Between the Motos: Bruce Hendel of VP Fuels

March 1, 2006 6:49am

Late last night, with the help of Yamaha of Troy’s Dave Osterman, I was able to track down VP Racing Fuels’ Bruce Hendel. Bruce is the Global Sales Manager for the company, and he wanted to discuss his company’s opinion on the fuel penalties that have rocked the sport three times now—the latest being Ricky Carmichael’s 25-point deduction following a positive test for lead following the San Diego SX—and ways that VP hopes to help fix the problems associated with such stringent fuel rules as the .005 grams per liter currently allowed for AMA motocross and supercross.

Ricky Carmichael is hoping more than anyone that the fuel penalty is reviewed
Racer X: Bruce, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. I know you’re busy getting ready to leave for two weeks at Daytona, but on the supercross front, it’s obviously been a very busy week for everyone.
Bruce Hendle: Yes it has, Davey. The phone’s been ringing off the hook a bit, but not quite as much as it did the first two times this issue came up.

Carmichael’s fuel from San Diego was found to be out of compliance, and this follows similar incidents in each of the last two years with Yamaha and Kawasaki. In all three cases, VP Fuels was involved. But then again, what people might not know is that VP is the provider of the fuel for not only those three teams, but also KTM and Honda. Is that correct?
Yes, we provide the fuel for all the factory teams and most of the factory-support teams in the Lites class—Yamaha of Troy, Pro Circuit, the SoBe Samsung Honda team, the BooKoo Energy team….

What happened in San Diego must have come as a real shock to VP, just as it caught Carmichael and the whole sport off guard as well.
Well, it was a surprise to us just as the last couple times were, and again we’re concerned as much as anyone else is. Obviously, we’ve been involved in supplying fuel to professional motocross for 25 years, and we take this pretty seriously. Our track record is pretty exemplary and we certainly want to work—and we have worked—with any teams that have had these issues. Of course, these issues never really came up until the unleaded rule was instituted.

The unleaded rule is a leftover from the AMA/Jam Sports thing, and .005 grams per liter is a really, incredibly small number, isn’t it?
Well, it’s parts per billion, so that should tell you how small it is. The thing is, the EPA allows .013 grams per gallon in our pump gas, and it’s still an unleaded pump gas that’s legal for the street. So that doesn’t mean you’re going to find .013 in every pump-gas sample that you check, but potentially it could be .013 and it’s still legal, which is two-and-a-half times over the legal limit the AMA allows. It was always our understanding that the AMA rule was in place to allow racers to use pump gas and not fail.

DeCoster did his best to explain what he felt were problematic lead limits.
If you really do the science, wouldn’t it actually have the opposite effect, if most pump gas is as leaded as you say?

Well, the pump gas—remember, it’s a small amount of lead, because you can never get 0.00000; it’s not going to happen. There’s lead that exists in our society in a lot of different things, so it can never be truly zero. There’s always going to be some amount that you’re going to find. I mean, there’s lead just organically found in dirt, and of course it’s not tetraethyl lead, which is what we use when we’re putting lead in race fuels to help increase the octane. And that’s another thing, too—the test that’s done for lead doesn’t determine whether it’s tetraethyl lead or some other form of lead.

So not all lead is necessarily beneficial. Is it safe to say that no lead at that amount would alter the performance of a two-stroke or four-stroke motorcycle?
Well, understand that what lead does is increase octane; it’s an octane improver. And in order to get a benefit from tetraethyl lead—and again, it’s a small benefit, a small octane benefit—you would have to have a tenth to two-tenths of a gram of lead per gallon to begin to start seeing an advantage in the octane. And leaded race fuel has four grams of lead per gallon; it’s something like 300 times more than the EPA limit for the amount of lead allowed in unleaded fuel. So actually, racing fuel has 300 times more lead than what pump gas is allowed to have.
    I use that example because a big issue is being made about Suzuki’s fuel being three-and-a-half times over the legal limit, but three-and-a-half times over almost zero lead is not a lot of lead. And then remember, racing fuel is 300 times what the EPA allows.

I heard when we spoke to Roger DeCoster on Saturday afternoon, when he spoke to the media—and this is also something that Ricky said later on—that more of a benefit would have come from having a higher oxygen content, but Suzuki was actually way on the low side there. Is that correct?
Yes. The oxygen test that came back was pretty well under what the AMA allows for oxygen, and the amount of lead that was in the fuel sample they tested, even at three-and-a-half times over the legal limit, still does not increase the performance in any way of that fuel. It would have been a much bigger increase [in performance] if the oxygen level was up to the legal limit, but it wasn’t; it was way under the legal limit.
    Which brings us to one other thing, by the way: Again, going back to pump gas and the original intent of the rule—which was to allow pump gas to be legal in order to keep the racing affordable for the racers who wanted to use pump gas—there’s pump gas in this country that, at certain times of the year and in certain cities, can have up to 3.7 percent oxygen. The AMA’s limit is 2.8 percent. So again, if a racer was in that city and went to the local gas station and bought some pump gas, they could end up running illegal fuel.

