Head Shake – The Rules
“Smokey, this is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.”
— Walter Sobchak, The Big Lebowski
When I started working at the AMA, I was hired to work in the Government Relations Department. Outwardly it seemed like a rather staid affair. Wear a suit, do government stuff. Never in my life did I imagine I’d end up working for the magazine, or going to new bike intros or listening to an animated Freddie Spencer describe the brick he just unexpectedly ran over in a blind corner, and the old lady he narrowly evaded in the oncoming lane, while we all collected on the side of a Californian back road. And I certainly never imagined I’d be sitting on an appeals committee, ruling on the merits of the disqualification of an amateur motocross racer who had a win taken away, and points deducted, for a rules infraction. Such are the ways of life. Weird happens.
So, I found myself sitting on this ad hoc appeals board for an AMA amateur racing series, and I had no idea why. Maybe they thought I at least held a competition license and came with a different perspective, or maybe they thought I brought something to the table with all the government relations background and legal training, or maybe they just needed a warm body. But it gave me an appreciation for the difference between interpreting the rules and applying them to a fact situation, versus a strict reading of the rule book literally. This brings us to, “The frame protectors and the kid,” and what I’ve come to consider the various flavors of the rules, the nature of infractions and gaming the system.
There are cases where the rules are poorly written. There are cases where the rules are poorly applied. And there are cases where both occur. You be the judge.
According to race officials at an AMA Amateur motocross event, this one young man’s bike was ineligible for the class it was raced in as per the strictest of interpretations of the rule book. A fellow competitor had protested after a race alleging that the wrongdoer had materially altered his frame, strictly verboten under the rules. That’s easy enough; of course the kid was disqualified, that’s a clear violation if the charges leveled in the protest were true. But hold on. Materially altered the frame? What did the kid do? Did he change the steering head angle? Had he lightened the thing? Braced it? What?
No, the young man had added plastic frame guards; they prevent the heels of your MX boots from scuffing up the frame. At the end of the season you can pull them off and sell the bike and the frame still looks relatively new. The protest was deemed good at the track, the kid’s win was denied him, the protester moved up in the points standings.
Keep in mind this was my first time sitting on this rules committee. I’m smart enough to know you don’t just barge into these things as the new kid on the block and upset the status quo, the apple cart, or anything else of that nature. But this simply wasn’t going to work.
First, this was not “materially” altering anything, it was simply a minor add-on that did nothing for performance or finishing order. These plastic doo-dads did nothing other than preserve the paint on the frame. Why? Because most of these kids racing motocross throughout this nation are doing so on a shoestring budget, with a lot of hard work by mom and dad; they are family-run operations, and they are not for the most part living out of the back of Team Green’s truck. They would sell the bike at the end of the season and get another one to prepare for the next season. The frame protectors just helped preserve the finish of the paint on the frame adding to its potential resale value.
Second, I had seen these protests before. This was a gambit played by another entrant (or his dad) to move junior up the finishing order and knock the kid with the frame protectors out. What you can’t win on the track, you win in the scoring tower by filing a protest. No, this was not going to work at all.
I’m sitting there considering all this and meanwhile this meeting is moving forward rapidly. They are about to call it a day on the kid and affirm the tech inspector’s ruling and uphold the protest. And of course I have to do exactly what one is not supposed to do first day on the job; lodge my own protest.
“No, no! Hold on! Stop, just hold on a second, this isn’t right. Look, frame protectors, right? You all know they did not materially affect the outcome of that race. They are not performance enhancing. The ‘frame’ was not ‘altered’ at all. The kid could have zip-tied two prairie dogs to the thing for as much difference as it made as to who crossed the finish line when.”
