Motorcycle Safety With Statistics; Cut Your Chance Of Injury In Half

Matt in the hospital after a motorcycle wreck

Cool thing about the hospital? All the pillows you can handle. Totally worth it.

You suck at driving. Well, I mean, not you specifically. You are great at driving. And me, I’m also great at driving. But everyone else? Everyone else sucks at driving. This is especially disconcerting for those of us who travel on two wheels, because while automotive safety has been steadily improving for vehicle occupants, it is still quite dangerous to be outside the car that drifts into oncoming traffic while the driver is liking his friend’s swipe-chat, or whatever it is you kids do these days. I mean, not you, but, you know, other people.

I’ve been dodging lunatic four wheelers for 15 years now and managed to not get hit by any of them up until a couple months ago when another driver decided my left leg should have 17 degrees of freedom.

I’m usually the guy telling everyone that motorcycles are not as dangerous as everyone says they are. Two weeks in the hospital make it tough to stand by that, but I still believe it. A huge number of motorcycle wrecks and injuries fall under a small number of causes. If you know what these causes are, and you prepare for them appropriately, your risk goes down significantly, and you can protect your femur from the scourge of shitty Ford Mustang drivers, and from yourself.

Okay, without further delay: the top four things that will kill you:

  • Being a new rider
  • Being a drunk rider
  • An oncoming car turning left in front of you
  • Your un-helmeted face bouncing off the oncoming car turning left in front of you

There are many other ways that motorcycles are dangerous, but these four things account for the majority of motorcycle injuries. Avoid these four things and you are way more likely to make it home safe. Two of these things are suuuuper easy to avoid. Can you guess what they are? If you guessed “Being a drunk rider” and the face thing, you win a prize.

Drunk riders

Guess how many motorcycle fatalities involved a rider who had been drinking?

A third.

Hey, guess what? Don’t ride drunk and your statistical chance of dying on a motorcycle just went way down. Easiest thing ever.

Full Face Helmet

Second easiest thing ever? Full face helmet. Helmets are estimated to be about 40% effective in preventing fatal injuries for motorcycle riders. The data also shows them to significantly reduce not only head injuries, but also neck injuries, so for those of you that think the helmet will just cause whiplash, the data is not on your side. Also, just for fun, take a look at the windshield of this Mustang.

Mustang vs Motorcycle

Now take a look at my helmet.

Helmet vs Mustang

Visor not shown, because it was ripped off and ejected into the trees, unlike my face.

Now back at the Mustang.

Mustang vs Motorcycle

Now look at my face.

Face vs Mustang

Notice that my face doesn’t look like it got smashed up by a windshield at 40 MPH.

I’m not going to be the All-The-Gear-All-The-Time guy here because this is an article focusing on the really statistically significant things, but I’ll just note that everywhere I wasn’t wearing protective gear has road rash. I only slid for a short distance and my legs and feet had road rash scattered all over. My torso, head, and hands literally don’t have a single scratch because of the helmet, gloves, and jacket. So make your own decision on your other gear, but the data says your helmet is mandatory.

New riders

Have you ever gotten in your car and driven somewhere while thinking about something, and you arrive at your destination without any recollection of the drive there? Me too. This is because you and I are wizards.

Not really. It’s because your subconscious knows how to drive because you’ve been doing it for long enough that (as long as everything goes normally) it’s just a reaction. If you haven’t been driving for more than a few years, this doesn’t apply to you, and you are an indiscriminate death missile. Riding a motorcycle has a totally different set of subconscious programming that needs to happen. The cool thing is, you won’t even know what you’re reacting too sometimes. I notice this when my subconscious expects something to happen but then it doesn’t. Something like the driver in the lane next to me will make some slight movement, and before I know it I’m reaching up to grab the brakes because a few times before a different driver has made the same movement and then changed into my lane without looking or using a turn signal because his subconscious has been programed to be an asshole.

You know those big white rectangles at crosswalks? They’re really slippery when wet. I’m not sure why I know that, but my brain figured it out for me at some point and I slow down without even thinking about it. There are a million little dangers like this that you pick up over time, but you just have to ride and experience them to program them in there, and while you’re programing them, you need to be prepared for them with extra space, extra time, and extra traction, because your subconscious doesn’t know about them yet.

So, for the first year at least, you need to be super aware and be a lot more careful than you think you need to be.

Oncoming cars making a left hand turn in front of you

Okay, final thing. This seems really specific but is the cause of a huge number of motorcycle wrecks and often leads to serious injuries for the motorcyclist because it results in a head-on or near head-on collision. This exact thing has almost happen to me enough times that I always ride with my high beam on during the day, and I recommend you do the same. Just remember to turn it off at night.

