If an alarming press release from the aftermarket barons at SEMA is to be believed, our days turning street cars into race-build track cars are numbered, thanks to a proposed rule from the Environmental Protection Agency. Naturally, we are skeptical, because despite what SEMA says, it’s not exactly clear yet what’s happening here.

SEMA’s been aware of this since last year, and has issued comments relating to the proposals. Specifically, SEMA takes issue with the following statement from the new proposed regulations:

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“Certified motor vehicles and motor vehicle engines and their emission control devices must remain in their certified configuration even if they are used solely for competition or if they become nonroad vehicles or engines”. 80 Fed. Reg. 40138, 40565 (July 13, 2015).

SEMA says, in their words, that this would “prohibit conversion of vehicles originally designed for on-road use into race cars.”

They’re absolutely right to be alarmed by this; it does sound like the EPA wants to make cars and engines that have been converted from street cars—meaning, pretty much, almost every amateur racing car, from LeMons to Chump to AER to Spec Miata to whatever—illegal. At least, as far as their emissions control devices are concerned, which could range from engine modifications to new exhausts.

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This would be a very strange way for the EPA to go, however. Exceptions to emissions rules have always been in place for cars designed just to run on the track, and these exemptions have never really been threatened. So why now?

In order to figure out what’s going on, to determine if the EPA is really trying to ban the conversion of street cars into race cars, we’ve been going over this 600+ page document.

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As a result, I think I’m even more confused now.

Here’s some of the relevant information we’ve found so far, with some questions. This is an ongoing process, and we have yet to hear back from the EPA or SEMA yet, but this should give an idea of what we’re looking to clarify.

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This passage is one of the most alarming:

Certified motor vehicles and motor vehicle engines and their emission control devices must remain in their certified configuration even if they are used solely for competition or if they become nonroad vehicles or engines; anyone modifying a certified motor vehicle or motor vehicle engine for any reason is subject to the tampering and defeat device prohibitions of paragraph (a)(3) of this section and 42 U.S.C.

But it’s also worth noting that this is the sentence right before this:

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(3) The provisions of 40 CFR 1068.235 that allow for modifying certified vehicles and engines for competition do not apply for heavy-duty vehicles or heavy-duty engines.

Does that mean that these “certified motor vehicles” are only the heavy-duty vehicles they mention? And, this does reference provisions that do allow for “modifying certified vehicles and engines for competition.” So let’s check out that provision:

(b) If you modify any nonroad engines/equipment after they have been placed into service in the United States so they will be used solely for competition, they are exempt without request. This exemption applies only to the prohibitions in § 1068.101(b)(1) and (2) and are valid only as long as the engine/equipment is used solely for competition. You may not use the provisions of this paragraph (b) to circumvent the requirements that apply to the sale of new competition engines under the standard-setting part.

(c) If you modify any nonroad engines/equipment under paragraph (b) of this section, you must destroy the original emission labels. If you loan, lease, sell, or give any of these engines/ equipment to someone else, you must tell the new owner (or operator, if applicable) in writing that they may be used only for competition.

So, this exemption, 40 CFR 1068.235 (b) and (c), seem to pretty clearly state that you can modify “nonroad” engines and equipment for competition. The question here is what does “nonroad” mean?

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Actually, according to this, it means:

(2) An internal combustion engine is not a nonroad engine if it meets any of the following criteria:

(i) The engine is used to propel a motor vehicle, an aircraft, or equipment used solely for competition.

... so I guess that rules out Chumpcars, LeMons cars, Spec E30s, and so on. Crap.

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On the other hand, there’s more confusion:

§ 86.1854–12

Prohibited acts.

*** * *

(b) * * *

(5) Certified motor vehicles and motor vehicle engines and their emission control devices must remain in their certified configuration even if they are used solely for competition or if they become nonroad vehicles or engines; anyone modifying a certified motor vehicle or motor vehicle engine for any reason is subject to the tampering and defeat device prohibitions of paragraph (a)(3) of this section and 42 U.S.C. 7522(a)(3).

