It was a beautiful April day at the abandoned airfield. Well over 100 car enthusiasts attended the local car club’s first autocross of 2018. All kinds of cars were lining up to take their runs through the 1.3 mile course laid out with cones across the runways and taxiways of the abandoned airfield, just as they had for years. Suddenly numerous State Police cruisers, followed by a number of unmarked cars and some vans marked “EPA – Emissions Control Unit” sped into the paddock area. All exits were blocked. State troopers and EPA agents emerged, guns drawn, shouting “Freeze! EPA!” After shutting down the event and rounding up all of the vehicle owners, they deployed their mobile emissions test equipment from the vans. After appropriating a complete entry list, they began systematically checking and testing each car entered in the event to cite each owner for every non-factory modification, and to issue hefty fines for any emissions violations.
Despite what SEMA would have you believe, this wouldn’t really happen. Yes, the internet is currently buzzing with discussion about the EPA’s latest attempts to kill our automotive fun in the name of saving the planet. The EPA wants to prohibit the removal or alteration of emission systems on any cars and motorcycles originally intended for street use, even on vehicles that will never see a public road again such as dedicated track cars. But SWAT teams are not about to raid your local autocross and impound cars as though it’s an illegal street race.
There’s still plenty of cause for alarm for car enthusiasts, though. The law – or “clarification,” as the EPA calls it – applies specifically to vehicles originally intended for street use that have been modified to strictly track use. That’s bad enough, but if the market for race car go-fast goodies dries up, such parts won’t be available for street cars, either. That affects people like us who don’t have dedicated race cars. Jalopnik wrote an excellent article explaining what the EPA crackdown does and doesn’t mean. Aftermarket manufacturers frequently label their parts as being “for off-road use only.” This could mean anything from H4 replacements for sealed beam headlights, to tuning that alters the fuel curves, to dump pipes that bypass the catalytic converter. How would each of these modifications be affected if the EPA gets their way?
The EPA Cares About The Environment, And That’s All
Let’s start with the easy one – parts that have nothing to do with emissions. The EPA simply doesn’t care. I installed an H4 headlight upgrade on Project MJ. The only thing it emits is light, not toxic fumes. Though technically sold “for off-road use only,” I’ve breezed through numerous state inspections with these on previous cars, even before the antiquated American headlight requirements were relaxed to allow such lighting. The same goes for other lights, or wings, or body parts, or suspension upgrades, or brakes. None of those have anything to do with the engine or emissions, and the EPA doesn’t care what you do with them. All they’re concerned about is what comes out of your tailpipe and how clean it is.
Dump The Dump Pipe
Let’s skip ahead to something else that’s pretty obvious – the dump pipe. This little gadget sits between your header(s) and catalytic converter(s). It allows you to select whether your exhaust will flow all the way through your tailpipes to the end as the EPA and manufacturer intended, or bypass the exhaust system and dump the exhaust ahead of the cat. A dump pipe is already illegal for street use. But as long as a zealous state inspector doesn’t decide to fail you for it, it’s legal to have one installed on your IROC Camaro, run the stock exhaust on the street, and open the dump pipe at your local drag strip’s open street night. Under what we’ve been led to believe (more on that confusion later), it’s OK to use modifications that aren’t legal for the street in places other than the street, like tracks and drag strips.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping the driver of said IROC Camaro from opening the dump pipe for a little extra power in a stoplight street race. Using it on the street is illegal, but then again so is street racing. The point is, I think the EPA is looking at the “for off-road use only” label as a loophole allowing such parts to be widely available to be used on the street illegally.
So what about aftermarket tunes? That gets complicated. In fact, in states with emissions testing, it already is. In today’s age of computerized cars, many enthusiasts, myself included, customize their car by getting the computer reprogrammed. Even on a car like my Subaru BRZ, with no other power adding components whatsoever (I don’t count the Nameless Performance axle-back at the end of an otherwise stock exhaust system as adding power), a tune can improve drivability and address issues with the factory tune. For instance, the BRZ/FR-S are known for torque that falls flat on its face between 3-4000RPM. A basic tune made this torque dip almost disappear. It made the electronic throttle linear rather than progressive. It also gave the motor a slightly more raspy, aggressive tone, which I like.
All this is accomplished by changing the parameters for engine management from stock – the ones that were thoroughly tested and approved by the EPA. I can guarantee that the EPA has not tested the tune in my car, being from an open source system. However, the Check Engine light is off. The car still passes all of its self diagnostic emissions tests, and therefore will pass a state emissions test. So I’m free and clear, right?
From what the EPA is saying, no, I’m not. Because my tune is different than stock, they’re saying it is illegal, despite the fact that I’ll still breeze through an emissions test. My axle-back would even be illegal, because it’s not the original part. But it’s still a street car, not a race car, so I could see the EPA calling shenanigans on that. It’s also not covered under this law, because it’s not a street car converted into a race car.
So what if I did convert it into a dedicated track car? Up until now the understanding has been that if it isn’t on the street, anything goes. But now the EPA claims that on any vehicle originally intended for street use, all emission controls must remain in place, forever, even if it’s turned into a race car. And even if my BRZ was a dedicated track car, my tune, despite the rest of the emission controls being in place, would still be illegal.
It’s even worse than that. Though it’s been understood for many years that the EPA turns a blind eye toward emissions on cars not used on the street, they now claim that this is how the law has always been, and this is merely a clarification – one buried in a 629 page document about medium and heavy duty vehicles, not passenger cars, which is why SEMA didn’t notice it until now. As far as the EPA is concerned, not only are all those tunes, dump pipes, high flow catalytic converters, or straight pipes on dedicated race cars illegal, they always have been. Their stance is that even if you take your bone stock car to the track, swap out the air box for an intake, then reinstall the stock air box before you return to public roads, you’re breaking the law.
Jay Lamm, the Chief Perpetrator of the 24 Hours of LeMons, is rightfully so concerned about the consequences of this law on his racing series that he hired a lawyer to interpret it for him. You can read what the lawyer had to say here in full, but this excerpt pretty much says it all.
The proposed rules essentially ban the modification of any component of the engine, fuel, and emissions systems. By placing draconian fines on anyone who could be considered a manufacturer or dealer of aftermarket parts that would be used on production-based racing vehicles, these proposed rules will have an incalculably chilling effect on the aftermarket parts market. It is difficult to see how any aftermarket part manufacturer could continue to make and market performance parts without running afoul of this proposed rule unless the part was essentially identical to the factory-certified part.
And this is where it comes back to bite the casual enthusiast. The market for power-adding aftermarket parts could disappear overnight as manufacturers find themselves vulnerable to hefty fines. Technically, the rest of us who have ever modified our engine, fuel, or emissions systems are breaking the law as well, but there are so many of us that the EPA doesn’t have the resources to round us all up – we hope. More likely, by starving the aftermarket of parts, they’ll rely on attrition to get modified cars off the road rather than force us all to install factory equivalent parts.
Needless to say, SEMA is cranky, because aftermarket power adding parts is a huge part of what SEMA is all about. They’ve already started fighting this tooth and nail. So, too, can the rest of us, by commenting directly to the EPA as explained here. Not all of us have cars dedicated to the track, but all of us who modify our cars will be affected by this. They may not be going after us directly today, but the law makes it possible for them to do so, and to extend their powers even further in the future.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for saving the environment. I like to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and give everyone on Earth, regardless of species, a healthy place to live. But considering the number of dedicated track cars in the US and how little they’re actually driven, as compared to the number of large trucks belching thick clouds of smoke into the air constantly, I think the EPA is barking up the wrong tree.