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Jan 21, 2001

Late Pro Thunder Rule Changes Make Former AMA Pro Racing Official Ask, "What The Hell Was The AMA Thinking?" But AMA Pro Racing Boss Denies Criticism Is Valid

Outrage over last-minute changes in AMA Pro Thunder rules regarding displacement and minimum weight has escalated, with several racers charging that AMA Pro Racing seems determined to kill the class for good.

Typical reaction to the changes announced in December comes from J.D. Hord, an AMA Pro Thunder racer from Bucyrus, Ohio.

"I can't believe what the AMA is doing to the Pro Thunder class," wrote Hord in a letter to Roadracing World. "I've raced in the AHRMA Battle of the Twins Series for the past four years, where I won four National Championships aboard a Honda Hawk. I've also raced a little bit in the AMA Pro Thunder class over the past two years. I've never been (or will be) a threat to win an AMA race, but it was fun to harass the fast guys on an underpowered machine. For 2001 I planned on running a lot more AMA, and bought a Ducati 748 in hopes of being more competitive. I'm not a wealthy person, so this was a rather substantial investment for me.

"I'm a motorcycle mechanic by profession, and besides my own bike I'm building two others destined for limited AMA Pro Thunder action, a Ducati 748 and a Suzuki SV650. The plan for my customer's 748 was to punch it out to 800cc, and reconfigure the heads and bottom end to suit. The SV is being punched to 700cc, hopefully making up for less displacement with lighter weight. I was about 51 percent certain that my 748 would be an 800, also. That is, until the AMA whipped out their Pro Thunder rule changes.

"By the time I heard about the rule changes, it was too late to do anything about the 800cc mods to my customer's Ducati. The crank had come back from balancing at Falicon, I obviously already had the custom pistons, the cylinders were already bored to 91mm, custom gaskets, etc. Luckily I hadn't started on the heads yet. The AMA stated that the rule changes were intended to ‘reduce costs.' Excuse me, but how does changing the rules in the middle of rebuild season reduce costs? My customer has spent around $2000 on a now-worthless 800cc kit! Now he'll have to buy stock cylinders, 88mm pistons, and have the crank balanced, AGAIN. And so far no luck finding stock cylinders! By the time it is back to 748cc, he'll have spent nearly $4000. This is only one story, how many others are there? What about the racers that spent untold dollars honing their 800s to perfection last season? This is cost cutting?

"Now let's look at the SV I'm building. It might make 90 horsepower, which is 30 horsepower down on the top Pro Thunder bikes, but theoretically a lot of that deficit would be made up with lighter weight. Oops, here comes the AMA again! A new 380-pound minimum weight limit, for ALL bikes? Are the Ducati 2-valve, SV and Hawk guys supposed to add 40-80 pounds of ballast to their bikes? What about the folks who run Thumpers? Where do you stuff 130 pounds of ballast? Lead bodywork?

"Finally, there's me. I am least affected by this. The rule changes didn't hurt me, since I hadn't started any engine mods, and I wasn't going to spend thousands of dollars pursuing light weight. However, what have I gained via the rule changes? Absolutely nothing! Am I not the guy they had in mind when they tried to level the playing field by ‘reducing costs?' Well, it seems to me that the racers with 120-horsepower, mega-dollar Ducati 748Rs and factory-backed Buells will still whoop my ass. Assuming any Buells finish, that is; does anyone really think they'll de-tune their bikes now that the playing field has been ‘leveled?'

"The AMA has created a Ducati 748 class when it was their stated intent to rein them in, ironically enough. I've already talked with a number of lightweight racers who will NOT be racing AMA Pro Thunder next year. No 2-valve Ducatis, no SVs, no Hawks, no Thumpers, none of those interesting bikes will be legal for the class without large amounts of ballast--and who'd want to race a 70-horsepower, 380-pound SV against a 120-horsepower, 380-pound Ducati 748 anyway? It looks as though a lot of Ducati 800 owners are bailing out, too, by the looks of the classifieds lately. Leave it to the AMA to steal a good concept, (from AHRMA) then bastardize and ruin it. They have proven once again that they lack intelligence, common sense, and common courtesy.

