“Until they admit what their problem was, I can just tell you that they were out of specification on the AMA fuel regulation that’s described in the rulebook.”

- Steve Whitelock, 2004 AMA Pro Racing Supercross and motocross race director

AMA Pro Racing SX/MX Series Manager Steve Whitelock
AMA Pro Racing SX/MX Series Manager Steve Whitelock in Salt Lake City on that fateful day back in 2004.Steve Cox

"I'm going over there so they can tell me what the f—k they did!" exclaimed an exasperated Steve Whitelock, AMA Pro Racing's Supercross and motocross race director, as he stormed out of the AMA truck on the morning of April 24, 2004, and headed out into the pits outside Salt Lake City's Rice-Eccles Stadium.

It was clear at the outset that Whitelock believed Team Yamaha was cheating.

Team Yamaha's Chad Reed led Factory Connection Honda's Kevin Windham by 40 points as the 2004 THQ/AMA Supercross Series headed into the final two rounds. That meant all Reed needed was to finish 11th or better at the penultimate round to clinch his first-ever premier-class Supercross title. Considering he finished worse than second place just once in the preceding 14 races and had won 10 of those 14, these were fantastic odds. His family flew in from Australia for the occasion.

But trouble was brewing. AMA Pro Racing had issued a press release the Friday evening prior to the Salt Lake round stating that, at the previous round in Irving, Texas, the sanctioning body had gathered fuel samples for testing, and found Reed and his teammate David Vuillemin, along with Yamaha privateer Tyson Hadsell, were all using fuel that “was found to be in noncompliance” with the fuel regulations adopted prior to the 2004 season.

VP Racing Fuel sticker on the side of the Yamaha rig.
VP Racing Fuel, whose sticker adorned the side of the Yamaha rig back in 2004, was easy to blame for the fuel-test failures, but it was never proven. The AMA did eventually switch testing companies though.Steve Cox

When asked exactly what the problem was with Yamaha’s fuel, Whitelock at the time said, “Until they admit what their problem was, I can just tell you that they were out of specification on the AMA fuel regulation that’s described in the rulebook.”

Lead is a very useful ingredient in race fuel as an octane booster. Octane determines fuel volatility; the higher the octane number, the more difficult the fuel is to ignite. If the fuel is too volatile for a given compression ratio, it will ignite due to compression before the piston reaches the top of its stroke and the spark plug fires. This is known as detonation, and the downward force of the explosion against the upward momentum of the piston will kill an internal-combustion engine. Quickly. Leaded fuel also helps the oil-gas mix in a two-stroke engine keep the top end well-lubricated. Prior to the rule change for the 2004 season, everybody racing a two-stroke at a professional level was using leaded fuel.

Higher compression means more horsepower, so when Whitelock found Yamaha’s race fuel tested at more than three times the legal limit for lead, the AMA took it seriously. Three times the limit seems like a large disparity, after all. Imagine racing with a 750cc engine in the 250cc class. Clearly, perspective is required.

"In the big scheme of things, I really, truly don’t believe that anyone was cheating. Obviously now we don’t even test fuel at all. I think that we’ve come full circle to the point where now it’s a flawed test, it’s too inconsistent, the variation is too big. So, unfortunately, it really was an upturning weekend, you know? I had flown my parents into town, and for me it was like all your dreams coming true. Your whole life you wanted to be a Supercross champion. I think I had a 35-, maybe 37-point lead. Suddenly that shrinks down to 12 points or something. I had to ride a lot more defensively those last two races. I’d won a lot of races that year, and I think I probably would’ve won the last two, but I couldn’t push it. Instead of 44 [career wins], I might have 46 right now."

- Chad Reed, 2019 Supercross and Motocross Champion

Chad Reed at the 2004 US Open of Supercross in Las Vegas.
Chad Reed at the 2004 US Open of Supercross in Las Vegas, which he won. He’s still racing and scored a podium finish this year.Steve Cox

Steve Bruhn—an aerospace-engineer-turned-photojournalist who, after his years following the Supercross and motocross circuit, went on to work at NASA until his untimely passing a few years ago—got ahold of the official numbers from the AMA at the time. He had a way of putting things in simple terms: “The legal limit for lead is 0.005 grams per liter, and Yamaha’s fuel tested at 0.017 to 0.018 grams per liter,” Bruhn said at the time. “Three times a tiny number is still a tiny number.”

The AMA’s response? You can’t be just a little bit pregnant.

With years of hindsight, the numbers seem puritanical. The EPA limit for lead in fuel is 0.05 grams per gallon—that’s 0.189 grams per liter—which calculates to almost 38 times the limit set by the AMA back in 2004. But the penalty for breaking these technical rules was to be determined “at the discretion of the race director.” In this case, that was Steve Whitelock, who had already made his feelings known as he stomped off toward the Yamaha truck. And once a penalty was issued for a particular violation, that set the precedent for future, similar violations.

