Sam Wheeler | The Race To 400

Land Speed Racer Sam Wheeler’s Pursuit of the Next Frontier

By Evans Brasfield, Photography by Dick Lague—ignition3 & Wheeler Archives

Racing is a cruel mistress. The heights of achievement can pale in the face of the effort required to succeed, and no form of competition is as fickle—or as seductive—as land speed racing. Instead of simply achieving one’s finest performance on a given day, land speed racing requires competitors to surpass anyone who has ever raced in that class.

Sam Wheeler is a 49-year veteran of racing motorcycle streamliners. He knows first hand the dual-edged nature of land speed racing. In 2006, his 355 mph speed through the timed mile on the Bonneville salt qualified him for the title of World’s Fastest Motorcycle. Only he didn’t know it at that moment. Instead, he was trying to control a streamliner that had lost its front tire just after passing through the timing lights. The ensuing crash meant he was unable to turn the motorcycle around and make the required back-up pass in the opposite direction within the prescribed two-hour time limit, thus forfeiting the championship. (Both Wheeler and the motorcycle were relatively unscathed.)

In 2012, Wheeler was back to once again vie for that title. Since September 2006, Bonneville has hosted a remarkable battle between three streamliners: Dennis Manning and his BUB Seven streamliner; Mike Akatiff’s Ack Attack, featuring twin Hayabusa engines; and Wheeler’s diminutive EZ Hook. In 2006, the title changed hands between Manning and Akatiff over the course of a few days. The three racers have continued to battle for the title since 2006, with Akatiff currently holding the record. But Wheeler is determined to go for the biggest number yet: 400 mph.

The secret to winning this David and Goliath shootout is aerodynamics. The liner’s body shape was developed by four CalTech Master’s students, and yields a slippery 0.1007 drag coefficient. But the small, 3.62 square-foot cross-section of the liner’s nose couldn’t accommodate anything bigger than a skinny 2.5-inch tire. Wheeler’s competitors are running automotive race tires. He’d already shaved excess rubber off the highest speed-rated tire he could find (a 300 mph drag racing tire), bumped its nitrogen pressure to 150 psi, and cooled it with a water spray during the run—with catastrophic results.

Still, the self-taught engineer’s mind wouldn’t rest. Finally, he found a manufacturer to create a solid aluminum front wheel, complete with vintage Avon-style grooves. The next change in Wheeler’s fortunes came from Fred Fox, founder and CEO of Parts Unlimited. Fox had previously sponsored Manning’s efforts, so he understood land speed racing and had the contacts to make things happen. Intrigued by Wheeler’s thoughtful, less-is-more approach, Fox soon penned a sponsorship deal with him. Suddenly, Wheeler found himself with the kind of resources he’d only dreamed of and was back at full throttle, revamping the newly named EZ Hook/Parts Unlimited streamliner.

First came the Goodyear automotive rear tire rated for 450 mph (and costing $1000 each), thanks to Fox’s status as a distributor for Dunlop. Fox’s relationship with Performance Machine assured that those tires had a purpose-built wheel. Next, deals were made for a pair of Hayabusa engines to be built under the supervision of Vance & Hines’ Indianapolis race shop. Long-time supporter Terry Kizer supplied his Mr. Turbo units. Ultimately, these methanol-fueled monsters would produce 500-plus horsepower. The addition of a MoTeC engine control system gave Wheeler many more options for attempting to put the power down on the notoriously slippery salt.

The gearing required to travel at such incredible speeds is so tall that most streamliners can’t leave the start under their own power and must be pushed or towed. However, the rules stipulate that the assisted start take them no faster than 40 mph. Wheeler’s approach instead resembled a drag race. The quicker you leave the line, the more time you have to get up to speed. When everything is going right, the streamliner accelerates through the entire timed mile. Gathering more speed earlier is vital.

Wheeler had long considered using an auxiliary transmission to enable him to launch his streamliner more quickly, but hadn’t wanted to spend the money doing it with the dated ZX-11 engine he had been using. Switching to a current-generation Hayabusa engine changed the equation, making the investment in a gearbox by Weismann Transmissions worthwhile. The Weismann unit has two ratios. First gives a ratio similar to that of a street bike, covering 0-100 mph. When the second, 1:1 ratio is selected, the Vance & Hines-regeared Suzuki transmission takes over with first gear covering 100-190 mph, eventually leading to a top gear capable of over 400 mph. For safety, the Weismann gearbox also has a ratcheting neutral that kicks in should the engine seize.

The switch to the larger Hayabusa engine necessitated that the liner’s chassis be rebuilt in order to fit into the existing bodywork. The streamliner was bolted to a jig, and the tube frame encasing the ZX-11 engine was cut away, leaving a space to be filled with the Hayabusa engine acting as a stressed member in the new, Wheeler-designed, CNC-machined, billet-aluminum frame.

The remaining space in the engine compartment is taken up by the four-gallon fuel cell, the radiator, a water tank for spraying onto the radiator, plus the turbo and exhaust systems. The placement of these items had to be monitored carefully since, like an airplane, a streamliner must have the center of gravity in a very precise spot to insure optimal handling.

During the month of August, a steady stream of parts arrived at Wheeler’s shop to have the liner running for the Mike Cook Bonneville Shootout in mid-September. Unfortunately, racing’s fickle mistress again wielded her sword. The quality of the salt on the 12-mile course was questionable enough for both Akatiff and Wheeler to withdraw just before the event. Although disappointed, Wheeler shifted focus to test runs on an automotive roller dyno. “All your racing is done [in the shop],” Wheeler says. “Whether it’s gonna work or not all happens here before you ever get [to the salt].” Perhaps the only negative aspect of tuning on a dyno is the 200 mph speed limit.

His many years in land speed racing have taught Wheeler that the salt will still be out there next year—tectonics notwithstanding, Bonneville’s going nowhere. The goal of 400 mph is still waiting and will continue waiting until the conditions are right. Until then, Wheeler will keep pondering his engineering challenges and fashioning the EZ Hook/Parts Unlimited streamliner into his vision of the fastest motorcycle in the world: “I know the potential is there to be competitive. Even if [the other] guys are the first to 400, I know I can still go faster than they can—ultimately.” Racing’s cruel mistress proves irresistible.

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By Evans Brasfield
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