Sam Wheeler's EZ-Hook Streamliner | The Quest For 400 Mph | Hooked On Speed, Part II

Almost 16 years later, Sport Rider revisits land speed record racer Sam Wheeler to check out his latest ride as he seeks to break the 400 mph barrier

Longtime Sport Rider readers may recognize the name Sam Wheeler. Way back in 1996 when I first took over the reins to this magazine, I interviewed Wheeler for a feature story we ran in my first issue as editor-in-chief ("Hooked on Speed", April '97). A long-time veteran of motorcycle land speed racing — starting with a Bultaco 125-powered streamliner he built himself in 1963 — Wheeler was intending in '96 to break the longtime motorcycle speed record of 322.150 mph (held by the nitro-fueled, twin-engine-Harley-powered streamliner of Dave Campos) with his own self-designed, Kawasaki-sponsored streamliner powered by a normally aspirated Kawasaki ZX-11 engine.

Wheeler is one of those individuals whose passion is evident not only by his long history in the sport, but also in the machinery he builds (and races — unlike some other LSR builders, Wheeler pilots his own vehicles). An electrical engineer by trade at electrical tester company EZ-Hook, Wheeler’s ingenuity and attention to detail is displayed everywhere on his streamliner. Instead of using boatloads of horsepower to get his speed, Wheeler uses efficiency as much as possible, allowing him to equal the competition’s speeds with less than half the horsepower. With bodywork that was designed back in the late '80s by a group of Cal Tech aerodynamics grad students as their class thesis, the EZ-Hook streamliner appeared destined to put Wheeler’s name in the record books, only for various issues to derail those plans. But now that the soft-spoken Californian has the proper financial and material backing for his land speed effort, it’s looking highly likely that he’ll be right in the thick of the battle for title of the fastest on two wheels next year.

Since we last saw you…

A lot has happened since that 1996 interview. Wheeler had already run 301 mph with a 160-horsepower ZX-11 engine when we’d first spoken with him, and his work with fellow land speed enthusiast Doug Meyer had earned him the attention of former Kawasaki speed meister Rob Muzzy. “There was about a four-year period that they were involved with me,” recalls Wheeler. Muzzy recommended that Wheeler try nitromethane/methanol mix as a fuel, considering that the space limitations with Wheeler’s streamliner made other conventional hotrodding tricks somewhat difficult. Unfortunately, while the nitro/methanol mix added power, its unique properties (the more load you put on it, the better it works) resulted in an engine that wouldn’t rev very high — and an expanded rev range helps immensely with running at ultra-high speeds. “The nitro just wouldn’t let the engine rev. We had a light load — considered a light load, about 50 percent — and it was one of those things where you just kind of hit a wall,” said Wheeler.

Despite numerous tries with the nitro/methanol mix, “we never really went any faster,” lamented Wheeler. “And then Muzzy lost the Kawasaki deal” when the factory decided to take the roadracing effort in-house, “and that was the end of their involvement.” Then in 2000, Dynatek put Wheeler in touch with Terry Kizer, proprietor of longtime forced-induction speed merchants Mr. Turbo. With Kizer providing the turbo and tuning, and Wheeler fabricating much of the installation (the standard applications obviously wouldn’t fit within the tight confines of the EZ-Hook streamliner), the team had high hopes for the 2001 Bonneville speed trials. Unfortunately, on the first run the engine suffered a problem in one cylinder, and the team didn’t want to risk running the engine again.

The next three years resulted in incremental increases in speed, but also some critical reliability issues. The first was drive chains; “Once we got over 300 (mph) with the turbo, we started killing chains,” notes Wheeler. Strength wasn’t the problem — it was the heat generated by spinning the chain upwards of 6000 rpm, which would eventually destroy the rollers. Several streamliner teams combat this problem by “liquid-cooling” their chains with a water spray during their runs.

But a more dangerous problem was front tires. “Just over 300 (mph) we started having front tire troubles, throwing rubber off of them,” recalls Wheeler. “It’s basically a Goodyear four-ply version of the tire they would use on a top fuel dragster. So then when we started throwing rubber off, we started experimenting on our own, shaving rubber off and increasing tire pressure.” In August 2004, Wheeler finally broke the top speed record by going 332 mph during an SCTA meet at Bonneville; however, because it was set under SCTA standards (which mandate an average of two one-way runs) instead of FIM rules (which require the average of two runs in opposite directions), Wheeler’s record was not officially recognized as a world record.

Bub Enterprises president Denis Manning — another longtime motorcycle land speed record competitor — decided to organize his own LSR meet at Bonneville. This would help two-wheeled LSR racers avoid the long wait in lines at the traditional Bonneville SCTA meet that are usually crowded with huge numbers of both two- and four-wheel entrants. Another LSR meet was organized by four-wheeled racer Mike Cook that occurs a couple of weeks after the SCTA Speedweek that allowed the two-wheeled streamliners to run (both the Bub and Cook LSR meets have two-way courses that allow certification for FIA/FIM world records). But it was at the Bub meet that Wheeler realized that the front tire problem was becoming a major issue.

“The tire issue was so critical that we were only good for two runs,” lamented Wheeler. In order to get the tire to live at those speeds, they had to shave off nearly all the tread and inflate the tire to 150 psi — but even that only staved off the inevitable. “In fact, when we did the SCTA run, we knew there was no playing around, we had to go balls to the wall right off the trailer because we knew it wouldn’t make it more than two runs. And that’s exactly what happened, in the second run of the SCTA record we started throwing rubber off the front tire.”

