EPA racing regulation faces backlash

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory expansion over the U.S. energy economy has provoked outcries from auto dealers to coal miners to the Michigan attorney general.

Add weekend auto racers to the list.

The EPA has reversed a decades-long exemption to federal emissions laws that allowed racers to modify production cars for track use. Under the EPA’s proposal, any alteration to a car’s drivetrain for racing will be deemed illegal — a change that will affect racers and impact millions of dollars in after-market equipment sales. The Specialty Equipment Manufacturing Association, which represents a $30 billion industry threatened by the EPA’s new rule, is leading the grassroots protest after the EPA changed the law last summer.

“The EPA’s ruling is a violation of the law,” says Stuart Gosswein, SEMA senior director for federal government affairs. “Racing-converted street cars is part of Americana. It is a heritage that goes back to NASCAR’s origins of converting stockers to race cars in the 1930s.”

A SEMA petition calling for the EPA to rescind the rule has gained more than 150,000 signatures, and Congress says it will draft legislation if it is not removed.

“The EPA is making up rules as they go along. Nobody believes they have the authority to regulate race cars,” says Congressman Doug LaMalfa, R-California. “Congress will do whatever it takes to make this right — including legislation.”

The controversy has erupted at the same time that 29 state attorneys general — including Michigan’s — successfully argued before the Supreme Court that emissions rules for power plants is an illegal interpretation of the Clean Air Act. In addition, rules mandating that vehicles average 54.5 mpg by 2025 have come under fire from Congress and the National Auto Dealers Association.

In revising the Clean Air Act’s Heavy-Duty Greenhouse Gas rules, an EPA representative said the agency “remains primarily concerned with cases where the tampered vehicle is used on public roads, and more specifically with aftermarket manufacturers who sell devices that defeat emission control systems on vehicles used on public roads.”

Critics do not dispute the EPA’s authority to regulate modifications for public use. The EPA has enforced auto mods under the Clean Air Act since 1970 by monitoring the sales of performance parts shops.

The disagreement comes over new language inserted by the agency that says “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, or if they become nonroad vehicles.”

While the EPA calls the language a clarification of existing law, SEMA says Congress never gave the EPA authority to regulate devices “solely for competition.”

The result, says the trade group, is that all owners of production cars modified for racing since 1970 are now in violation of the law. While SEMA’s Gosswein says the organization doesn’t expect the EPA to go after car owners, it does fear that engine parts makers will be liable for EPA fines when the agency inspects their sales.

“Even if EPA doesn’t go after individual racers, the prohibition will have a chilling effect on the supply chain,” says SEMA’s Gosswein.” Legitimate racing products may no longer be developed and sold, and businesses may no longer be willing to modify vehicles.”

For example, high-performance turbochargers, superchargers, and exhaust systems — widely used in SCCA road racing and NHRA drag racing — will be illegal according to the letter of the law. Compared to street-legal performance chips that can increase output by 10-15 horsepower, competition-tuned superchargers can dramatically increase horsepower — and emissions.

The EPA will issue a final rule in July.

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