Once upon a time, I was a wannabe tuner. I’ll admit it. Maybe I watched too much Speed Racer as a kid; one too many drift, rally, and time attack events, or maybe it was just something about the sound of a socket wrench clicking as I ratcheted away.
Auto shop class at the community college was a no-brainer. When my friends and I got together to have garage days, I was always responsible for getting the oil filters off of their Hondas and Toyotas, since I was the only one with arms skinny enough to fit in those tight spaces. I took pride in my cracked nails, calloused hands, and stained clothing. I even drove solo all the way out to Fontana just to check out autocross events where I’d inevitably end up chatting with drivers in the pits making adjustments under the hood.
Doing it all on my own dime, though, it didn’t take long for reality to set in. College happened, and I realized performance tuning my car was expensive. I didn’t have the budget to pay for my education, living expenses, and a dual-purpose track and daily driver. The limited slip differential, suspension upgrades, and potential engine swap all got put on an indefinite hold. Years passed, and my poor car deteriorated while I shoved my nose into books.
And then the motorcycle happened.
Suddenly, I didn’t need anywhere near the amount of space or expensive equipment to work on my new pair of wheels. It was amazing. For basic maintenance, all I really needed was a rear stand, my hand tools, and some other common garage supplies. Heck, in a pinch I could even fill my tires with a bicycle pump. I was in love with how accessible tinkering with my bike was compared to my car. Admittedly, some of the excitement may have come from the novelty of how easily the whole thing could be disassembled, even with the fairings and all.
That said, there was a lot I had forgotten and much to be learned. Like many, I learned the hard way, at least a couple of times. The first of my many failures involved a simple oil change.
Perhaps I was overconfident from the countless times I’d done oil changes on cars, or perhaps I was naive, overzealous, and excited about a motorcycle camping trip I’d been anticipating all summer. The point is, I didn’t foresee any problems with what should have been a quick and easy maintenance task.
I had all my supplies, a brand new rear-stand, more oil than I actually needed, and an entire afternoon for the task. I even borrowed a torque wrench from my father because hey, motorcycle parts are sometimes a bit more delicate than car parts, from what I’ve heard.
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Everything seemed to be going just as expected, totally swell, right up until it came time to install the new oil filter and replace the drain plug. On my 2012 Ninja 250R, there are separate bolts for the oil filter cover and drain pan, each of which needs to be torqued down to the right spec. "No problem!" I thought. That’s why I had the borrowed torque wrench— to make sure I didn’t mess that up. I looked over the torque wrench, remembered the margin for error, and set the torque an acceptable value under the specified amount.
After a few rotations without any resistance, I just stopped. It didn’t feel right, but I had not yet heard a click. I double checked the setting on the wrench and confirmed how low it was. I tried not to worry, reminding myself that some of the gaskets I installed had given me a bit of trouble, popping in and out of place. I know it doesn’t make sense in retrospect, but I told myself that maybe those gaskets had finally popped into place and squished down to absorb some of the pressure.
Still unsettled, I scratched my head and moved on to the drain plug, getting bits of old oil in my hair in the process. That disquieted feeling inside only grew when I had that same experience with the drain plug. No click, just endless ratcheting. I stopped, checked the torque wrench again, then set it down and moved to fill the oil, telling myself that if it leaked I’d just tighten the bolts down a little more at that point. Mess be damned, I had tarps and cardboard on the ground for a reason.
I took a minute to grab a glass of water for myself, then went back to check on the bike. I didn’t see any leaks yet, so I turned on the engine. Oil started running off of both the drain bolt and the one used to secure the oil filter cover. I scrambled to shove my drain pan underneath the bike, then tried to tighten each bolt just the slightest bit more, but that didn’t help. All I could do was watch beautiful, clean, new oil drain into the same pan as all the dirty slop I had just emptied from the bike. Talk about money down the drain.
Eventually I pulled off both the drain pan and the oil filter assembly since all the oil I had poured into the 250 was going to waste anyway. I needed to figure out where I did something wrong and what I saw horrified me.
Both the bolts were severely over-torqued. The piece that held the oil filter in place was actually embedded in the circular cover and had created pressure cracks all across the cover. I had to use a rubber mallet to get the darn thing out. The drain plug was embedded in the washer, and had torn a long crack through the oil pan. Even at a glance, it was clear the whole assembly was toast. Fortunately, that was the extent of the damage.
So what went wrong? The torque wrench— the very tool I had trusted to avoid this kind of situation —had been improperly stored and was way out of calibration. I would have been better off hand-tightening the bolts by feel, had I only known.
I swore a lot- mostly at myself and that infernal torque wrench. I trusted it! How could it betray me like that? I also apologized profusely to my dear 250, promising I’d fix it, detail it, and take it to the track again to make up for my terrible mistake. Then I went out to buy my own torque wrench and some more oil, grumbling the whole time to the tune of, “this is why I have trust issues.”
Fortunately, I was able to source parts within a day or two and very cautiously installed them on the Ninja— this time without hurting my poor bike. Did I learn something? Sure. Keep your tools calibrated, and under-tighten at first. You can always give that bolt another quarter turn later. Will I do it again? Not likely. Am I still paranoid about over-tightening those specific bolts? A little, but at the end of the day, at least I know how to fix my mistakes.