I saw Mr. Burns’ release that calls for the AMA to revise its fuel rules to reflect a more real situation both at the pumps and as far as what enhances performance and what doesn’t. What would be, in your personal opinion, a workable level, not only for the gasoline providers, but a test that would truly even the playing field and be a measurable amount that would work for everyone?
Well, if they truly want to have a rule that won’t eliminate anybody from running pump gas in this country, they should raise the oxygen level to 3.7 percent. The lead level should be raised to at least .013 grams per liter. However, understand that the fuel is handled, in the environment of racing, a number of times—quite a bit more than what you put in your passenger car. Regular pump gas is manufactured at a refinery, goes into a tanker, gets delivered to the station, and comes out of the pump directly into your car. When we’re racing, the race fuel obviously has to be delivered in a drum to transport it to the racetrack. When it gets there, the drum is opened for various reasons, whether it’s to get a sample and have it tested, whether it has to be pumped into a transfer can, which then is poured usually through a funnel into a bike, which is then raced in harsh conditions—dirt and dust—and at the end of the race weekend the fuel is drained out of the bike, put back in the can, goes to the next race, and part of that fuel comes back out, so it’s being handled and transferred a number of times. It would seem to make sense to have a limit that’s even a little more tolerant of the additional handling that this fuel goes through. And I’ve said you could easily make the rule state that you could have up to a tenth of a gram of lead per gallon and still not have any performance benefit, and that would allow for incidental contamination through the handling.

Bruce Hendle of VP Racing Fuels feels that privateers can barely meet the FIM/AMA fuel restrictions because pump gas in America is different than what it is in Europe
Let me ask a layman’s question: What material is a petcock made of on a contemporary MX bike, and is that where they take the fuel from? Also, do they drain it from the bottom of a fuel hose, or do they take it right from the top of the gas tank, and could that also come into play?

It’s my understanding that they take it from the petcock, and I believe those parts are made out of aluminum, but honestly, I don’t know. I don’t have the details, and different manufacturers use different kinds of metals—I wouldn’t be able to answer that.

What about—and I’m going with my high-school chemistry here—is there lead in glass products? Like, let’s say the samples were taken in glass tubes or at any point came into contact with glass.
Yes, there can be. Not all glass, but it is potentially possible to have glass that contains lead. As a matter of fact, if you look at the actual testing standards for collecting samples of fuel to test for lead—I think it’s an ASTM, an American Standards of Testing Method—their standards for collection of fuel for doing lead tests do not spec out glass containers, because of that potential contamination issue.

Well, I would certainly expect not only the AMA, but also the lab they use, to make sure that’s the case. But even with all that, there really doesn’t seem to be any argument that the fuel was over the limit, but the problem here seems to be that the limit is not a real, workable limit. This is the third time now that it’s really badly affected a rider or team that obviously got no benefit from it. Beyond changing the rule and changing that number, what else can we do so that in the future we don’t have this kind of controversy or this kind of misunderstanding or outright violation?
Well, the thing is, they took eight samples [in San Diego], and all eight samples were VP Racing Fuel. Seven out of eight samples were fine, and we don’t make this product one drum at a time; we make this product in large batches. Now, we’re certainly not trying to point the finger at Suzuki in any way, and like I said, we’re trying to work with Suzuki to figure out exactly what happened, just like we did with Yamaha and Kawasaki, and in those two issues there were innocent handling issues where there was no blatant attempt to try to cheat.
    In the case of Kawasaki, it turned out they were using metal cans that use a lead-base solder on the seams, and that’s what leached out into the fuel and caused their fuel to be illegal. And I believe Kawasaki’s samples were actually still under the EPA limit for unleaded fuel, but over the AMA’s limit. The answer is, if the rule isn’t going to be changed, then I think the penalty for the infraction needs to be fixed.

To make a comparison, this is like getting 25 years for jaywalking; it’s an extremely heavy penalty. Granted, I have a great amount of respect for Steve Whitelock in sticking to the precedent that had been set, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right in the first place.
Right. I understand that he’s enforcing the rules and that there was a precedent, but like you said, if the penalty was to take the guy out back and shoot him, it doesn’t mean it was right to shoot the first guy [laughs].