Just as a quick bonus, two other things that are significant enough to mention. The first happens to me a lot: cars changing into your lane (or through your “lane” if you’re splitting lanes). Adjust your speed and spacing to be prepared for any of them to do it at any time. And the second not so common, but near to my heart given my current handicapped situation: When your light turns green, make sure the cross traffic is slowing down before you go, because sometimes they will ignore the red and accelerate directly into your foot.

So that’s it. Four things, two super easy, two you just need to keep in mind while riding, that will significantly reduce your chances of being injured on a motorcycle:

  • Don’t drink and ride
  • Wear a helmet
  • Be very careful for your first few thousand miles
  • Watch out for oncoming cars turning left in front of you

Riding is still dangerous. Life is dangerous. But it’s worth it. Yes, I’m getting another bike when I can ride again; probably two. I love motorcycles, and I’ll be out again, a little bit more cautions, and hopefully a little bit safer, looking forward to the day when the roads are filled with self-driving cars.

Also, if you drive a Mustang, you are a terrible driver. You suck at driving.

Seriously, this is not a joke, you are a menace to civil driving, and you should have your license revoked.

How to Register a Car Without a Title

How to Register a Car Without a Title

I have a disease. A disease that causes me to look at every vehicle/engine combination and say “No, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong!” A Fiero with an Iron Duke? WRONG! A Barracuda with a slant six 225? WRONG! A DeLorean with a French V6?

What are you, high?

This is a fairly common disease, known in the medical field as LS7-itis. It is closely related to Hayabusirosis. There is also the rare Viperexia, but you don’t see that much because there is so little overlap between Mopar guys and people who can afford Viper engines.

Anyway, registering a car without a title. Twice now, I’ve come across soulless shells of cars, and thought “No Engine? You mean blank canvas!” and I pay something like $600 for a car that will eventually cost me $42,000 because, as those of you who have read my book know, the money you spend on a car project is a function of all the money you have to the power of infinity. The first of these terrible life decisions was a Dodge Dart. This Dart needed a big block, and it wasn’t going to install itself. So I got the Dart, and I got a donor 1978 Dodge Magnum with a 400 and I went to work. This is not even a difficult task, the drivetrain drops right in with some engine mounts you can buy for about $150.

The problem with dropping a big ass engine in a small car is that it still has small car brakes, so I went ahead and upgraded those to discs all around. And while I was at it, I dropped in an 8 3/4 rear end, added fuel injection, completely redid the interior, made a new fuel tank, upgraded the cooling system, and built my own muffler which made the car as quiet as a coked up 6 year old with a drum set.

Big Block Dodge Dart

What were we talking about again? Oh right, how to register a car without a title. So after I dumped all my time and money into this incredibly loud big block piece of rolling ‘Murica, I had to figure out how to get a license plate for it, which was somewhat of a challenge since neither I, nor the previous owner, had any idea what happened to the title, and since the previous owner wanted to help me track down the previous previous owner like he wanted dysentery. So what do I do? I own the vehicle, I have a bill of sale, and I’m fairly certain the car is not stolen.

Fortunately, there are states with rather, shall we say, liberal vehicle titling requirements. I was living in Oklahoma at the time, and Oklahoma is not one of those states, which is surprising, since they don’t require any yearly inspections and you regularly see cars driving around which may or may not have been hit by a tornado. Anyway, these non-Oklahoma states have companies where, basically, you “sell them your car” and then they go to the state with your bill of sale and pictures and stuff and get an official document which they send to you when they “sell you back your car.” You take this info to your local DMV and say “I totally just bought this car from a guy in Maine.” And they give you a title in your state. This seems like the kind of thing that you’d get done in the back room of a shady bar through a guy your cousin knows, but it worked for me and my Dart. Of course, this was like 10 years ago and it cost me $350 and took three months. Also, they seem to have upped their prices and there are a few accounts online of some states not recognizing the paperwork they give you. So let’s slot that into “Plan B” and see if we can find a better, cheaper solution.

In the early 1960’s, Honda was doing well being the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles, and someone said, “Hey, let’s make a car!” To which someone else replied “No, let’s make a street legal go kart with a motorcycle engine!”

And so the S600 was born.

About 50 years later, I found one of these sweet machines for sale in Oklahoma with no engine. Since we all now know that no engine = blank canvas, and since I am a diseased engineer who happened to have an extra CBR1000RR motorcycle engine in the garage, I think we all know how this turned out.

The problem was, I was no longer living in Oklahoma. I’m also a total cheap ass, which means I wasn’t just going to give someone $800 to deliver me my car. So I did what any sensible cheap ass would do and I bought the cheapest tow dolly I could find on Craigslist and towed it back muh damn self.

Towing a Honda S600

Stick with me, I promise this is all relevant.

So I have this Honda with a Japanese VIN. Being a cautious individual, I just start throwing money at it and making it more go-kart-like than anyone at Honda ever hoped it could be, and I just assumed that I’d be able to title it at some point when I got around to it.

