Opinion: Big Fines and EPA Crackdowns Spell Big Trouble for Speed Shops

Jo Borras
by Jo Borras
opinion big fines and epa crackdowns spell big trouble for speed shops
Whether it’s adapting to a rapidly changing performance landscape or overcoming the encryption that’s being built in to cars’ electronic brains, it’s tough to be a tuner these days. But you know what they say, “When it rains, it pours.” And, for aftermarket performance tuners, the hits just keep on coming.Don’t take my word for it, though. Ask Brent Leivestad, the owner of a small Colorado speed shop called PFI Speed who just got hit with an $18,000 EPA fine – a fine that, if not paid within 30 days, could increase to $180,000.“I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t even believe it,” Leivestad told Drag Illustrated in an interview published earlier this week. “I am a speed shop and sell race parts – I didn’t know that was wrong. I didn’t understand the basis of the EPA’s claim, I didn’t go in front of any trial or talk to anybody from the EPA, and the threat of ‘settle and pay within 30 days or else’ felt like a real shakedown intended to deny my rights.”There’s a lot to unpack here, of course, but the overall trend that I want to draw attention to is one of enforcement. Environmental agencies at federal and state levels seem to have grown some teeth in recent months, and they’re not just going the speed shops – they’re going after their customers, too.In California, CARB (the California Air Resource Board) and BAR (the Bureau of Automotive Repair) has already put measures in place to validate the sanctity of your car’s ECU. If your car’s ECU is found to be running unapproved software, that means no smog certificate for you. The official guide to the ruling reads, “Beginning July 19, 2021, vehicles with software not provided by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or approved through a California Air Resources Board (CARB) Executive Order (EO) will fail Smog Check. Before your vehicle will pass a Smog Check, you must take your vehicle to a licensed repair facility to have the vehicle’s software restored to the OEM software version. Once the software is restored, have your vehicle reinspected by a licensed Smog Check station. Note that vehicles initially directed to a STAR or Referee station must return to that station type to complete the inspection process.”This isn’t a new thing. In fact, there have been CARB rules on the books prohibiting non- CARB certified emissions-related components (ex.: ECU software, catalytic converters, mufflers, etc.) since at least 2009. The difference now is that these CARB and EPA rules are getting more firmly enforced, and not everyone is happy about how they’re being enforced.PFI SPEED AND THE COMING FLOODTo their credit, Performance Racing Industry (PRI) seems to have jumped to Leivestad’s defense, calling the EPA fine overreach in a statement, citing Leivestad’s claims that he complied fully with EPA inquiries and that there was no trial or hearing prior to his fine. To PRI, whose core membership is made up of hundreds of PFI Speeds, it’s a big issue.“There are thousands of legitimate motorsports businesses that are at risk of EPA overreach,” said Dr. Jamie Meyer, PRI President, in a statement. “The EPA is putting these businesses – which are typically small, homegrown, less sophisticated shops – in situations where they have to take on the full might of the federal government. The EPA is doing nothing to validate its enforcement efforts, and these small businesses are left with little choice but to comply.”What Meyer is alluding to here is absolutely true, despite the slippery slope fallacy. If PFI Speed is forced to pay its fines, others will be, too. That’s made doubly important because of one other fact in this case: PFI Speed didn’t manufacture the parts it’s being fined over.You read that right. PFI Speed isn’t being fined because they knowingly removed a car’s emissions controls or represented a product as something “street legal” that wasn’t. According to them, they’re being fined for selling 37 Hondata S300 ECUs over a two-year span.WHAT THIS IS REALLY ABOUTIt’s hard to understand why the EPA and PRI (and, coming soon, SEMA) have decided to square off over this particular shop in Colorado in any context other than it being a test case.In that context, it makes sense for the EPA to go after a shop like PFI Speed, rather than Hondata. After all, the product page for the Hondata ECU in question reads, “Warning: Within the USA this product is legal only for racing vehicles which may never be used upon a public highway.”That “racing vehicles” bit is the tricky part. That’s because, according to the EPA, street cars can’t be legally converted into race cars (an issue highlighted in this 2016 Congressional Hearing titled “ Racing to Regulate: EPA’s Latest Overreach on Amateur Drivers” as presented by Representative Barry Loudermilk (R), Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives).If there is a court case (and that seems likely), PRI and SEMA will be pushing back on that key point while lobbying on the behalf of what they’re calling The Recognizing the Protection of Motorsports (RPM) Act of 2021 (H.R. 3281), which SEMA calls “common-sense, bi-partisan legislation to protect Americans’ right to convert street vehicles into dedicated racecars and the motorsports-parts industry’s ability to sell products that enable racers to compete. The bill clarifies that it is legal to make emissions-related changes to a street vehicle for the purpose of converting it into a racecar used exclusively in competition. It also confirms that it is legal to produce, market and install racing equipment.”If PFI Speed’s fine holds up, that’ll be game over for a lot of speed shops and amateur drag racers who, you know, do that sort of thing. And, as much fun as it might be to ramble off about “When does a streetcar become a race car?” these are people’s jobs we’re talking about, which is a heavy thing.That said, it’s also people’s clean air we’re talking about, so it’s hard to find an obvious bad guy in all this – especially as someone who loves tuning and racing, but has also been known to hug a tree now and again. But that’s me. You, however, are the Best and Brightest, and I want to know whether you’re cheering for the EPA or PFI Speed this time around.[Image: Twinsterphoto]
Jo Borras
Jo Borras

I've been in and around the auto industry since 1997, and have written for a number of well-known outlets like Cleantechnica, the Truth About Cars, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can also find me talking EVs with Matt Teske and Chris DeMorro on the Electrify Expo Podcast, writing about Swedish cars on my Volvo fan site, or chasing my kids around Oak Park.

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  • Armadamaster Armadamaster on Sep 20, 2021


  • JonBoy470 JonBoy470 on Sep 24, 2021

    It is of course illegal to operate non-compliant vehicles on public roads, but the law, as written, also prohibits even the installation of non-compliant parts into road-going vehicles. These speed shops are operating without even the merest whiff of plausible deniability that parts vendors successfully hide behind. If the customer’s vehicle is registered, or arrives under its own power, it’s impossible for them to not reasonably know they’re installing parts that are illegal for on-road use, into vehicles they know to be road-going, which means they’re violating the law. To be fair, the guys who order and install go-fast parts from the Jegs catalog are breaking the same laws, but it’s a lot easier to fly under the radar, doing it once in your driveway, to your own car, using parts sourced from a vendor who scrupulously remains unwitting to their ultimate use.

  • ToolGuy "Mr. President, no government agency, no think tank, and no polling firm knows more about the automobile customer than us. We talk to customers every day. As retail automotive dealerships, we are agnostic as to what we sell. Our business is to provide customers with vehicles that meet the needs of their budgets and lifestyles.”• How many lies can you fit into one paragraph?
  • Spamvw Three on the tree, even Generation X would have a hard time stealing one of those.
  • ToolGuy This trend of cyan wheels needs to end NOW.
  • Kwik_Shift Interesting nugget(s) of EV follies. https://x.com/WallStreetApes/status/1729212326237327708?s=20
  • SaulTigh I've said it before and I'll say it again...if you really cared about the environment you'd be encouraging everyone to drive a standard hybrid. Mature and reliable technology that uses less resources yet can still be conveniently driven cross country and use existing infrastructure.These young people have no concept of how far we've come. Cars were dirty, stinking things when I was a kid. They've never been cleaner. You hardly ever see a car smoking out the tail pipe or smell it running rich these days, even the most clapped out 20 year old POS. Hybrids are even cleaner.