That certainly sounds like a ban on everything fun, right? But there’s the question of what “certified” actually means in this context, and we still have more contradictory information in here coming up, too. Like this, from page 391:

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The existing prohibitions and exemptions in 40 CFR part 1068 related to competition engines and vehicles need to be amended to account for differing policies for nonroad and motor vehicle applications. In particular, we generally consider nonroad engines and vehicles to be ‘‘used solely for competition’’ based on usage characteristics. This allows EPA to set up an administrative process to approve competition exemptions, and to create an exemption from the tampering prohibition for products that are modified for competition purposes. There is no comparable allowance for motor vehicles. A motor vehicle qualifies for a competition exclusion based on the physical characteristics of the vehicle, not on its use. Also, if a motor vehicle is covered by a certificate of conformity at any point, there is no exemption from the tampering and defeat-device prohibitions that would allow for converting the engine or vehicle for competition use. There is no prohibition against actual use of certified motor vehicles or motor vehicle engines for competition purposes; however, it is not permissible to remove a motor vehicle or motor vehicle engine from its certified configuration regardless of the purpose for doing so.

Wait, so here “nonroad” vehicles can be “used solely for competition?” I’m still confused.

If I’m parsing this correctly, motor vehicles can qualify for a competition exemption based “on the physical characteristics of the vehicle.” I’m guessing a CRX with a cage an no interior would qualify here. It also says that:

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if a motor vehicle is covered by a certificate of conformity at any point, there is no exemption from the tampering and defeat-device prohibitions

Which seems to suggest that the real issue here is for “certified” vehicles, that is, vehicles that have that “certificate of conformity.” I would think that any race car one would convert from a street car would be giving up such a certificate, willingly. That seems to me like these regulations preventing tampering or modifications would only apply to “certified” cars, which race cars would not be.

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SEMA says this runs contrary to the history of emissions regulations, which have left racing vehicles alone: “vehicles used solely for competition, including a race vehicle that has been created by converting a certified vehicle to a racecar, are not within the purview of the Clean Air Act,” the association said in comments on the rule last year.

This also seems to be backed up by this expensive-sounding warning, on page 584:

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(4) Competition engines/equipment. (i) For uncertified engines/equipment that are excluded or exempted as new engines/equipment from any requirements of this chapter because they are to be used solely for competition, you may not use any of them in a manner that is inconsistent with use solely for competition. Anyone violating this paragraph (b)(4)(i) is deemed to be a manufacturer in violation of paragraph (a)(1) of this section. We may assess a civil penalty up to $37,500 for each engine or piece of equipment in violation.

Again we see the reference to “uncertified” engines for competition use, and a warning that these engines cannot be used for anything other than competition. This means that if you have a LeMons car that you also want to use to drive to work, it better have all its factory emissions crap on it.

That’s not really any different than what you’d expect now; if you build a race car that isn’t street legal, don’t drive it on the street, or the feds will hit you with an insane $37,500 penalty. (How will this be enforced, anyway? Will EPA guys in suits start hanging out at your local track, then go poking around under the hood to see if your 240SX or whatever is in compliance?)

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Based on what I’ve read so far, I’m still pretty confused, but I think the key here lies in what the EPA considers “certified,” and if any race car built from a former street car can be relieved of whatever this certification is, and as such can then enjoy all the exemptions that allow it to find a new life on the track.

I should say I’m not anti-EPA at all. In fact, I think they’ve actually spurred a lot of great development in the automotive industry, and we do need them. But I don’t think for a second they have any business banning race car conversions—if that is what’s really going on.

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My gut tells me that the EPA isn’t really trying to ban amateur race cars; I don’t think the volume of such cars is enough to make a big enough difference, especially at the cultural cost that would happen if they did ban them.

As an analogy, look at how the EPA deals with pottery kilns. Pottery kilns produce air pollution, same as cars. And the EPA regulates kilns above a certain size and output of pollutants, as well they should.

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But for the many, many smaller kilns of artists, artisans, smaller schools and universities, they don’t bother, because if they did, the stifling of artistic and cultural endeavors and achievements would likely not be worth the benefit.

I think the same argument can be made for grassroots racing; it’s not making pottery, but there are cultural benefits (really!), and there are jobs and communities and culture around racing that’s worth protecting, even with the extra pollution. We should strive to keep the environment as clean as possible, but there will always be some pollution. The key is deciding what’s worth what.

I think racing is worth it, in the same way I think small-scale potters are worth it. My gut says the EPA agrees, too, but there’s still a lot of clarification needed, and it never hurts for racing enthusiasts to be aware and vigilant.

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We’ll update as we learn more.

Contact the author at jason@jalopnik.com.