Meanwhile I have this tow dolly which I notice works pretty well at towing motorcycles around when you bolt a 4×6 piece of plywood on the top. Now, in California, where this story is taking place, you don’t need a tag for a tow dolly, but you do for a utility trailer. Since I had basically converted this tow dolly into a utility trailer, I went to the DMV with the trailer and said “I need a tag for my utility trailer.” Of course, the people who work at the DMV know as much about the law as a goldfish knows about string theory, and they want to help you title your trailer like they want dysentery.

Knowing this beforehand, I did my research and determined that I would need A) an application for title, and B) a statement of facts explaining where the trailer came from, why it didn’t have a title, and how much it, and the 4×6 plywood, cost me. I went to the local DMV and, after waiting for 62 hours, my number was called and I explained to the lady behind the counter the story, and showed her my completed paperwork. After interrupting me several times, asking me questions that I had already answered, and generally talking with the kind of condescension and self-assuredness you only find in inept government employees, she realized she had no idea what to do and went to find her supervisor.

I repeated the process with her supervisor, who found his supervisor, who listened to absolutely nothing I said and told me that I would need A) an application for title, and B) a statement of facts explaining where the trailer came from, why it didn’t have a title, and how much it, and the 4×6 plywood, cost me. She wanted to see a bill of sale, but I didn’t have one because I hadn’t anticipated the need for one.

She was shocked, flabbergasted that I had purchased something without a bill of sale, and she told me that I needed one for everything that I purchased.

So there you have it, from a senior employee at the DMV; next time you buy a used kneeboard from a dude on Craigslist, you have to get a bill of sale.

Turns out though that you don’t actually need the bill of sale. I just wrote on the statement of facts something about how I didn’t remember who I bought it from, but it was about a year ago and it was from some dude in Orange County.

I paid my fees, got my VIN plate, my tags, and my title was in the mail. But before I left, I remembered that I had an old Honda at home without a title, so I asked, “Can I do this with a car?”

“We’d need a bill of sale for a car.”

Awesome. I had another option: the DMV. However, I had decided that I wanted to go back to the DMV like I wanted dysentery, so I decided to slot that in as “Plan C” and look for a better option.

This is where AAA comes in. I became a AAA member about a year ago and have since decided that it is God’s gift to motorists. If you don’t have it already, go get AAA. In fact, pony up for the extra tow coverage, because if you’re reading this, there is a good chance that you own a jalopy piece of shit that will break down on you 85 miles from your house, and the stoner mechanic at Barstow Tow ‘n Fix isn’t going to know how to swap out the fuel pump in your SR20 powered 240Z.

Where was I going with this? Oh yea, registering a car without a title. So the other cool thing about AAA is that, is some states, you can do most of your DMV business there. This is an amazing decision for them, because competing with the DMV for business is like competing with Pol Pot for the Nobel Peace Prize. This is amazing for you, because they know what you need to do and they want to help you. That’s right; there is a place where you can do your DMV business where they not only have the knowledge to help you, but also the desire to help you.

All this for significantly less than the thousands of dollars and left testicle that you would gladly pay to never go to the DMV again.

Anyway, now that you’ve made it this far, this is where I finally tell you:

How to Register a Car Without a Title

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned so far:

Go to AAA.

Good, we’re all up to speed.

So I learned a few important things while talking with the nice lady at my local AAA about getting a title. First, if the car is still in the DMV system from a previous owner, things get a little more complicated. Fortunately, there is some amount of time (7 years in California) where the DMV just doesn’t care anymore, and vehicles are no longer in the system. So if you found a car covered in weeds in a pasture, and there is a copy of the November 1973 edition of Better Homes and Gardens in the passenger seat, you’re probably good.

Second, if your car comes up as stolen, you’ll probably lose the car, and the owner who it was originally stolen from will be super psyched that he not only gets his car back but that some fine young saint fixed it all up with a new engine and years of hard work for free.

Third, you have to have the car inspected by the DMV, a police officer trained to do inspections, or your auto club (AAA). If you have a buddy who is a cop, he or she may be your best bet. Having a cop as a friend is great, because not only can they help you out with stuff like this, they have lots of great stories. Anywho, AAA and the DMV generally don’t inspect cars until they are otherwise legal and ready to be driven. I had to do some convincing with this one; my Honda was technically legal, but since I had not yet put any effort into the body work, it kind of looked like Optimus Prime took a dump.

What they are looking for is mainly that there is a VIN, that it hasn’t been modified or replaced, and that the supporting documents (bill of sale) are actually talking about the same car with the same VIN. If the VIN on the bill of sale is slightly different than the VIN on the car, like if the moron you bought it from didn’t bother to make sure the “6” he wrote down wasn’t actually a “B”, this is not a big deal. Apparently it happens a lot and they “have a form for that.”

If your car doesn’t have a VIN, they have a form for that, but since this didn’t apply to me, I didn’t look into it any further. If this applies to you, I recommend consulting with your local AAA.