Unfortunately, the Goodyear LSR tires are very scarce, and Wheeler was using up his already meager supply that cost him a good amount of money to procure. It all came to a head at Manning’s 2006 meet, where a shootout between the ‘liners of Manning, Wheeler, and the Top 1 Oil Ack Attack gained a lot of attention. While the Ack Attack and Bub Lucky 7 machines traded the speed record (the Ack Attack was the first to break the long-standing 322 mph record set in 1990 by going 342 mph on the first day with rider Rocky Robinson, but then multi-time AMA Grand National champ Chris Carr in the Bub ‘liner went 350 mph two days later), Wheeler made the fastest one-way pass with a 355 run, only for the front tire to come apart in the last measured mile and cause him to crash, luckily without major damage and any injury. This negated any chance of the return pass to make an official record.

With his supply of front tires gone, Wheeler was approached by several people who attempted to get him more of the tires without success. “Unless you want to put the money up (to get the tires made by Goodyear), it’s not gonna happen,” he said of the cost that is said to be upwards of $120,000 for the special LSR tires. Then Wheeler was approached by Ruedi Steck of Switzerland about making a solid “tireless” front wheel out of aluminum to run with. Wheeler had actually tried a solid front wheel in his original version of the EZ-Hook streamliner, but wasn’t very comfortable with it. But with Steck’s insistence that it would be made precisely to Wheeler’s specifications, the Californian decided to try the solid wheel one more time.

Wheeler returned to the Cook LSR meet in 2008 with his new solid front wheel, and he found that “it worked, we went 350 (mph) again, but it was tearing up the salt something fierce.” Then in 2009, Wheeler solved the problem by fitting an Öhlins shock tuned by his friend Bruce Burness — only for continuing chain problems and other minor issues to blunt his attempt.

Wheeler then watched in 2010 as the Bub and Ack Attack streamliners once again traded the top speed record at the Cook LSR meet at Bonneville on September 25, 2010. The current record of 376.693 mph set by the Ack Attack machine still stands from that meet.

A New Setup

Wheeler knew that he needed to upgrade his powerplant if he was going to have a chance at breaking the 400 mph barrier. “When the Ack Attack went 376,” he said, “I knew we couldn’t be competitive because they went 394 out the back (after the measured mile, the bikes usually continue accelerating).” He also knew that an alternative drive system would be necessary because a chain wouldn’t hold up to the sustained stress.

Then Wheeler’s friend Dick Lague helped him meet up with the CEO of American motorcycle parts and accessories distributor Parts Unlimited, Fred Fox. Fox was immediately enthusiastic about Wheeler’s effort after meeting the soft-spoken electrical engineer from Arcadia, California. He not only provided some much-needed financial aid, but was also instrumental in helping Wheeler obtain some LSR rear tires from Goodyear that had originally been manufactured for a now-defunct automobile effort from Europe.

Even more important was that Fox helped rekindle Wheeler’s contact with Terry Vance of Vance & Hines, who quickly jumped in with engine support. “I’d originally spoken with Terry back in 2007 or so at an NHRA museum event,” recalls Wheeler, “and he was very interested in supporting the project. His company was all-Harley back then though, and they wanted to put a Harley engine in (the streamliner). I told them if they could make it put out 500 horsepower for 90 or so seconds, I’d do it, but that wasn’t going to happen, so that kind of killed it back then. Now they work on all different kinds of engines, so it’s an easier fit.”

The Vance & Hines race shop in Brownsburg, Indiana, has built two Suzuki Hayabusa engines (one primary and one spare) designed to support 500-plus horsepower for the EZ-Hook streamliner. Turbocharging the engine will once again be handled by Terry Kizer, with a full MoTeC engine management system not only allowing precise fuel/ignition control, but also traction control as well.

Having the necessary tall gearing to reach past 400 mph means getting started from a dead stop can be difficult (some streamliners use a tow or push truck to get them started up to 100 mph or above), so Wheeler got together with Chris Weismann of Weismann Traction Products with an idea for a secondary transmission. By building a secondary transfer case that attaches to the countershaft of the Suzuki Hayabusa engine, the Weismann transmission’s two speeds allow the bike to reach 180 mph before Wheeler even shifts to second gear with the Hayabusa gearbox. The Weismann unit has no clutch; the shift mechanism is located inside the mainshaft, and transfers power directly, so there is no backing off the throttle in order to shift.

In order to get rid of the heat buildup and stretching associated with chain final drive, Wheeler sought out longtime belt drive manufacturer Gates for help. The company’s immense experience with drive belt technology allowed it to design a drive belt for Wheeler’s application that not only will handle “up to 800 horsepower,” but will also do it without heat or adjustment issues and fit within the tight confines of the EZ-Hook streamliner body. “We just need to make sure that salt doesn’t get built up inside the ‘sprockets’ — that’s what they call the pulleys,” says Wheeler, “because that can cause problems with the teeth and belts. That shouldn’t be a problem with how our setup is.”

Watch out for Bonneville Next Summer

Wheeler had been burning the midnight oil to try and make the scheduled Bub and Cook LSR meets this past August/September, but luckily the salt conditions were poor enough that the Ack Attack streamliner declined to participate, leaving the 400 mph barrier safe until 2013. This gives Wheeler a good amount of time to get the latest version of the EZ-Hook streamliner dialed in with its new engine, electronics, and drivetrain, but he also realizes that time may be running out on his chances. At 69 years of age after doing land speed record racing for 50 years, “This might be my last time racing on the salt,” admits Wheeler.

One thing’s for sure: We’ll have our eyes focused on Bonneville come late August/early September 2013. And our money will be on Sam Wheeler and EZ-Hook.