The Dawn of 4-Stroke Racing!

“Once we started racing the fourstroke, we didn’t want to go back.” The year was 2001, the racer was Doug Gust, the quad was a hybrid Suzuki, and the tuner was Tom Carlson. It was a combination of man, machine and moment that resulted in a racing revolution. Tom Carson remembers it well. “When Doug Gust won the first moto of the year in Georgia, we knew we had something.”

What they had, as it turned out, was the beginning of a new era. The first decade of the new millennium would be the golden age of ATV racing, with more talent, more technology and more competition than ever before. Factory involvement reached unprecedented levels, and the age of the four-stroke began. Today, 450cc four-strokes are the norm in ATV racing, but when Gust won in 2001, it was the first four-stroke win ever and, more specifically, the first win by a machine that wasn’t powered by a Honda 250R in years. Things would never be the same.


In the early years, ATV racing was dominated by Gary Denton, who rode a Suzuki 250 two-stroke at first, then a Honda TRX250R-based machine, winning eight Grand National Championships. In the ‘80s, there was some factory involvement, but that would quickly change. Production sport quads became a threatened species through the ‘90s, and racing was soon dominated by grass-roots aftermarket companies. The Honda motor was the preferred power source, and men like Mark Laeger, Doug Roll and Mike Walsh built rolling chassis. The most prestigious series was the Grand National Championship, which combined points from TT races as well as motocross. After Denton retired, names like Tim Farr, Shane Hit and Travis Spader took center stage. But, the next real star of the sport was Doug Gust. “Doug Gust was already kind of an old man to the other riders,” remembers Carlson, “but he was way out in front of them all when it came to fitness. He raised the bar for all of them.” Doug raced for Darren Naccarato of Nac’s Racing on a Honda-powered two-stroke. When Darren fell ill with cancer, Tom started supporting Gust with help from John Lawson. In 1998, Darren passed away and Gust won the Grand National Championship in his honor.


When Yamaha introduced the YZ400F motorcycle in ’98, it started a process that eventually changed the motorcycle racing world. The wheels started turning in ATV racing as well, even though there was no real production four-stroke quad worthy of racing at the time. A few people played with the Honda TRX400EX in ’99, but it wasn’t until some racers started using the Yamaha motor to power custom quads that things started changing. Kory Ellis showed up in 1999 with a Yamaha-based machine that Mark Laeger built. At the PACE Off-Road Championship in Anaheim Stadium, Ellis won that year. Unbeknownst to him, the stands were full of industry executives from Yamaha as well a Suzuki. When he thanked Yamaha on the podium for simply building the motor, it probably did more for the future of sport ATVs than any other moment. Tom Carlson was among those who took note, and he wanted to go a different direction. “I got a motor from the new Suzuki DR-Z400 because it was electric start,” he says. “At the time, starting a fourstroke was a big concern. Eventually, Doug was confident enough that we removed the starter.” They wedged the motor into a Walsh chassis that was designed to take the Honda twostroke motor and set out for the first race of 2001 in Georgia. Doug won the first moto and fell in love with the bike. The plan had been to ride a twostroke on the tracks where it seemed it would be an advantage, but the traction and power of the Suzuki made it the number one choice everywhere. Doug busted an oil line and had to forfeit the second moto that day. That prompted Carlson to reengineer the motor into a wet-sump design with no external oil lines. The next race was in Kentucky, and Doug won easily. Everyone noticed, including people at Suzuki, Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Can-Am. As the season went on, Doug, Tom and John worked out the bugs, but it was difficult to develop a new machine during a racing season. They had their share of setbacks. MX was Doug’s forte, and while he could hold his own on a flat track, he wasn’t as dominant. The bike had to be reconfigured from race to race; TT racing required a shorter swingarm, different A-arms, different wheels and different suspension. There was only one race quad, and it was constantly being worked on, giving Doug nothing for practice. By the end of the year, the hybrid had a clear horsepower advantage on everything in the field, including the other four-strokes that were increasingly appearing. That season ended up with a third place in the final tally. But, it set the stage for big changes.


In 2003 Suzuki came out of nowhere with a production four-stroke and wanted Doug Gust to go racing. Meanwhile, Kory Ellis put together his own program to go racing with the new Suzuki. The LTZ400 was loosely based on the quad that Gust had been riding with a DR-Z400 motor, but the chassis borrowed its geometry more from the Honda TRX400EX. It was tall and narrow, with a mild steel frame. Doug and company would race it in the Pro Production class, while they continued to race the hybrid against two-strokes in the Pro class. Ellis, on the other hand, raced the production bike in both classes.


Toward the end of that year, Yamaha dropped a bomb on the ATV racing world. The YFZ450 was announced, and a handful of dealers started getting them while the racing season was still underway. That, technically, made it legal for the Pro Production class. Kory Ellis actually got a sneak preview of the machine at the press launch, and then managed to get a hold of one of the press demos. He took it straight to Lone Star, who got it into race shape in two weeks for a world racing debut at Mount Morris, Pennsylvania. He was third that day, but won before the series was over. Other Yamahas quickly arrived. Cannondale was also a force at the time, so by the end of the year, the Pro Production class was the center of factory attention and would quickly become the premier class in ATV racing. Doug Gust won that title on the production LTZ400, which by that time was allowed to be a 440. The hybrid DR-Z, which finished third in the Pro class, was quietly retired. When the 2004 season started, it was all-out war. The Pro Production class took center stage as a battleground for factories, and it would only get more intense in upcoming years. That year the Suzuki LTZ400, which had been such a phenomenon the year before, was clearly outgunned. The old-school, trail-oriented chassis geometry wasn’t competitive with the sleek, low Yamaha. But Gust and Carlson didn’t give up. With help from men like Wayne Hinson, they re-crafted the LTZ into something competitive. It resulted in the 2004 championship.


With Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Can-Am coming out with their own 450s, the factory battlefield escalated over the next five years. All of them would have professional teams with big rigs and multiple riders. All would have high-dollar machines, specialized mechanics and the oversight of factory technicians. At the height of the frenzy, there were separate specialists for each part of the bike— fuel injection, suspension, chassis and engine. The series became a truly coast-to-coast affair, with factory riders like Doug Gust and Dustin Wimmer flying in, racing, then flying home, just like Supercross stars in the motorcycle world. It was clearly too much.

It all lasted through the end of the decade before the ATV world, as a whole, came to its senses. ATV racing, as it turned out, is more suited to grass-roots efforts. When it all grew so big so fast, it overshadowed the men who made it all happen, and pioneers like Tom Carlson, Mark Laeger and Mike Walsh could only sit back and watch. Today, ATV racing has adjusted itself to a more sustainable level. The early 2000s will go down in the books as the years of factory hyper involvement in ATV racing. But, it all started with hand-built quads and very talented individuals.


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