Lastly, the state generally assumes that old cars don’t materialize out of nowhere. It came from somewhere and they want to know as much as you do, and sometimes a little more. With my trailer, this was as easy as saying “It was never in the system because it never needed to be in the system.” With the Honda, it was a little more complicated. I submitted the original bill of sale with a statement of facts that basically said “I bought the car from this dude, and he didn’t have any paperwork because he never got it from the dude he bought it from.” They AAA lady told me that they might kick this back to me and make me track down the previous owner to get him to fill out a statement of facts. Since he was not even enthusiastic enough to bother to double check the VIN on the bill of sale, I doubt he is going to take the time to fill out any paperwork for me. Fortunately, if you can’t get this info, but you make some effort to contact the previous owner (like a registered letter returned with “no such resident”), you can use that to fill out a new statement of facts, and that might be enough.

Unfortunately, if it doesn’t go through, you won’t find out for a few weeks at least. When your title shows up, you’re probably in the clear. But before it shows up, you may be driving around with license plates on a car that is not actually legally registered, so save the wicked burnouts until after the title shows up.

Of course, there are all sorts of different situations that may change the exact process: You have a newer car that needs to pass emissions, you have a grey market Subaru from Bolivia, you converted a boat to drive on land. If you live in not-California, the forms you fill out might be called something else. In any case, if you reside in North America there is an auto club that I mentioned once or twice in this article that might be able to help you. Alternatively, Google.

And there you have it; a concise, not-at-all-wordy explanation on how to register a car without a title. Normally I would try to come up with some witty ending here having something to do with goldfish or dysentery, but since we’re approaching novella territory, I’ll just leave with this:

Seriously, get AAA.

What is it like to daily drive a Dodge Viper?

Dodge Viper Daily Driver

Have you ever played darts with a sledgehammer?

People ask me all the time what this car is like, and it’s hard to explain, but I will try to answer this question here with the help of some reasonable and not-at-all hyperbolic analogies.

A Viper is basically a cartoon on PCP. Remember how in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? there were cartoons mixed in the real world, so there would be a row of normal cars and then a crazy cartoon car at the end? That’s what it feels like every time I walk out to the parking lot.

Someone once said to me that the Viper was a great car for an Engineer, which is kind of like saying a bazooka is a great toothbrush for a Dentist. A well engineered car is a balance of many different variables which are often at odds with each other. If you have too much power, you might lose out on fuel mileage. Great ride comfort will affect handling.

Dodge did not balance these variables with the Viper, they just cranked displacement and tires up to 11 and to hell with everything else. The suspension looks like it might have some thought put into it, but the springs are so stiff that the suspension doesn’t actually do anything.

Several of the parts are carryover from other Chrysler products, like the roller lifters which are the same part number as the ones in my minivan. This is awesome because most of the parts cost relatively little to fix or replace and they are perfectly suitable for use on the Viper, except for the brakes which are only perfectly suitable as long as you always get lost on the way to the racetrack.

Dodge Viper overheating at Willow

Track day at Willow Springs. Do not do this without upgrading the brakes and the radiator.

The Viper-only parts are a little more pricey, like the airbags which go for $2500 used and the clamshell hood which costs about as much as a new Civic. Given the cost of these parts and the Viper’s propensity to spin out for like, no reason, it is no surprise that there are so many with salvage titles. Minor front end damage = total loss.

The fluids are all supposed to be full synthetic, which you should use anyway, but the service interval is a lot lower than most cars, and it gets pricey when you realize that the engine holds 8 trillion quarts of oil.

Chrysler does not make a lot of great vehicles, and I know this because I’ve owned six of them. I also know this because I spend some time with my head jammed in the fender wells of fancy German cars thinking, “Wow, that’s really clever,” and also some time crawling underneath Chrysler products thinking “Wow, that is literally the laziest possible way to do that.” Maybe it is because my first three cars were Chrysler products, but I always find some charm in them. When I see something haphazardly bolted to the firewall in a seeming random location with total disregard for serviceability or NVH, I always imagine some Chrysler engineer, we’ll call him Roy, saying “It’s just an ABS pump, what do you want from me?”

And I shrug my shoulders.

That guy engineered the Viper. He took the biggest small block Chrysler made, added two cylinders, and put it into a body designed by a 12 year old whose only two dreams in life were to design an awesome car, and to hunt bears with a rocket launcher from space.

That’s how the Viper came to be.

Probably.

After the second generation, the Viper classed itself up a little. It’s like that friend of yours that got a nice haircut, started showering every day, and traded his oil-stained jeans and Metallica concert tee for a nice button up shirt and khakis. Sure, he looks like a classy professional, but you still remember that time he got kicked out of the Waffle House for throwing up on the jukebox.

Okay, so I lied about not using hyperbole, but that’s really what the Viper is. It is an exaggeration of a normal car. If you take yourself seriously while driving it, you will look ridiculous. Driving it is kind of like wearing a clown wig. A clown wig that is on fire.

