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Long Live the two-stroke

June 25th, 2008 · 5 Comments · Industry, Racing, Technology, Two-Stroke

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Michael Scott’s “In The Paddock” column in the new Cycle News, (pg 60, July 2, 2008) is all about the two-stroke motorcycle engine, its past, present, and future. Some interesting stuff there. Mostly Scott talks about road racing and the death of the 250 GP class, which DORNA has killed effective 2010. But he also interviews Jan Witteveen, legendary Aprilia two-stroke engine designer and gets his views on the state of the two-stroke, plus discusses possible changes at the FIM to bring the two-stroke back to MX.

According to Scott, Witteveen recently designed an innovative two-stroke 125 for Chinese company Haojue and is “working on a project for the future of the two-stroke engine.” Scott goes on to discuss the “death” of the two-stroke and, like others with whom I’ve spoken, lays the blame at the doorstep of Honda, who were the first of the Jap conglomerates to declare a moratorium on two-stroke production.

In fact, I’ve been told by one well-placed industry engineer that the entire affair at Honda has little or nothing to do with emissions, performance, or cost but rather with patents. He claims that Honda has no patentable two-stroke technology and, therefore, no way to control that segment of the industry. So they declared it a “very bad idea”, Yamaha meekly followed, and voila! the two-stroke is dead.

Or is it? According to Scott the FIM is now proposing a return to two-stroke racing in MX:

Over on the mud, they’ve already made the switch from two-stroke to four-stroke, and now there is a significant backlash. Four-stroke racing dirt bikes are expensive to buy, and virtually impossible for an amateur mechanic to maintain. Engine blowups can be financially crippling. They also have a strictly limited service life, making them lose value rapidly. And two-strokes are lighter and more fun. In response to these problems, which afflict all but factory riders, the FIM are now proposing a switch back to an all two-stroke formula, with the plonkers actually banned.

Now don’t go blaming me for the problems Scott attributes to four-bangers. I was actually told by one fellow that anyone who can read a manual can do a proper job servicing a modern four-stroke MX race motor. But then, I also know that people as well respected as Stu Peters (CMC founder) and Tim Cotter (MXSports.com and promoter of Loretta Lynn’s) feel that the maintenance cost and complexity of the modern four-stroke are serious problems for the long-term health of the sport. So it’s not just me, folks.

On the other hand, I’d hate to see four-strokes banned in MX, and I think that unlikely. After all, I’m sure Honda are dead serious about not making them anymore. But there should be displacement parity such that the two technologies can compete on more-or-less equal terms. Then the racers can choose. And that would be good for everyone. What we have now is an arbitrary policy imposed, essentially, by one big Jap conglomerate. It’s not to the racers’ benefit, it’s not to the fans’ benefit, it’s not even to the environment’s benefit. It’s mostly just to Honda’s benefit. And I’m getting tired of that.

Update: You may be interested in reading this article posted on July 10, 2008 which goes into more detail on this topic.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Giles Nelson

    Hey Terry, Correct me if I’m wrong because I’m not totally sure, but hasn’t Calif banned 2 stroke sales there or is planning on doing so? The rest of the nation tends to follow the CA lead on things for better or worse. It might be more then Honda to blame for this sad state of affairs. Giles

  • Terry Frazier

    Giles wrote: “…hasn’t Calif banned 2 stroke sales there or is planning on doing so?”

    I don’t think so, Giles. There was a bill – CA Bill #2439 – called the Bowen bill in 1998 that banned two-strokes over 10bhp from use on lakes and waterways. The goal was to prevent the direct discharge of fuel and oil into the water, as well as decrease airborne emissions. There has been talk of banning two-stroke snowmobiles in some states. And there is always talk of banning two-stroke lawncare equipment. AMA District 36 was fighting CARB restrictions on two-strokes in the late 1990’s and lost. But I’m not sure of the exact details on this. I don’t know if it pertained to closed-course competition or just the public lands where you needed a Green Sticker.

    But there are a few things to keep in mind about this. First, all regulations at the State and Federal level are largely written by lobbyists. And lobbyists come from business. It’s far more likely that Honda (or whatever other companies stood to gain from the move) informed CARB than vice versa. But CA’s target was outboards. Motorcycles were collateral damage. So it’s also likely that Honda merely capitalized on this and worked to influence the motorcycle ruling bodies to their own benefit.

    Second, the issue is emissions, both direct and indirect. CARB used EPA data from the early 1990’s to prove that two-stroke engines produced 8x the emissions of a four-stroke. That data is now over 15 years old. And the real problem was two-fold: the dumping of fuel-oil residue into the waterways and air quality.

    Third, government entities have a provable, inarguable, and astounding track record of being technical nitwits. It almost never works out when they ban specific technologies.

    Here are the current Two-stroke Facts from the California Department of Boating and Waterways:

    Facts About Two-Stroke Vessel Engines

    * Two-stroke engines are not “banned” for use on all waterways in California, nor is there any plan to do so.
    * Carbureted and electronic-injection two-stroke engines are considered high-emission engines. Generally, these engines were manufactured prior to 1999.
    * A carbureted two-stroke engine can emit up to 25-30 percent of its fuel unburned into the water or atmosphere, which is why high-emission engines are prohibited on some lakes.
    * There are no salt-water or river restrictions in California on high-emission two-stroke engines, excluding personal watercraft (vessels such as Jet Skis) bans in some areas. For example, San Francisco has prohibited personal watercraft within 1200 feet of its shoreline. See “Local Restrictions” on our Web page for a list of lakes.
    * Direct injection two-stroke engines, made since 1999, are considered clean emission engines and can be used on every water body in California, with some exceptions not related to emission limits.
    * A new direct injection two-stroke engine will normally have a label sticker (with 1 to 3 stars) on its engine cover indicating that it meets California Air Resources Board emission regulations for 2001, 2004, and 2008 for vessel engine manufacturers.

