We intercepted email transmissions between Jasonw@racerxonline.com (Jason Weigandt) and firstname.lastname@example.org (Steve Matthes) and uncovered a deep dive on two-strokes that morphed into a talk about the Alta Redshift electric bike.
Not everyone is willing to hand their emails over for public scrutiny. Have you noticed? But here’s a convo between Matthes and Weege.
Matthes, what are we going to do? The cult once known as “two-stroke kooks” has become mainstream. It’s grown from tropical storm to hurricane to full-on Sharknado. Two-strokes gobble up every other topic we touch. All articles, podcasts and janky radio shows get overrun with two-stroke discussion. The problem is that we can’t deliver what these fans want. No matter what topic we cover—supercross changes, Ken Roczen’s comeback, upcoming international races blah blah blah—we’re not answering the question they want answered: why can’t two-strokes come back?
Is this a must do? Are two-strokes really an actual solution to every problem as the fans see it, or is this just nostalgia talking?
Well, Weege, the late great Tom White, who just passed away, was a pioneer in four-stroke racing in the 1980s when the land was littered with two-strokes. I imagine if you could teleport yourself back to Carlsbad in 1985 at the World Four-Stroke Championships you would hear a lot of people wishing and wanting thumpers to come back and become the main motocross bikes. Funny how everything just comes back around, huh? Pardon me while I dig my LBZ corduroy shorts out.
Anyway, you're right: Red Bull Straight Rhythm was a fantastic event and the sideshow class of two-strokes stole the show. And there's no doubt my social media feed has filled up with more photos of these things in recent years. Two-strokes are hot right now.
Here's the thing, though: we are told that Yamaha and KTM are selling tons of these things and that's great, but until all the OEMs get on-board with making entry level affordable two-strokes (have you see the price of a 10-year-old YZ250 with new graphics lately?) or the rule makers do something to allow these bikes back into a class, well, I’m afraid we'll have to settle for a guy in overalls pouring beers and riding a 19-year-old bike to glory. The rest of it is just noise. Sorry not sorry. Thoughts?
Okay, you just stepped on two of the land mines right there. Let’s just get the big one out of the way—the rules—because it’s the question we get asked most, and the answer we end up dodging every time. The market will never fully pull two-strokes from the brink until THE RACING RULES change to give two-strokes an advantage. Two-strokes are regaining popularity for practice tracks and recreational riding, but as long as the actual guy on the gate next to you can ride a 450 four-stroke that allows him to get better starts and faster lap times, the market for two-strokes has a limit. Some people still purchase motocross bikes to go actual motocross racing. If you’re one of them, why bring the knife to the gunfight?
This leads to the question always asked: why can’t the rules be tweaked? 250cc versus 250cc. Or bigger two-strokes. Or a four-stroke limit of 350cc. Something. Anything.
Steve, you and I both know why this rule change hasn’t come. Do we dare actually say it?
I am not going to repeat myself from last week's Q&A I did or last week's Pulpmx Show or the show the week before or....
Okay, fine, I’ll freaking do it: If the rules change to let two-strokes win races the factory teams will threaten to stop racing. It’s that simple. It would seem like the AMA/FIM/AMA Pro Racing sanctioning body alphabet soup could conceivably be able to just make whatever rule changes they want, but any promoter and any sanctioning body has to respect its own economic model and not just kick its partners in the face. Especially when the partners are the ones that actually pay the participants most of their money.
We have a very delicate balance in this sport, as sales of bikes and gear create the salaries of the riders. TV ratings and ticket sales do not result in a direct deposit into the athlete’s bank account like they do in stick and ball sports. This is actually great, because this sport isn’t as popular as the NBA or NFL, and we need those factory teams to ensure our heroes can make a living doing this. Until supercross gets so popular that it can sign an NFL-like billion-dollar TV revenue deal and hand everyone tons of money, we can’t jack up this fragile ecosystem and scare the factories away. The races need them as much as the teams need the races.
Sorry, this isn’t the news two-stroke lovers want to hear and I also don't know what the solution is. The manufacturers are not going to vote for flushing 15 years of four-stroke MX development down the drain. Unless one of them can just build a time machine and we can fix the rules from the 1990s, when this started.
Let’s move over to landmine number two. Why does a YZ250 cost $7,399? Why does the supposedly much-more-expensive YZ250F cost $7,699? A YZ450F costs $9,199, but if anyone is serious about racing, the $1,800 difference between an all-new 2018 450 and a warmed over Bold New Graphics YZ250 is a screaming bargain.