It’s not a good car, but it is, in a few ways, a great car. It is what it is, unapologetically. You know what you’re getting into. It is all laid out on the window sticker: It gets 11 miles per gallon, it has 460 horsepower, and at some point you will slide full oppo into a tree.

I get asked all the time what it is like to own one. You want to know what it is like? Go buy one. Work hard for a few years, save your pennies and get a used one; they cost about the same as a V6 Accord. Buy one and drive it every day for 6 months, then sell it and use the money to buy a Lotus Elise and drive that for 6 months. Then, after you’ve realized that what you thought was a great idea in college is not actually a great idea, sell it and use the money to buy a V6 Accord. Then casually waft to work every day in the quiet comfort of cushy suspension and cupholders, knowing what that guy in the Viper next to you on the 405 is slowly figuring out: That driving a Viper is like driving a cartoon bazooka that shoots sledgehammers while wearing a flaming clown wig and throwing up on the jukebox at the Waffle House.

Dodge Viper getting towed

In Defense of Minivans

Minivan Yosemite

I own a Dodge Viper and a minivan, and if I could only keep one of them, it would be the minivan.

Now I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking “I don’t want to be rude, Matt, but I’m not sure this is the place for you.”

Hear me out.

I engineer cars at work, build cars at home, race cars on the weekends, and write about cars in my spare time. I’m a total car guy. I remember watching a car show a few years back and one of the hosts posited that you couldn’t be a car guy if you owned a minivan, which I thought was funny since I know for a fact that one of the other hosts owned a minivan. But what a stupid thing to suggest, it’s like saying that you can’t be a writer if you start sentences with conjunctions, or have, like, way too many run on sentences. Who makes these rules? I mean are we really going to eliminate the possibility of owning an entire class of vehicles just because of some presumption about what it says about you, or what kind of people typically buy it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to convince you that all cars are great in their own special way; there are plenty of cars that could do without a fan club (most of which have fan clubs), but the minivan is different, and here’s why.

People belittle minivans without much argument from minivan owners, and even the owners bemoan their suburban accoutrement, but the truth is that people love their minivans. It’s like a secret club where we all quietly enjoy everyone else’s complaints about our car choice, but we really think it is super awesome. I bought my Chrysler Town and Country from a retired couple who took meticulous care of it. They had a stack of receipts and paperwork three inches thick. The wife loved it and did not want to see it go; she made me promise to take good care of it. And I, being an honest and empathetic individual, looked a sweet old lady in the eyes and lied to her face. “I’ll totally take good care of it, i’ll clean it, and wash it, and…” all lies. Three weeks later, one of my neighbors said to me “Your van is really dirty, it looks like you took it off road.” as though “off road” is a place where you don’t take minivans.

Off Road Minivan

Second, nobody who cares what other people think about them would ever buy a minivan; it is a vehicle purchased solely by people who do not care. If not giving a shit is cool, then minivans are rock star cool. It is so uncool that it transcends coolness, going so far to the side of uncool that it comes full circle to absolute coolness. If Keith Moon were alive today, he would totally drive an Odyssey into a hotel swimming pool. I know, you’re thinking, “But dude, PTA moms aren’t cool.” Slow your roll there, Chief. PTA moms don’t drive minivans. They drive Lexus RXs and Chevy Tahoes. They drive SUVs and the only reason they drive SUVs is because they don’t want to be seen in a minivan, because only PTA moms drive minivans.

Third, you can haul stuff. I’ve hauled go karts, car engines, refrigerators, beer kegs, desks, dressers, beds, street bikes, dirt bikes, mountain bikes, friends, family, strangers… You say you want to put a motorcycle inside, another on a hitch carrier, fill the rest of the inside with camping stuff, and also haul two dead Christmas trees, for some reason?

Minivan_Trees

I had to put air suspension on the rear to balance out the load when I fill it with crap.

Fourth, camping is a breeze. Setting up camp consists entirely of putting the van in park. It was my home for a week at Burning Man, drowning out the drone of techno music and protecting me and my stuff from the windy blast of playa sand and weed smoke.

Playa Sand and Weed Smoke

Also, you can totally live in it. I know to some of you this may not be terribly exciting news, but it is. You haven’t lived until you’ve lived in a minivan down by the river. For 10 weeks earlier this year I lived in my minivan, driving from national forests to friends’ houses to mountain campgrounds, gallivanting around the country, just me and my dashboard companion, Hula Vader.

Hula Vader Colorado

Hula Vader Golf

Hula Vader San Fran

I drove along the coast from LA to Seattle to see some old friends, across to Yellowstone, through Wyoming, over to Pennsylvania to visit family, down to Washington DC to spend a week wandering around the Smithsonian museums, down to Oklahoma to visit friends and family, back through Colorado, and over to Utah for some mountain biking, and a hundred places in between for some of the best camping, hiking, and sightseeing I’ve ever experienced.