"Why did the AMA not communicate its intentions earlier? Why did the AMA not ask for some guidance from its racers? (Why did they allow 800cc 748s in the first place?) You'd think they would at least consult the Pro Thunder Champion, Jeff Nash, but they did not. Instead they pop a small blurb about the rule changes onto their website, in a spot where you could barely find it, and then wait for everyone to find out (weeks) later. Their methods make no sense, their rules make no sense. I understand their intent to stop the 748's dominance of the class, (and agree with it) but all they've done is turn it into a 748/Buell class instead. And to top it all off, now we find out that they are dropping Pro Thunder from the double-Superbike rounds at Road Atlanta, Road America, and Mid-Ohio! Again, without any sort of TIMELY official announcement to the racers or media! Gee, thanks AMA, thanks for ruining a lot of racers' best-laid plans for a 2001 race program. And congratulations on reaching your goal of killing off the Pro Thunder class for the 2002 season."

Racer Bob Poetzsch, an AMA Life Member, wrote to AMA Pro Racing about the rule changes, stating "I weighed my SV650 at the last race weekend and it weighed about 375 pounds with about a gallon of gas. This is using a Supersport-spec motorcycle, which essentially means that the street-legal lights were removed. In order for my motorcycle to be competitive in the Pro Thunder class, I would need to increase the performance of the engine from 65-70 horsepower to probably around the range of 80-90 horsepower, which is still quite a bit less than a Ducati 748R that puts out over 100 horsepower. Having a weight restriction is a good thing, as long as the majority of motorcycles in the class don't have to add more than 10 or 15 pounds to meet the rule. A Suzuki SV650 in Superbike-spec trim should run around 340 to 360 pounds. Forcing an underpowered motorcycle to add upwards of 20 to 40 pounds to meet the weight rule is counter-productive to the spirit of competitiveness."

Racer Rich Desmond wrote Roadracing World, "Originally Pro Thunder was intended to allow a bunch of different bikes to compete on semi-equal terms, 748s weren't allowed and you had some interesting grids with air-cooled Ducs, Buells, offbeat Singles, Ledesma's EX and so on. Then they let in the 748 (at 800cc), which made it tougher for everybody else. I still thought it possible to build a competitive SV (95+ horsepower, 315 pounds) and a buddy has a killer Skorpion (90 horsepower, 290 pounds) that would be good enough on the tighter tracks. Now with the across-the-board weight minimum there isn't a chance in hell of anything but a 748 or a hand-grenade Buell finishing on the lead lap."

Racer and AMA Charter Life Member Mark Hatten told Roadracing World, "I raced Pro Thunder at Mid-Ohio in '99 and '00 on my BBM 500 (a 500cc Honda Single in a TZ250 chassis). I did okay for a 200-pound guy on a 50-horsepower Thumper, finishing 15th in '99 and 19th in '00. Both my racing partner and I bought Ducati 748s this past fall with the idea of doing all the 2001 AMA races east of the Mississippi (we're in Ohio).

"Like most folks, I first read about the rule changes on the internet. Even after being directed to the AMA website, it was very difficult to find the rule change announcement. The release was dated November 28th, it popped up on the internet about a week later, and I finally received the bulletin in the mail three weeks later (I live about 30 minutes from AMA headquarters)."

Hatten included a message he sent to AMA Pro Racing, which read, in part, "I still can't believe…that changes this sweeping were made a mere three months prior to the first race of the season. It's no secret that the majority of 748s running in the class are running at 800cc. While I don't disagree with restricting the Ducatis to 750cc, I strongly disagree with making this change 90 days before the start of the season. Do you realize what is involved in this change? Cylinders--rebored and plated. New pistons. Crank rebalanced. Fuel injection Eprom change. Head modifications. To change that back, you have new cylinders ($1500), pistons ($600), crank rebalance ($300), fuel injection Eprom ($200). If you've increased the valve size to take advantage of the larger bore, add the cost of a new set of heads into the equation (minimum $1000 used). That's $3600, excluding the labor, to make a bike legal for the first race in three months. Sure, maybe you can sell the used pistons/cylinders/heads to offset some of the costs, but I don't think there will be a bull market on used, now-obsolete 800cc parts. This doesn't seem to me to be achieving your stated goal of ‘help reduce costs.'