Mechanics like Mike Gosselaar must worry about how they handle anything that may come into contact with fuel or risk having the fuel contaminated by lead
Let me get back to something, Bruce. You mentioned the issues with Kawasaki and Yamaha, and because that Yamaha situation was the first situation that arose, it was discovered that they had used a can that had been used before the leaded rules changed, before the series went all-unleaded in 2004.

With Yamaha, I don’t know exactly what they released to the public, so I don’t know if I’m at liberty to discuss what the problem was, but it’s safe to say it was a handling issue after the fuel was removed from the drum. It was an innocent handling issue where nobody was trying to get a competitive advantage.

I bring this up because I was standing in the Suzuki pits on Saturday and talking to Roger, and he was expressing his utter disbelief that this was all happening, when Mike Gosselaar, Ricky’s mechanic, came over wearing a pair of plastic gloves and holding the needle from the carburetor and asked whether they had chemical bio suits around before he put the carburetor back together. We all got an uneasy chuckle out of it, but seriously, at the rates of lead we’re talking about here, it could come from his fingers, couldn’t it?
It’s such a small amount. If you used—and this is something the privateers need to be aware of—if you’re practicing during the week and you use a regular, plastic fuel jug and you happen to be running leaded fuel because it’s a little more affordable, if you come straight to the race weekend—even if that fuel jug is empty and dry—there’s enough lead in the pores of the plastic that once you pour unleaded fuel in there, that fuel is not going to pass. It’s parts per billion and such a small amount that I don’t actually know what would have to be on your hands to contaminate it. I don’t know.

If you set a rule in stone, you’re going to have these sort of difficulties, not only in checking it but in enforcing it, because so often the punishment doesn’t fit the crime—or rather the, crime doesn’t fit the punishment. In all three cases, the fuel may have all violated the rule, but it wasn’t against the spirit of the sport, was it?
No, it wasn’t. The intent of the rule is that they don’t want the racers to run leaded fuel—that’s the bottom line—and so a limit was set. But the limit, as we’ve talked about, is too strict, at least for this country, and the penalty for violating that, especially when you’re not getting any performance advantage…. Steve Whitelock made the comment that he did not believe any of these guys were trying to cheat—I think he believes that now. I think back when the Yamaha incident happened, I believe somebody thought it was possible somebody was trying to cheat; it was a brand-new rule and I think somebody thought, A ha! We caught somebody using leaded fuel!

I have to admit I was personally guilty of that, and the next time I see Jim Perry of Team Yamaha, I’m going to apologize to him, because it was a new rule, they were racing a two-stroke, [Kevin] Windham was on a four-stroke…. But then the whole thing just went away, at least for the general public, because it didn’t really affect the championship. And last year with Kawasaki, again, it was a pair of two-strokes against a whole bunch of four-strokes outdoors, and it didn’t affect the championship. But now we have a four-stroke that doesn’t benefit as much as a two-stroke even if it is lead, is that correct?
Well, we know that four-strokes make a lot more power than two-strokes to begin with, and in order to get the power out of the two-stroke, typically you have to do things that modify the engine where you need to have that additional octane, so there’s a benefit there. But the four-strokes, in general, don’t need a lot of octane. All of our motocross race fuels are fairly low-octane fuels, they just have a lot of energy and make a lot more power than what you get out of the gas pump or typical, standard-type race fuels, whether they’re leaded or unleaded.

The AMA announced early this evening that they would be launching an investigation. What do they need to be looking into, and how will VP try to help them come up with the right system, the right levels, and the right penalty?
Well, we would love to help them in any way, from our experience in the industry and supplying these teams for so many years, but what’s strange is that, really, I believe once in 1996 or 1997 Rob King called and asked for our opinion on a fuel issue, but that was it. We would love to be more active in it—we’ve actually tried to be more active in it. We’ve sent e-mails and letters on any type of fuel issue that we thought might be a problem or something they should be concerned about—but the disappointing thing is that we never get a response.

Well, I certainly hope that in light of all these things and where we stand now as a sport, as a series, I hope that they will reach out and vice versa, and you can all get together to make some regulations that work a little better for the situation.
I think we all think the same thing: It’s a shame that a championship can be decided on an infraction that had no performance advantage, and that’s really the bottom line. If there’s anything that we can do to help resolve the situation or help guide the teams or the AMA, we’re certainly willing to contribute. We’ve been in business for 31 years now, the owner of our company owns a motocross track [Cycle Ranch in Texas]…. We love the sport and don’t want to do anything to hurt it.

Well, I appreciate that, and I think it’s a great place to leave our interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just that I think all the teams believe in VP Racing and what we’re doing. I know that Yamaha, since they had their issue, has tested, at their own expense, every drum of fuel we’ve delivered to them since their incident, and none of them have come back illegal.

Thanks, Bruce, and good luck on the resolution of this issue.
Thank you.