Trip Around USA

One late night in DC, I didn’t feel like driving back to the campground, so I parked in a nice looking neighborhood, crawled in the back, and went to sleep. I was bothered by exactly nobody. You know why? Because you see 100 minivans a day and you never think twice about it. RV? You can’t park that here! Ford Focus? Good luck stretching out and getting a good night’s sleep. Minivan? Your new home on the corner of random street and nobody-cares-if-you-park-here circle.

On one particular stretch of my adventure, I was driving down a state highway in Utah that was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. It followed the Colorado River and was surrounded by massive sandstone walls, and spires, and amazing scenery in all directions. I decided to take a side road towards some interesting rock formations and found myself in the greatest campground I’ve ever seen. I parked at the last open campsite and went exploring. After a leisurely hike, I sat in the minivan and read Walden with the side door open. A couple hours later, two other minivans stopped and asked, “Hey dude, are you guys leaving?”

“No, I’m staying tonight,” I said, “and it’s just me.”

“You mind if we share the campground? We got brewskies, and two minivans full of chicks!”

Well, I don’t want to be rude.

It was two guys and five girls, all from Telluride, CO, and all the kind of people police pick out for “random searches.” They started a fire and played some Grateful Dead on one of the radios.

I mentioned their vehicle choice and they espoused the virtues of minivans.

“Oh, minivans are awesome; you can do anything with them!”

Shit yea, you can.

Later in the night, around 11, they had the idea to hike along the river, and invited me to join them. The canyon walls were pitch black, silhouettes of rock formations jutting out into a night sky full of more stars than I’d ever seen. One of the girls told us to all lie down and stare up. We all lay down on a small island in the middle of the stream that we happened to be on at that moment. It was not especially dry.

“Look up at the stars.” She said. “And then realize, that you’re not only looking up at the stars, you’re also looking down at them.”

I started to think about all the things I had done over the past few weeks; seen friends I hadn’t seen since college, family I hadn’t seen in years, priceless works of art, centuries old cave paintings, and some of the most beautiful scenery I could imagine. I had cheese in Wisconsin and deep dish pizza in Chicago, I hiked the Grand Canyon and touched a rock that came from Mars. I realized that we all live in a great big gigantic world. Unfathomably huge. You could do something every day that is awesome, in the real sense of the word, something that fills you with awe, and if you lived to be a hundred you might never make it past the Rockies.

Minivans aren’t cool. They’re not. Nobody looks at me and says, “That guy is so cool.” They say “That homeless guy really needs to wash his minivan.” But Vipers aren’t cool either. They’re just metal and plastic. They’re just cars. And don’t misunderstand me; I’m a car guy to the core. But the cars I really love, the ones that really stoke that passion, are the ones that weave in and out of the really great stories of my life; the college racecar, the first project car, the car that cost more to get out of impound than it was worth, and of course the car that went with me around the country for 10 weeks in the spring of 2013. I love that car; I love that I can carry all my friends in it, I love that I can haul my motorcycles with it, I love that I can sleep in the back of it in a Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s not particularly stylish and it doesn’t go very fast, but I haven’t owned it for a year and it has already taken me on more adventures than most people will have in a decade.

I drive a minivan, and I love it. If that means I don’t make the “car guy” cut, then fine.

I’ll be a minivan guy.

A minivan guy who drives a Viper.

Minivan Camping

The laziest possible way to install a big bore kit in a DRZ400

There seems to be no write-up of how to install a big bore kit in a DRZ400, so I decided to fill the void. All I really wanted to know was

A) Do I have to remove the engine, and
B) How lazy can I be?

The answers, for those of you who can’t wait til the end, are:

A) No, and
B) Like, super lazy.

Fortunately the DRZ400 is a total tractor, so you can really softball this one in. You might be a bit nervous about performing surgery on your dear Suzi, so start by drinking at least one beer to take the edge off.

The first step is to remove the fuel tank. To do that, you’ll have to remove the front radiator shrouds, and also, you’ll have to remove the seat.

So the first step is to remove the seat, then the other stuff. Really what you want to do is remove everything between you and the piston.

At some point in removing everything that looks like it might get in the way, you’ll remember that you should probably drain the coolant. You want to do this so that when you take cylinder off, it won’t dump coolant into your crank case. That way you can just reuse the same oil, which is awesome given how lazy you’ve decided to be in this endeavor. To drain the coolant, just undo the lowest coolant hose you can find. If you’re married, you’ll want to get some sort of drain tub to catch all the coolant. If you’re single, feel free to get that towel that your neighbor left in the laundry room and toss it on the ground.

DRZ400_Big_Bore_1

Now that you’ve drained the coolant, and removed everything that is between you and the valve cover, you’ll want to take off the valve cover. While doing this, you will notice that you haven’t yet removed everything between you and the valve cover. So remove the Horn. Eventually you will also have to take off the radiator fan, but you haven’t figured that out yet, so don’t bother.

