Think way back to the 1980s when Honda's almighty TRX250R pretty much dominated in the world of high-performance ATV competition. Depending on the year model, the 250R put out 26 to 28 horsepower to the rear wheel. In the 1990s, Honda then released the TRX400EX that put out 26 horsepower to the rear wheel. At that time it was imperative to start with motor work and then maybe later a little suspension work if you really wanted to be competitive in racing. But as time moved on and ATVs evolved, that theory has actually reversed places. Today, with most of the 450s being up around 50 horsepower with just bolt-on power mods, the power is at the point that the average rider will actually not do faster lap times with the extra power and speed. The fact is that even with all of this added power, the stock suspension without proper setup is not adequate for going fast for long periods of time, carrying speed and ultimately dropping lap times. But a properly dialed in suspension setup can actually unleash your quad's full potential, therefore making you more of a threat to your competition on the trails or at the track.
The Truth About Long Travel
In the early '90s a company named Laeger busted out on the scene with the ProTrax suspension design that took the ATV world by storm. The limiting factor in travel at that time was ball joint bind. In order to remedy the problem, Mark Laeger designed spindles that do not have ball joints so that travel would not be limited. He figured significantly more suspension travel would be used with his new front end and that shock length was going to be the next limiting factor. While doing his research, he found that repositioning the lower shock mount would allow for a much longer shock to be run. The position was not only lower on the A-arm, but moved farther out on the arm, which also gave the benefit of reducing body roll. What happened next was riders like Kory Ellis and Greg Stuart were showing up at races with long-travel quads that sat extremely high, and some of the performance gain of the long-travel setup was actually lost in cornering. CT Racing's Allen Knowles then built the first two-spring shock, which would allow one to control ride height and was run by Mickey Thompson champion and speedster Charlie Shepherd. Riders such as Ellis, Shane Hitt and Joe Bird soon followed to this extremely expensive hand-built hlins Big Body shock setup. Wayne Mooradian of PEP shocks was not far behind releasing his own ZPS (for Zero Preload System), which gave the ATV a ride-height control spring suspension package as well as lots of wheel travel. Obviously this time period kicked off all sorts of exciting new suspension innovations and advancements for ATVs.
The myth while on the subject of A-arms is the long-travel terminology, as long shock does not mean long travel. The ball joints are the limiting factor for travel, and few ball joint front ends can actually exceed 12.5 inches of swing without the shock even bolted on. You can get 12 inches of travel from a 16.25-inch shock, so having a 19.25-inch shock does not add travel but rather adds what we prefer to call "quality travel." The only true long-travel front end on the market that we can think of is the Laeger ProTrax. It doesn't use ball joints, so the swing is usually limited to the A-arm tabs. Your travel is limited by your shock builder, but ultimately it's going to come back to around 12 inches, and that's attained by most of the quality ball joint front ends on the market today, such as Roll Design, Lonestar Racing, Houser Racing and Walsh Racecraft.
ATVs that come stock with short shocks such as Honda's TRX250R, TRX400EX, TRX450R, Yamaha's YFZ450, Banshee, Raptor 660 and 700, Suzuki's LT-Z400 and Kawasaki's KFX450 all benefit the most from long-shock A-arms if you're planning to go with a wide A-arm setup. This allows the shock builders to do more with the shock like add rebound without sacrificing travel and have added leverage ratio benefits. Both the Suzuki LT-R450 and Yamaha YFZ450R already possess very good leverage ratios from the factory. The Can-Am DS 450 has a wide top shock mount, so it benefits from having the lower shock mount moved out, which helps to cut body roll. The KTM ATVs have the shock mount too high on the A-arm, which limits travel. This quad benefits from lowering the mount, and there are some companies that can just mod the KTM stock arms to achieve this benefit in a cost-effective manner. All four of these machines have long enough shocks that the benefits of purchasing aftermarket A-arms is less significant than those listed above.
Shocks: The Real Suspension Workhorse
So the reality of it is that the new design of A-arms didn't necessarily give us more travel, but gave us the ability to run a longer and better-designed shock. In the early years there were very few companies to choose from, but now with such great advancements in the world of suspension it's possible to get great product from a plethora of companies like Fox Racing Shox, Noleen J6, Works, Motowoz, HLS, PEP, hlins, Custom Axis, Elka, Race Tech and the list can go on for days. Many of these companies have made certain breakthroughs in their own ways as far as shock performance.
Fox Racing Shox went a very unique direction in its design compared to everyone else. Its shocks feature both high- and low-speed compression damping as well as rebound, but instead of using springs the Fox folks developed an air ride technology. The shocks come with air pumps so that you can run as much or as little air pressure in the shocks as you want, which is the equivalent of changing springs without the extra hassle. Another added benefit of this design is the reduction of weight, since the springs have been eliminated. By no means was this a new technology for Fox, since it has been making air shocks since the 1970s, but this was definitely new technology for the ATV market. It's also important to add that Custom Axis has also developed its own unique air-shock design and has experienced good success from its design and weight savings.