Further, I just researched 2001 prices--back when this transition had begun--and the YZ250 cost $5799 and the YZ426F was $5999. The $7399 price of the new two-stroke seems crazy, but the gap between the two bikes has grown since then.
There's a real problem for motocross that I state all the time: better isn't always actually better. I think we'd all like to see a bike that's slower, cheaper and safer be the superior product but this is a competitive arena and if one product is better, someone is going to race it and win on it, regardless of cost. We would have been better off if we had no idea what four-strokes were capable of.
Look, you can make a 60-horsepower 450 four-stroke that is ridable, smooth, fast and controllable. You can make a 60 horsepower 500 two-stroke, but that much power and displacement makes it scary to ride, hard to hold onto and hard to hook up. Four-strokes find this perfect line between traction, smoothness and power. Even changing the rules to allow 450 two-strokes wouldn't even solve the problem. You'd have to go full-one back to 125 and 250cc limits. Again, anyone have a time machine?
Meanwhile, two-strokes are awesome if you can make them sing, but, heck, for some riders they are actually harder to ride. Are they as good as people really think they are?
No, they are a lot more work to ride and all the people crying foul over the costs of maintaining a thumper is something I don’t get. Change your oil, check your valve clearances and you’re fine. Sure, when you start adding compression to the bikes they need more money, but how many people get on a four-stroke and say “Yeah, not good enough?” For 90 percent of people that own them, they’re bulletproof. For every two top ends you do on a two-stroke, you’ll still be on your OG piston on a four-stroke IF you look after your bike.
Until the OEMs change their thinking on prices and models, all the “kooks” are pissing into the wind in my opinion.
Yup, there’s the fly in the ointment of this two-stroke debate. It’s very hard to figure out what’s fact and what’s just nostalgia kicking us in the ass. I get it, an all two-stroke world would bring many other advantages to the table. My son is three years old and he loves motocross. I would feel much more comfortable knowing he was getting into an all two-stroke world because of speed and costs.
But hey, I suck at riding. You know what? The four-stroke is way, way easier for me to ride. With a four-stroke, if you want to go three percent faster, you twist the throttle three percent more. With a two-stroke, sometimes you want three percent but then it hits and you get 20 percent. I even got bit by the retro bug three years ago and bought a KTM 250 two-stroke and found it much harder to ride than I remember. It's just hard to get a market to understand that the bike that is harder to ride is actually better. Every car buff likes manual transmissions because they make a car more fun to drive. But 99 percent of America will buy an automatic because it's easier. Four-strokes make people feel like heroes. They have wide powerbands. You can go faster with less work. Faster with less work! It's hard to tell everyone that this sucks. Because of this, I feel like the debate is more like "each bike has its strengths" instead of "two-strokes rule at everything and four-strokes are complete garbage" like we keep hearing.
The next key argument for two-strokes is that they would reduce costs for privateers. Steve, help me with your mechanical knowledge here: isn’t the 450 four-stroke the best privateer bike ever? Wasn’t the difference between a factory 250 two-stroke and a privateer 250 two-stroke MUCH bigger? Put a pipe on a 450—or don’t even bother, depending on which bike you have—and there’s enough motor to qualify for Nationals and supercross mains. In the two-stroke days, could a privateer even get a motor—at any price—that didn’t put him at a huge disadvantage? I know the 250F class is engine-dominant, but ask any old pro who raced the 125 Nationals. It was the same back then. Jeff Emig’s 1992 YZ125 was a bazillion times faster than a stock or privateer’s YZ125. I think that fact has just been forgotten by time. That's the nostalgia factor I'm talking about--the sport has never been easy on privateers. That's how racing works.
There’s really just one major reason why I would like to see two-strokes come back: you can’t go as fast with the 125/250 two-stroke class combo as you can with the 250F/450F. And to me, more speed equals more severe injuries. That fact alone is number-one on my pro two-stroke debate list. Some of the other stuff, I’m not as sure as others.
What do you think? Are two-strokes really better for privateers? Are four-strokes more dangerous?
You’re right. Generally speaking, in 2017 fans cry out for two-strokes and privateers. Hence why a privateer ON a two-stroke named Stank Dog is killing it these days. I had Stank in-studio for the Pulpmx Show a month ago and he was telling me some of his financials and I was blown away at how much support he gets for being Stank Dog and being on a two-stroke. Anyway, yeah if you were to go back to all two-strokes then this would actually hurt the privateers a ton compared to now. In the premier class, it doesn’t take as much to make a production bike close to the factory guys as it did in the two-stroke days.