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Once you get the valve cover off, it would be a good time to check your valve clearance. To do this, you Google “how to check your valve clearance Suzuki DRZ400” or something similar. I suspect there is a write-up on that.

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If you don’t have a feeler gauge, now is a good time to buy one. It is a super cheap, easy to use tool, and if you own one you can totally feel like some sort of master engine technician. You’ll want to check your clearance against the recommended clearance, unless you are an overconfident automotive engineer and you think maybe the numbers you measured probably seem about right. Exhaust is supposed to be the bigger gap, right? It’s hotter, so yea, probably, what with all that thermal expansion.

Next, remove the caps that hold down the camshafts a little at a time in a crisscross pattern. Remove the camshafts from underneath the cam chain and check out that cool decompression throw out weight thing that probably comes in really handy on the kick start models.

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Before you remove the last camshaft (you haven’t already removed the last camshaft, have you?) you’ll want to put some safety wire around the cam chain to keep it from falling into the black abyss of death that is the crank case. If this happens you will have to walk all the way to the toolbox, search tirelessly for the telescoping magnet, stick it into the case, and pull up the cam chain.

But not yet.

Now you need to remove the head bolts. There are four below the camshafts, 12mm maybe, 14 possibly, who can keep track of these things.

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And don’t forget the two on the outside of the engine. Also there are two more holding the cylinder down to the case; this is probably a good time to remove those as well.

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Once all the important bolts are removed, and all the random horns and fans are out of the way, it is time to take off the cylinder head. It seems like I might have taken the cam chain tensioner off before this last part? Maybe. I’d go ahead and take the cam chain tensioner off about now if you haven’t already done that.

Once you have the head off, you’ll want to inspect it. For what? I don’t know, like massive head damage or something? Does it look like this:

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If so, it’s probably fine. Set the head down on the extra rag you found which happens to be a Formula SAE judge shirt from four years ago.

Now is probably a good time for a beer. You disassembled it all; you can probably reassemble it all while slightly intoxicated. You didn’t build a beer dispenser using a car door handle so you could not drink all the time, did you? No, you didn’t.

Once you’re nice and lit, flip the head over and pull off the buckets with that telescoping magnet you worked so hard to get a few minutes ago. Under the bucket you will see a shim. This is what you would replace if your valve clearance was outside the specifications that you didn’t bother to look up.

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When you put the bucket back on, the shim will likely be slightly out of its correct position. You won’t notice this until after the engine is together and it is not working, but you don’t know that now, because you’re too lazy to check for that sort of thing. And besides, you’re a professional automotive engineer, being careful is for people who don’t know what they’re doing.

Now, to get the piston off the connecting rod, you’ll need to remove the wrist pin. To get that out, you’ll first have to pull out the little ring clip holding it in. Since you’re replacing the pin, the clip, and the piston, feel free to just jam a flat head screwdriver in there and pry it out, quickly ducking out of the way as it shoots off in the exact direction of your eyeball.

DRZ400_Big_Bore_9

Next, lay out all the shiny new pieces from the big bore kit you bought on eBay. Feel pride in the fact that you bought the kit with the forged JE piston, and not the cheap Chinese piston that will totally grenade your engine in the middle of the desert in two weeks.

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I mean, you got the cheap Chinese cylinder, but that’s probably fine. Before you get too far ahead of yourself, check the ring gaps. It will probably be smaller than the instructions say, but only by a couple thousandths. That’s probably fine. You’d have thrown in a safety factor of a couple thousandths if you designed this thing, right? Yea, so it’s fine.

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Before reassembling everything, be sure to clean off all the gasket surfaces. I’m sure there’s a great cleaner for this, but there is also some aerosol shit you have within arm’s reach. Use that.

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Once that is done, go ahead and install the piston onto the connecting rod, using the wrist pin and the new clips. The clips are a total bitch to install, so have fun with that.

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Check out that sweet looking piston, machining marks all on it still. Aww yea.

Now you’ll want to put the rings on the piston. The instructions say something about the top one going on top, and the gaps facing different directions. That is probably useful info to follow, mostly because it’s easy.

Once your rings are on, you can slide the cylinder down over the piston, carefully making sure the rings are compressing nicely into their grooves. You could probably use some sort of ring compression tool for this, but that is probably overkill, even if you weren’t being totally lazy.

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Oh yea, before you do all that last stuff, you need to be sure and put the new base gasket on. If you haven’t done that, then just leave it off and see if the piston slams into the valves when you fire it up for the first time. It probably won’t, and you should get a little more power because of the higher compression ratio. Let me know how it turns out.

