The EPA is putting its foot down on modifications to street-legal track vehicles

Ariel Atom and Miata
Photo by Miles Branman
The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) has spotted something a bit disturbing for the automotive enthusiast community.

Deep within a 1,000+ page proposal put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency, loquaciously entitled: Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Fuel Efficiency Standards for Medium- and Heavy-Duty Engines and Vehicles — Phase 2, the governmental organization slipped in the following:

EPA is proposing in 40 CFR 1037.601(a)(3) to clarify that the Clean Air Act does not allow any person to disable, remove, or render inoperative (i.e., tamper with) emission controls on a certified motor vehicle for purposes of competition.

In response, SEMA issued a statement saying, “The EPA indicated that the regulation would prohibit conversion of vehicles into racecars and make the sale of certain emissions-related parts for use on converted vehicles illegal.” The group continued, “SEMA will continue to oppose the regulation through the administrative process and will seek congressional support and judicial intervention as necessary.”

Following SEMA’s interpretation, the EPA appears to be saying it’s illegal to modify cars that would be used for both competitive and recreational use.

To quell the growing outrage, the EPA has fired back with a “clarification” of the proposed regulations (via Autoblog):

People may use EPA-certified motor vehicles for competition, but to protect public health from air pollution, the Clean Air Act has — since its inception — specifically prohibited tampering with or defeating the emission control systems on those vehicles.

The EPA thus is asserting that the proposed regulation that SEMA has commented on does not change this longstanding law, or approach. Instead, the proposed language contained in the Heavy-Duty Greenhouse Gas rulemaking simply clarifies the distinction between motor vehicles and non-road vehicles such as dirt bikes and snowmobiles. Unlike motor vehicles — which include cars, light trucks, and highway motorcycles — non-road vehicles may, under certain circumstances, be modified for use in competitive events in ways that would otherwise be prohibited by the Clean Air Act.

So the EPA’s elucidating statement is that it has always prohibited modifications to emissions equipment (for example, swapping a catalytic converter for a test pipe when racing or reflashing your ECU for improved performance) on street-legal cars. Its other point about differentiating between “non-road vehicles” and motor vehicles only appears to define common knowledge: that snowmobiles and dirt bikes fall outside the EPA’s regulatory power.

That means everything that was ever under the EPA’s emissions regulations (any car made in the last few decades) cannot be tampered with, even if that vehicle won’t be used on the street ever again.

This policy isn’t just a hard hit to casual racers, it’s also contradictory, according to SEMA’s vice president of government affairs, Stephen McDonald. “The EPA has never implemented a policy making it illegal for certified vehicles to become competition-use only vehicles,” McDonald said.

Only one party can be correct in this matter — either the EPA or SEMA, and not both. If the EPA is right that the Clean Air Act has always said emissions equipment modifications are illegal, then a good chunk of SEMA’s yearly-displayed products are illegal, and worse, any racing series that bases their rules on the modification of production cars could be in big trouble.

Eventually, clarification will come, but for now, an entire segment of the aftermarket community and one chunk of a weekend racer’s go-faster roadmap could be out of commission.

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