    The entire two-stroke fiasco in CA was driven by outboard motors, but bled over (literally and figuratively) into motorcycles and ATVs. But even CA appears to have understood that banning specific technologies doesn’t meet their goals of cleaner air and environment. If anything, it reduces competition in developing the most environment-friendly options.

    As I’ve said here before, there are already two-stroke engines on the market which pass Euro-3 standards which are, I’ve been told, more stringent than CARB.

    I am not too worried about the world following CA’s lead, as there doesn’t appear to be a lead to follow – at least not in banning two-strokes. Enviro-Nazi’s are far more prone to following Europe’s lead, and there the modern two-stroke is making a comeback.

    You might want to read the post I wrote yesterday about the FIM’s rule change – it has more on this topic. There is nothing wrong with cleaning up our waterways and breathing cleaner air. Modern two-stroke technology is showing signs of being every bit as enviro-friendly as four-stroke, and with the advantages of being cheaper to manufacture and maintain.

    That doesn’t mean the Big 4 are going to start making two-strokes. They aren’t. But that’s ok. Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR et al didn’t want to make minicomputers. DEC and HP didn’t want to make PCs. But in the end the market decided that PCs were the thing and companies either adapted or went out of business (most went out of business.) That’s what will happen here – the market will decide.

    The great thing about having two-strokes back in the racing fold is that now the smaller companies who want to make them have a place to prove their mettle. That is all we can ask for, and it’s exactly the type of disruption that Honda et al hoped to avoid.

    These are exciting times…

  • Terry Frazier

    Giles wrote: “…hasn’t Calif banned 2 stroke sales there or is planning on doing so?”

    You know, you’re question has made me think I need to do a longer post on the whole Two-stroke FUD thing. A quick Google search on “california two-stroke ban” turned up all kinds of wild rumors and half-truths, with only a bit of real data mixed in. It’s kind of hard to find the truth anymore, which means something in and of itself. And when you get to the truth, it’s nothing like the rumors.

    So I’m going to write a speculative/op-ed piece on how the two-stroke FUD got started, why it is so pervasive, and how we will move past it. It will not be definitive, and it will be subject to much correction if people point out errors. But it will be based on as much truth as I’ve been able to learn over the past year from research and personal conversations with industry people, tied together with what I know to be provable patterns of behavior in big business.

    We’ll see how it turns out.

  • Paul Pencikowski

    Wow you hit the nail on the head here. I run a desert team of 3 bikes, two 2-strokes and one 4-stroke, plus a plonker support-bike (4 bikes total). My 450cc 4-stroke bike takes maintenance equal to all other bikes *combined*. Staggering work, and I have not blown it up (yet).

    My idea for re-intro of 2-strokes was this: Drop the “open” class. Lets be real here, the 250’s are faster (lap times) anyway, the open bikes are more expensive/dangerous. So…

    Why not have just 250’s, but a dedicated 4-stroke series, and dedicated 2-stroke series? The “war” Us vs Them (boomers vs ring-dings) would be good for the sport!

  • Terry Frazier

    Paul wrote:

    My idea for re-intro of 2-strokes was this: Drop the “open” class. Lets be real here, the 250’s are faster (lap times) anyway, the open bikes are more expensive/dangerous. So…

    Hi Paul. Thanks for writing. Interesting ideas. I don’t know about eliminating the Open class. Such a decision should be based on entry counts (as an indication of what people want to race,) I think. And I don’t know about those stats.

    At the Pro level I think you have to keep an open class, as one of the things fans want to see is the fastest riders in the world riding the most powerful bikes. At least, that’s what I think they want to see. Of course, we really don’t have an Open class anyway. We have a 450f class. So maybe I’m all wet.

    In the old days (back when I raced) the older fellows, the 30+ crowd, tended to favor the big bikes because they could sit down more. It’s hard to tell about that anymore because we don’t have the same range of choices that we did back then. And everything about the sport is different — the tracks, the obstacles, the suspensions, everything.

    “Flow” is much more important with 4-bangers — big, sweeping turns, swooping jumps, etc. The angular, technical track designs of the past lost favor as the four-strokes became more popular.

    Personally, I’d prefer to see the two technologies have a more level field in displacement and run against each other. I think the “Us vs. Them” battle you talk about would be more visible then, and more exciting. But it would be a hard thing to achieve. Some displacement advantage, especially at smaller displacements, would be required, methinks.

    But I favor competition between technologies just as much as between brands and riders. If two-strokes were given an equal shot it would make it possible for more companies to enter the field — something none of the big factories wants (big corporations work hard at influencing legislators and rules makers to stifle competition.)

    The truth is I don’t care how they do it, as long as they bring the two-stroke back into the fold in some way. Given half a chance, it will succeed and give people a cheaper, more effective racing option.