Anyone Remember The 3-Wheeler?
With Kawasaki's release of its sports quad, the KFX450R, all of the big four Japanese manufacturers will once again be represented in the ATV race scene.
Just like with the 450cc motocross ranks, Kawasaki is once again last to the table with their race ready ATV- the KFX450R, which is due out later this year as an early 2008 model. Longtime readers (or sufferers, as the case may be) of this column will no doubt already be aware of the fact that when conditions get a bit nasty on the streets, I can be found playing in the dirt. Needless to say, I've been anticipating the Kawasaki's appearance with great interest as it signifies the last of the big four Japanese manufacturers to finally return to the ATV race scene in force.
I feel a brief lesson in history and politics are in order before I continue rambling, as the twisted path leading up to this development deserves a little attention. Our lesson begins with the first ATV to put the sport on the map - the three-wheeler (all mullet jokes aside). There was a time back in the early 1980s where ATVs (three-wheelers in particular) earned the same kind of factory attention that their two-wheeled cousins have been enjoying right along. The American Motorcycle Association actually took the quickly developing sport seriously enough to assemble the American All-Terrain Vehicle Association (AATVA) back in 1985 with the intention of focusing entirely on an ATV race series/ championship title.
What happened next was nothing shy of disastrous in terms of society's awareness of All Terrain Vehicles. In 1986 the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued the kiss of death for three-wheelers by releasing the results of a two-year investigation into the reasons behind unfavorably high statistics of bodily injury to ATV riders. Surprisingly, their results blamed improper rider behavior and a disregard for manufacturer warnings as the prime culprit (not flaws in the three-wheeler's design as was originally suspected).
The same year witnessed the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) come under fire by the Consumer Federation of America to ban the production and sale of any and all ATVs in the United States due to an increase in consumer safety violations. The manufacturers did what they could to reach a compromise to the outlandish requests being made.
On April 29, 1988, U.S. ATV distributors had finally come to terms and had entered into a 10-year agreement with the CPSC called the "Final Consent Decree." Under this agreement the ATV industry was asked to drop $100 million in expanding safety programs which included offering free training courses and incentives. Also, thanks to this agreement, ATVs wear more warning stickers and labels than any other form of recreational vehicle (even today). From that point forward, distributors were no longer allowed to market three-wheel ATVs (and the manufacturers were instructed to actually buy back unsold dealer inventory).
Three-wheelers like the ATC 250R took the rap for unfavorably high statistics of bodily injury to ATV riders that led the models fade into obscurity.
Suffice to say it was at this point in time that the world would say goodbye to the factory-sponsored ATV race team. The manufacturers simply couldn't battle it out with insurance companies who pointed the finger of blame directly at the manufacturers themselves rather than the consumer's use of poor judgment that resulted in injury-causing accidents. Once the insurance companies got their wish to ban three-wheelers, the AATVA's days were numbered as well. The association folded shortly thereafter in 1988.
From 1988 all the way until the early part of the next century, ATV racing had all but dried up from an OEM standpoint. With wounds still fresh from the attacks on them in the mid-1980s, the manufacturers had actually swayed their efforts in the complete opposite direction. Entire sport/ performance lines vanished from showrooms and the United States entered into a period of flourishing 4x4 and utility ATV sales. Quad racing still existed throughout this era on local through professional ranks but did so without the support of the manufacturers. Racers were forced to purchase fairly antiquated equipment (such as Honda's legendary 250R) and put literally thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars worth of modification into the machinery to be competitive. Worse still was that a lack of factory support meant no contingency money for racers and lower paying purses as events at the time weren't backed by factory sponsorship.
Now here it is nearly 20 years after the fall of the AATVA and the big four have made a full return to the ATV race scene. The pace began to pick up back in 2001 when the AMA took notice to the re-emergence of the sport/ performance class through models such as the Bombardier DS650, the Yamaha Raptor 660, and the Suzuki LTZ-400. With stock equipment gracing dealership floors, it wasn't long before the extinguished embers of the quad race scene began to again smolder with interest. The AMA Board of Directors was wise enough to recognize consumer interest and form the ATVA (All Terrain Vehicle Association) and the manufacturers themselves began to realize that perhaps the ATV race market could be salvaged after all.
The AMA plans to lauch a Pro ATV Motocross Championship for 2007 with a 12-round season starting in March at Mill Creek in Pell City, AL.
Within the proceeding six years we have witnessed Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, and now Kawasaki raise the bar with dedicated 450cc race-quads and with them contingency programs and true paying championships. The AMA, which just so happens to be the leading sanctioning body for motorcycle sport in the U.S., plans to launch a Pro ATV Motocross Championship for 2007, promising the same level of support as their other pro racing series. At the time of this article's writing a 12-round season schedule has been released with Round 1 expected to take place March 10/11 at Mill Creek in Pell City, AL.
ATV racers of today have much to be grateful for as it appears the 19-year drought seems to be nearly at an end with a monsoon of recent activity. As a racer who struggled through those years of hoping and anticipating a return of manufacturer support, I am reminded of the logic behind the tried and true saying: It's better late than never.
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