Next, install the head gasket (you probably need that one) and the head. If you never bothered to put safety wire around your cam chain, now would be the time to fish it out of the case with your telescoping magnet. Bolt down the head in a crisscross pattern to whatever torque the internet tells you is correct. Or just whatever torque feels right to you.

Now, before you install the camshafts, you’ll want to put the piston in its “top dead center” position. Or just its “top” position, which is the same thing with two less words.

To do this, you need to take a cover off the left side of the engine that will allow you to turn the crank with a socket and see where “top” is. Again, if you’re married, get a bucket. If you’re single, just assume that this is above the oil level, and just take the cover off.

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With the piston at “top”, install the camshafts in the correct orientation.

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Remember that the cam chain tensioner will apply pressure, so shove your finger in there and give it a little push to make sure the arrows are still lined up with the top of the head. Double check that the engine is still at top, and bolt the camshafts down in a crisscross pattern to some torque value that seems like it is probably enough, but not too much.

Right now, you will be thinking, “Ahh! I know what is next! I need to install the cam chain tensioner.”

WRONG!

Slow your roll. You can’t install the tensioner without first removing this little black plastic box thing. So remove that.

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To install the cam chain tensioner, you need a special tool to retract the spring loaded tensioner mechanism. If you don’t have this tool, even though you have like 8000 other tools, just use a small screwdriver. You have to turn the screwdriver to unload the tensioner while you bolt it in. You need some dexterity, but not too much, so if you’re too drunk to continue, you are probably too drunk to be rebuilding your motorcycle engine.

By now, your bike has mostly emptied its bowels and your neighbor’s towel looks like Optimus Prime’s tampon.

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Try to clean up as best as you can. Your garage floor is filthy, so you can probably make it look like this never happened with minimal effort, and your roommates will never know, until they read this on the internet.

Go ahead and bolt everything on in roughly the same order you disassembled it all. Don’t forget to fill your coolant back up, and add some oil.

Once your bike is all back together, you’ll notice that it doesn’t start. This is normal, and by normal, I mean not normal at all. After cranking it over for a solid minute, you’ll notice the battery starting to die. This is a good time to hook it up to the charger, grab another beer, and ponder some of the enigmas of life, like how you can be a professional automotive engineer and yet be so colossally bad at rebuilding engines. Once your battery has a bit of charge, but before you’ve finished your 7th beer, you’ll want to check one by one for the four things you need for an engine to run: spark, compression, fuel, and timing. Let’s start with compression since that is what that giant piston you just installed is supposed to be doing.

DRZ400_Big_Bore_19

0 PSI. Check the manual to make sure 0 is within spec.

It is not.

Shit.

Go back to the beginning of this guide, and repeat everything up until you remove the valve cover. After that is done, you’ll notice that one of the tiny little shims that go under the bucket has popped out of its little hole and is holding the valve open all the time. Now put your hand over your eyes, squeeze your temples, and say “Jesus Christ I hope I didn’t bend a valve.”

Sure, you’re bummed out because you rebuilt the engine without making sure everything went back where it was supposed to go, but hey, at least your last job wasn’t at an engine component supplier as a professional valvetrain engineer. Oh wait, that was EXACTLY YOUR LAST JOB.

But don’t get too bummed out, you did decide to embark on this whole endeavor super lazy and half drunk, so you’re actually doing pretty well considering.

Go back to the part of this guide where you put everything back together, but go ahead and check the compression before you get too far, just in case.

Once you get everything all assembled, just double check to make sure everything is really assembled, just in case.

Good? Good. Now, some people will tell you that the best way to break in a new engine is to keep it under some thousand RPM for some hundred miles. And, on certain engines with certain uses, that may be true. But, I’m here to tell you that wheelies are way fun. So get on your bike, and go do a wheelie. Once that is done, do another wheelie. After 6 or 7 wheelies, stop dong wheelies and go inside before the cops get show up.

Crack open another cold one, and sit on your couch with a smug sense of self satisfaction. You’re not such a bad professional engineer after all. Maybe next time you can add even more power. Maybe next time you can install nitrous! But don’t start yet, because eventually you will sober up and realize that is a terrible idea.

Racecar: Searching for the Limit in Formula SAE

I wrote a book about my experience building and racing cars in college. It’s exciting! It’s amusing! It’s free! (for ebook download!)

Racecar: Searching For The Limit In Formula SAE by Matt BrownRACECAR: Searching for the Limit in Formula SAE
By Matt Brown

Free: PDF | EPUB | iPad | Google Play | Kindle
Order: Paperback | Hardcover | Nook
中文简体字版: PDF | EPUB | Paperback

In 2006, a small unavailing university auto racing team began building a racecar that would challenge the best engineering schools in the world. With fewer people and resources than any of the top competitors, the only way they were going to win was to push the limit, go for broke, and hope for more than a little luck.

By the time they got to the racetrack, they knew: In the fog of fierce competition, whether you win or lose, you learn the hardest lessons about engineering, teamwork, friendship, and yourself.