Sam Wheeler has been chasing Bonneville motorcycle speed records for 51 years – all for the love of the challenge.
If motorcycle road racers are fighter pilots and motocross riders are rodeo cowboys, those who build and race Bonneville streamliners must be science geeks. More likely to be holding a hot calculator than a cold energy drink, their lifelong passion is tricking physics in pursuit of record speeds. That’s precisely what attracted Sam Wheeler, a Los Angeles-based 20-year-old, to the salt in 1963. While in high school, he began creating his first streamliner with a $1 fiberglass cone found at a war surplus store, and then building backwards from there. It ultimately reached 95 mph.
This first experience was enough to imprint Wheeler on building streamliners for life, and over the decades his creations ramped up dramatically. A Norton-powered streamliner achieved 208 mph in 1970, and in his third streamliner, the E-Z-Hook special, he was the first motorcyclist to reach 355 mph in 2006. We asked Wheeler what it’s like. “Basically it’s like getting in a narrow car,” he says. “Once you’re strapped in, the seating position is just about the same. Then once the engine is warmed up and the run has started, you twist the throttle as hard as you can. There is no wind, but you hear everything because you’re inside a box with the engine.”
Since you’re strapped into a seat, body English doesn’t play a part in steering. “It just takes light pressure on the handlebars,” Wheeler adds. “You are constantly making small corrections because there’s always some wind out there. The other thing that’s critical is making all your shift points to get the most out of each run.”
Wheeler has made perhaps 100 runs in his Bonneville streamliner career. He says that going from start to finish in his current machine takes just 90 seconds. “That may not sound like much, but it’s a long time to keep the throttle full on, and the motor is trying to kill itself the whole time,” he warns. “Finally, when you get through the speed traps, you deploy the parachutes to get stopped.”
One element Wheeler likes about piloting a streamliner at nearly unfathomable speeds is that he’s totally alone and immersed in the job. “It’s a quick way to Zen,” he says. “You’re just doing your thing and the whole world is gone, because you’re so focused on making the run. It would be wonderful if you knew you were going to come out of it without any problems so you could just enjoy it.”
Perhaps even more than the speed, Wheeler likes the engineering freedom that Bonneville offers. “I love motorsports, but there are so many rules,” he notes. “Anybody who does this kind of racing thinks they can come up with a better solution to a problem, and here you can do whatever you want as far as innovation goes. Being an engineer type of a guy, for me it's like a busman’s holiday.”
We asked Wheeler about the current race to be the first motorcycle to go 400 mph. “Everybody wants to be the first guy to go 400,” he says. “Other records will come and go, but being first to that mark will last forever.”