “language (is) inconsistent with the federal Clean Air Act,” and that “any purported benefit from this change would pale in comparison to the economic damage caused by this regulation.”

In removing the language governing competition vehicles, the EPA last week said its attempt to clarify led to confusion. It said it would focus on “reducing pollution from the cars and trucks that travel along America’s roadways and through our neighborhoods.”

Michigan has refused to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan targeting coal-fired utilities until the courts have decided on the issue. And rules mandating that automaker fleets average 54.5 mpg by 2025 have come under fire from Congress and the National Auto Dealers Association.

“The proposed race car provisions are just one of many attempts at regulatory overreach under the Obama administration, and we will continue to scrutinize all of them in a common-sense way,” said Upton.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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