When it comes to choosing an aftermarket shock to install on your ATV, there are many factors to take into consideration. The most important is the product's reputation within the ATV community. We're not saying that just because the fastest ATV racers are running a certain brand means it is the best option, but do your research and find out what has worked well for others. Find local pros or high-ranking racers in your area and pick their brains for options that have worked well for them. We would suggest working with a reputable race shop which can not only supply you with your shocks, but assist you with setup as setup means everything in getting peak performance out of your shocks.
The next step is to decide whether you want to run aftermarket A-arms or stick with the stockers. If you choose to run a wide aftermarket configuration, discuss with your shock company which product it's worked closest with and what it recommends for your application. Every suspension company will sell you shocks with any configuration of A-arms you wish, but its database of information is going to be better with some A-arms than others. Don't work backward; by purchasing cheap eBay A-arms and then ordering shocks to go with them, you will most likely come up with a less than an optimal setup.
Reworking Stock Shocks: The Alternative
In the early stages of ATV development it was essential to purchase aftermarket arms and shocks to achieve an adequate suspension setup. These companies' revolutionary designs and high-quality components were rapidly evolving into what we know today, and the ATV manufacturers were not only taking notice, they were utilizing these very products in their race programs. In the production of today's high-performance quads it is obvious that the lessons learned on the track are now being incorporated into the design of factory suspension. For those who want to obtain a great-handling quad but are limited by budget, there are actually an abundance of options available that can be almost or as effective as purchasing the high-dollar aftermarket setup for a much lower cost. Factory shocks that feature piggyback reservoirs, compression adjustment and even rebound adjustment have become very common. The main problem with these shocks off of the showroom floor is they're not set up for your individual weight and riding style. The other problem is the manufacturers generally choose to go with cheaper internal parts and springs and very few shocks come up with the multispring setup preferred by performance enthusiast.
Companies such as GT Thunder, DeRisi Racing, Race Tech, Progressive, C&D Racing, Noleen J6 and a host of others can actually revalve, respring and practically recreate your harsh factory pogo sticks into high-performing suspension. Many of the current crop of stock shocks can have travel added to them and, with the multispring setups, are very competitive with aftermarket shocks. We have been very happy with stock shocks modified on the LT-R, KTM, DS 450 and Polaris, as these are just some of the ones we've actually tested and been impressed with. We've tested with reworked shocks on Honda's TRX450R and Yamaha's YFZ450, and even though the performance was much improved, we determined they didn't have quite the travel we'd like to see and were not as competitive with aftermarket shocks. Each of these companies have their own unique tricks and methods of accomplishing the goal, but after testing with many of the reworked shocks over the past few years, we're sold on this low-cost and effective option and have actually witnessed pro racers taking podiums with this type of setup.
A-arms: Race Or Recreation? What's The Difference?
This is where many people have their money wrongly taken in an attempt of saving a few extra dollars. We're firm believers in doing extensive research before making any kind of expensive purchase, and A-arms definitely fall under this category. Several years back, there were substantially fewer companies to choose from and it was much easier to identify which were producing quality components. Now new suspension companies seem to pop up every day, and while we're not trying to knock the product they produce, We are skeptical when they claim the same performance as the better-known brands for half the cost. Many of these arms are considered to be recreation built, made of lighter material. Often that means mild steel instead of chrome-moly, or they will have less bracing for greater weight savings, which can actually be a danger to the rider. And to top it off, some of these even have bad geometry, which actually defeats the purpose. While these parts may work for the less aggressive rider, someone who strives for superior handling, big air and aggressive riding may want to avoid them because they'll be more prone to having problems.
You've Decided, Then What?
Once you've decided on the direction you'll take with your suspension upgrades, it's important for us to stress continuing forward with proper setup. Even the greatest brands can be bolted on and actually perform worse than your stock suspension without proper setup. For starters, be truthful about your riding style, ability and weight when you place your order because mathematical calculations and a database of information are used to build your shocks. Second, it's imperative you spend the proper time testing and setting up the ride height, sag, compression and rebound. If not, there is a good chance you just dropped some significant coin on aesthetics alone, rather than dialing in the perfect-handling machine for your needs.
What you do with your hard-earned money is ultimately your decision. My hopes were to educate our readers on this complicated and controversial subject in order to help you become a better and faster rider. There is no doubt that investing money into engine modifications will make your machine faster, but is your stock suspension capable of handling the higher speeds you will be riding at? If you choose to upgrade your suspension through rebuilds or going complete aftermarket, we certainly hope we've helped you to be a bit more educated on what you should look for so you can get the best return on your investment.