"Again, I don't disagree with the new displacement limit--in fact, I wondered why it was raised to 800cc in the first place. I do disagree with making this change so late in the game. Other sanctioning bodies try to give advance notice when making such a substantive change. Perhaps now would be the time to announce this change for the 2002 season?

"By imposing a 380-pound weight limit on the entire class, you've eliminated any single-cylinder motorcycle from the class. I finished 15th in 1999 and 19th in 2000 on my 250-pound Single. Sure, I wasn't anywhere near the front (although Ducati SuperMonos and the Wood-Rotax bikes have run in the top five before), but I was one more bike on the grid, and added some interest to the class. You've also eliminated those folks who ran two-valve Twins like 900 Ducatis (including Squalos, Bimotas), who use light weight (approximately 320 pounds) to try to overcome sub-100 horsepower. Not to mention the SV650s, Honda Hawks, etc. etc. Did you really mean to do this?

"Aside from narrowing the field down to two motorcycles, the 380-pound weight limit really doesn't impact the majority of the riders on the 748. Other than a few of the class leaders, you'd be hard-pressed to find too many 748s that are under 380 pounds. It takes a boatload of carbon-fiber, magnesium and money to get a 748 below that.

"I realize the AMA takes heat no matter what they do. Hell, I worked for Pro Racing way back when, so I know what it's like from both sides of the table. But it's decisions like this, that appear to be not-too-well-thought-out and made without perhaps fully realizing the ramifications, that make me join the rest of the people out there who scratch their heads and say, ‘What the hell was the AMA thinking?'"

In responding to racer inquiries, AMA Pro Racing Director of Competition Merrill Vanderslice admitted that "since the inclusion of the Ducati 748, Pro Thunder has certainly suffered competition-wise. These new regulations are aimed at pulling some of that back and keeping this class viable. We believe that the weight requirement is an achievable minimum for the motorcycles that are truly competitive…It is our opinion that the SV650 is much more limited by its displacement than by this weight requirement. A change was clearly needed to help level the playing field and keep this class viable. One can never be sure that an overall weight requirement is the answer, but it has worked for us in Superbike and Formula Xtreme."

In his specific message to Hatten, Vanderslice stated that he really didn't think "the rest of the people out there" are scratching their heads and wondering "what the hell was the AMA thinking", and that he thought Hatten could join that small group or Hatten could look at the big picture and realize that the days of Pro Thunder are limited if there isn't more multi-brand competition up at the front of the class.

Vanderslice's reply made Hatten wonder: "Considering that a total of three non-Ducatis made it to the podium (two thirds and one second) in Pro Thunder in 2000…why it took until November 28 before this decision was made. If it wasn't obvious at the end of 1999 that the 748/800 was the bike in the class, shouldn't have the light gone on sometime during the 2000 season?"

Hatten continued, "If the AMA doesn't think another season of one-brand competition is going to be healthy for this class, how in the world will a 380-pound weight limit, which will basically eliminate any bike other than the 748 and the few Buells that show up, do anything but ensure Pro Thunder is a one-bike class? You've basically eliminated all the other bikes, and you certainly aren't going to find people jumping ship from Ducati to Buell.

"Vanderslice said if they don't get some close competition up at the front with more than one brand in this class, its days are probably numbered," wrote Hatten. "Seems like they've created a self-fulfilling prophesy to me. BTW, after cooling down (barely) regarding the short-notice displacement and weight changes, I recently learned they've dropped Pro Thunder at the three most popular AMA weekends--Mid-Ohio, Road America and Road Atlanta. How did I discover this? From the AMA website? A Pro Bulletin sent to license holders? Nope. As always, they sent a season entry form with the new year's license package. Careful inspection of the 10-point type on the entry form showed there was no ‘PT' box to check for those three races. Sigh."

In off-the-record communication with Roadracing World, several members of the AMA Pro Racing Board of Directors have mentioned revisions in AMA rule-making procedures, including timely notice and an opportunity for participants to comment before rules are approved and finalized. But AMA Pro Racing has not made any official, public announcement of any such revisions, which are strongly opposed by AMA Pro Racing staffers, especially Vanderslice.
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