The man running the meeting, a fair man in my estimation, looked at me as though I just dropped a turd in the punch bowl at the company Christmas party. What was going to be a brief meeting was suddenly going to get long. We went back and forth on it, and honestly I sometimes wonder if the guy that ran these things didn’t include me to get to where he wanted to go by playing devil’s advocate. When the dust settled, the protest was overturned and the kid’s win was restored. I felt at least in some small way we had done something right. Races should be won on the track, not in the pits on a technicality that has no bearing on the race outcome; those young competitors should learn that too. I know how hard every privateer works for those podium spots and points; it matters.
The point to all of this is that it is not always black and white. Rules have to be interpreted. Clearly there are things that fall on the far side of the rulebook; gusseting frames, altering frame geometry, things of that nature, but you not only have to be able to read, you have to be able to think. And this? This is where tuners and builders come in, because the good ones can really think, and they are working from the other side of the rulebook. They can push the rules until the rulebook and tech officials squeak. And their ingenuity is just something you have to sit back and chuckle at (unless you are a tech official). Or, as Pablo Picasso so succinctly put it: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Case in point, the old AMA Pro Harley-Davidson 883 Twin-Sport road racing series…
When the 883 series started, it was an attempt to draw a new sort of spectator to places like Mid-Ohio, or Loudon, or maybe off Main Street in Daytona to the track where actual racing was occurring, and it met with some success. Suddenly, the Harley faithful had somebody or something to root for, a good thing all-in-all. The interesting thing was, despite the 883s being street bikes modified within fairly strict constraints to compete, the collective knowledge of the tuners and builders behind many of these team efforts spanned decades. These were some really smart and knowledgeable guys, and they had been tuning XR750s to within an inch of their mechanical lives since the dawn of time. They knew how to find horsepower in the pushrod, air cooled, V-Twins that originated in Wisconsin. They also knew how to exploit a rulebook, and they set out to win.
The beginning of that initial season presented tech officials with some wondrous interpretations of the rule book. Standing on the sidelines I could only admire their ingenuity.
They shaved heads to boost compression; the tech guys caught it. They shaved cylinders; the tech guys caught that too. They ground cases to drop the whole top-end assemblies down, but this is also a no-go, and the tech guys nailed that too. And the final pièce de résistance: one team countersunk their spark plug holes looking for just a little more plug protrusion in the combustion chamber to boost compression without interfering with the pistons at peak revs TDC. That is looking for every edge you can find, and yes, that was caught as well. The point being they are looking for any advantage available, sometimes within the rules, sometimes over the line, but even a 10th of a second a lap adds up over the distance of a full race. You had to admire the brains and the knowhow behind these mods, and also admire the knowledgeable tech guys that caught them out when they crossed over.
Anyway, the long and the short of it is, racing is a lot like life, there are conflicting demands and there are parameters we all operate within. On one hand we want a level playing field for ourselves, and by definition that ensures it has to exist for others. On the other hand, everyone who grids up for any endeavor wants to do well; they would like to win. The nexus of those two urges is where the rules come from.
The next time you hear of somebody DQ’d from a race for “cheating,” dig into it a bit deeper and see just what that cheating entailed. It seems popular these days to rush to a judgment of some sort, but often that is just a knee-jerk reaction. What is the letter of the law or rule? Unambiguous violations are straight forward enough. But what if it is not so clear cut? What is the intent of the rule, did it affect the outcome of the race, and was their self-dealing or malfeasance on the part of the competitor? Some are clear cut violations, some are arguable. And sometimes the rules need to be changed. Ride safe.
About the Author: Chris Kallfelz is an orphaned Irish Catholic German Jew from a broken home with distinctly Buddhist tendencies. He hasn’t got the sense God gave seafood. Nice women seem to like him on occasion, for which he is eternally thankful, and he wrecks cars, badly, which is why bikes make sense. He doesn’t wreck bikes, unless they are on a track in closed course competition, and then all bets are off. He can hold a reasonable dinner conversation, eats with his mouth closed, and quotes Blaise Pascal when he’s not trying to high-side something for a five-dollar trophy. He’s been educated everywhere, and can ride bikes, commercial airliners and main battle tanks.