Before the racers took to the track in Utah, Chad Reed, David Vuillemin, and Tyson Hadsell were all docked 25 points—equivalent to one race victory.

Whitelock explained how he came up with the 25-point penalty at the time: “The rulebook gives us a menu of penalties. We can disqualify, we can take points, we can fine, we can suspend—I mean, we can do all kinds of things. So Vuillemin, who earned 18 points in the race at Dallas, lost 25 points. Reed, who happened to win in Dallas, lost 25 points. But the race that the people saw, the winner that they saw on the podium, and the prize they saw him with on the podium, and the prize money, if we would’ve disqualified him, all that would’ve become a ghost. We can’t do that to the people that watched the motorcycle race, so we decided the points is the best way.”

Yamaha quickly appealed the decision. Although it was unlikely to change anything in terms of the championship (with Reed still likely to win and Vuillemin safely in fourth place in points), when a race team is found to be in noncompliance with race regulations, it can be very bad for marketing. It could make Yamaha look like it was only winning because it was cheating.

Whitelock predicted the appeal would fail at the time: “This is black and white. There’s a value, they’re over the value—gee whiz. There’s a problem here. It’s not like ‘I think it’s dirty riding.’ It’s just like if you do a pee-pee test.”

"It’s hard to tell who is trying to bend the rules and who just made a mistake. As an official, you have to make a call on the rule. A disqualification is a lot worse than just taking points, because it’s a smaller penalty for those who scored fewer points, and because it throws everything off as far as the show is concerned. People went to the races and they saw a person win, and then now that person didn’t win, and it’s confusing. If you take points, they keep the win, the trophy, the bonus money, but they lose points. I think that’s the best way to do it."

- Steve Whitelock, 2018

Reed during rider introductions at the 2004 US Open.
Reed during rider introductions at the 2004 US Open.Steve Cox

Six days later, the AMA sent out a press release denying the appeal. “The appeals submitted by the riders never refute AMA Pro Racing’s finding that fuel tested after the Texas Supercross was found to be in noncompliance,” said the AMA’s director of competition, Merrill Vanderslice, in the release. “Instead, the appeals attempt to cast doubt on the testing methodology, the validity of the AMA Supercross fuel requirements, whether or not their fuel impacted performance, and the appropriateness of the penalty. Based on the language in the AMA Supercross Rulebook, none of this is appealable.”

Yamaha also requested to have its tested fuel samples returned so that it could conduct its own tests. The AMA refused.

With such a harsh precedent now set, it should have been a wake-up call when Kawasaki teammates James Stewart and Michael Byrne had their two-stroke race fuel drawn at the Budds Creek MX National a little over a year later in 2005, and they were both found to be similarly in noncompliance. After the Reed fiasco, logically, why would Kawasaki risk “cheating” just like Yamaha did, after all? But they were both docked 25 points for the infraction, and the AMA was just as responsive to their appeals. Whitelock and company just dug in their heels.

Life comes at you fast, though. Less than a year later, with everyone now racing four-strokes, defending AMA Supercross champ Ricky Carmichael’s fuel was found to be in similar noncompliance after the San Diego Supercross. Although four-strokes benefit much less from lead in their fuel, Carmichael was still initially docked 25 points. He responded with threats to boycott the rest of the series, which threatened attendance numbers, which threatened income for race promoter Live Nation (now Feld Motorsports). But Live Nation had an ace up its sleeve in the form of its agreement with the FIM—the worldwide sanctioning body under whose umbrella the AMA falls—and the FIM agreed to step in and take a look at the ruling.

Leaded fuel on concrete.
Leaded fuel, especially in two-strokes, allows the motorcycles running it to run much higher compression ratios, which makes horsepower, but at the level Chad Reed, David Vuillemin, and Tyson Hadsell’s fuel was out of spec, it doesn’t increase engine performance.Steve Cox

A little over a week later, the 25-point penalty was rescinded, citing a “disparity in testing protocols” between the identical FIM and AMA fuel specifications, and Carmichael’s Suzuki race team was instead fined $20,000. Carmichael went on to win that championship by two points over Stewart and Reed, who both ended the championship with 336 points to Carmichael’s 338.

There have been myriad theories about how and why these fuels tested too high for lead—contamination from the lead solder on the gas cans, residual lead in the pump lines, and even poor material handling at the testing facility—but the AMA did eventually switch testing companies with prejudice, and the current fuel rule sets the legal limit for lead at 0.025 grams per liter.

In the end, though, the hows and whys of the fuel testing out of spec don’t really matter. Anything decided by “the discretion of the race manager” falls at the feet of the person drawing that paycheck.