Back in 1998 I went to Loretta Lynn’s to work for Honda because my rider was hurt and was asked (re: forced) to stick around the week after for the Loretta Lynn’s quad national which I didn’t know even existed. I remember that week being full of guys trying to make the last gen of Honda TRX’s (I think 1989 or something?) competitive because those were still the last racing quads around at that time. So I ask you, if we still had two-strokes or brought them back, what would we be looking at as far as tech? Professional SX and MX is the MotoGP, the F1, etc. of motorcycle racing and there wasn’t much advancement of two-strokes the last five years or so of production bikes. The OEMs were struggling to provide new tech for people and that’s a bad thing. I mean, I guess we’d have EFI by now, but what else?
As far as being more dangerous, I’m 100 percent with you on lower speeds equal less injuries—that’s common sense. But I’ve told this story before: in 1998 there were four factory riders at the final round in Vegas which made it a boon for privateers to get into the main. At the Coliseum earlier that year the factories fielded, I think, 11 guys. So the point is there were a ton of injuries in ’98 on two-strokes and professional SX and MX racing is just inherently dangerous. But, yes, I agree with you on the speed stuff.
I’ll tell you WHAT is the future Weege and that’s the Alta Redshift. Yeah, yeah they’re very pricey but look at the tech you’re getting for that money and you don’t have any maintenance costs. Or fuel costs! And the price is sure to come down, right?
I recently rode an Alta and I couldn’t believe how fun it was. It felt light (even though it’s not), it worked like a regular bike, and the best part is you can ride it anywhere. I was very impressed. You know the other OEMs have this thing in their R&D departments and are working away at topping it. With all the land issues, I’m 100 percent on-board with these being a part of the future. Love it!
I don’t think people are super interested in racing just because the bikes are cutting edge. I think they just like racing no matter what, and they would have been more than happy to keep watching even if we just stuck with two-strokes and the changes weren't as drastic year-to-year. And if tech is what the people want, and we still had rules favoring two-strokes, it would have been up to the manufacturers to innovate to keep selling. They would have figured it out.
Onto the electric bike. It’s almost impossible for me to comprehend this, but an Alta would seriously be the best bike for me right now. All the stuff I said I like about four-strokes actually multiplies with the electric bike. I don’t get to ride much, but with one of those, I could find a damned field or patch of woods near the house and sneak in 30 minutes without anyone even knowing—and without spending any extra time on maintenance. The only problem is cost—I can justify it because I work in this industry and spending money on bikes is literally part of the job—but for others, I think the future will come in a different way. The Alta prices will surely go down, but they’ll always be a high-end option. Soon, someone is going to create the perfect mountain bike/dirt bike electric play bike mashup that will be fun cheap and durable. You can hit a map switch on the bars and your girlfriend could take a ride on a docile play bike, then you could hit the “nuke” button and suddenly have a ripper for yourself. People will start banging bars in their backyard. Or maybe in parks? That’s when electric dirt bikes will gain critical mass. I’m not joking. If someone can nail the costs/fun ratio on one of those, it could absolutely save the sport of dirt biking. It'll just be dudes having fun going riding with their buddies. That's what it's supposed to be all about.
We have to be careful, though. Alta knows the best way to prove its product is to race it against gas-powered bikes at the highest level. They don’t want to be the best electric option, they want to be the best option of any bike period, and I bet there’s a lot of investment money betting on that outcome. But, as we learned with four-strokes, you must be aware of unintended consequences. The industry tried to figure out how to make four-strokes competitive with two-strokes. They didn't think far enough ahead to visually four-strokes completely taking over.
Electric is intriguing and could solve a lot of problems, but what the hell would a supercross race “feel” like if all the bikes on the track were almost silent? Wouldn’t it seem lame?
No. That's ridiculous. Great racing is great racing, Weege. And the best part is you could talk to your family or buddy about what the hell is going on out there unlike now.
Okay, so we’re on board. Sounds like the biggest deal is how to slot these bikes in. Alta guys even tell me they have a solution—they would let the officials plug right into their ECU and see exactly how much power the bike produces, just to try to prove they’re not offering an unfair advantage (no one tried to figure out how much power Doug Henry’s YZ400F was producing before they let it out on the track).
This is another discussion for another day. Plus, we’re going to get killed by everyone because we didn’t go all-in on two-strokes. I hope these emails never get out.
Come on, we’re playing all sides. I don't know where we're going with all of this beside agreeing that Ronnie Mac rules and I believe 100 percent the Alta has a huge future in the sport. Nothing wrong with that.