Sam Wheeler Prepares for 400 mph

August 21, 2012
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

Most people slow down as they approach 70 years of age. Sam Wheeler is only getting faster. The land speed racing veteran is hard at work re-engineering his E-Z-Hook Streamliner for another run at the Bonneville record books. And this fall he aims to be the fastest rider in the world – the first to break the 400 mph barrier.

Sam working on new lower section frame. Existing chassis was cut in two pieces and new center section was fabricated. Most of this section is machined aluminum which will be anodized black to protect it from the salt.
Sam Wheeler at work rebuilding his E-Z-Hook streamliner. The well-respected LSR veteran has his sights aimed at a new motorcycle land speed record and become the first-ever rider to make a 400 mph pass on the Bonneville salt.

Long a contender for title of World’s Fastest Motorcycle, the E-Z-Hook has been one of three motorcycle streamliners to turn legitimate record-breaking runs in the past decade. The other major players in the ultimate motorcycle land speed record, the Ack Attack and BUB Number 7, have each traded bragging rights as World Fastest since breaking the long-standing record of 322 mph in 2006 – held for 16 years by Dave Campos and the Easyrider streamliner. The BUB and Ack squads have steadily raised the record to its current position, 376 mph, tallied by the Ack Attack streamliner (see sidebar).

Having fallen behind the Ack Attack and BUB in recent years, the redesigned E-Z-Hook benefits from key performance upgrades to make it a true contender. Foremost is a new Hayabusa engine, which replaces the existing ZX-11 mill. The Suzuki Inline Four will power a redesigned drivetrain that incorporates an auxiliary transmission and new belt final drive. The revamped E-Z Hook chassis also utilizes new tire and wheel components to withstand the stresses of a 400 mph run.

Sam and high school friends with first streamliner.  L - R Sam Wheeler  Roger Lamb  Roy Lamb  and Russell Avery with the 125cc Bultaco power liner in 1963 in Roger Lambs parents garage. Sams VW bug in the background. This liner ran 95 MPH in 1963.
Sam and high school friends with his first streamliner. The 125cc Bultaco-powered liner ran 95 MPH in 1963.

As racing hero, Wheeler is a sympathetic figure. He is unique amongst his first-to-400 motorcycle streamliner colleagues, as he serves as designer, fabricator and pilot. The Ack Attack and BUB Number 7 retain the services of Rocky Robinson (a former flat track racer and current Motorcycle USA Contributing Editor with his monthly Salt Addiction column) and Chris Carr (a seven-time AMA Flat Track champion) as their respective pilots. The E-Z-Hook streamliner, on the other hand, is piloted by its 69-year-old creator.

Wheeler’s land speed racing legacy has been more than a half-century in the making. Bonneville burred into his mind as a teenager and his first attempt at a streamliner design came in the early 60s. The rookie streamliner effort was fabricated from EMT electrical conduit tubing purchased at Sears Roebuck and powered by a Bultaco 125cc. Wheeler dreamed up his second streamliner during a stint in Vietnam where he thought up the design “out of total boredom.” Returning to the states he pieced together a larger design, this time powered by a Norton Twin. That second streamliner crested 200 mph, and led to an engineering gig at the British firm.

The top speed LSR itch faded, for a time, as Wheeler returned to Arcadia, California and raised a family. Wheeler makes his living as an electrical engineer for E-Z-Hook – a company which manufactures electric testing equipment and accessories. An indication of Wheeler’s engineering competence: He is Chief Engineer at E-Z-Hook and makes tools for the company. In other words, he makes the tools for the people that make tools… Casual conversations with E-Z-Hook owner Phelps Wood got land speed racing back in Wheeler’s head. With Wood’s support, Wheeler’s LSR hiatus ended with the creation of the E-Z-Hook streamliner.

Fred Fox and Sam in December shaking hands on the deal for Parts Unlimited sponsorship.
The E-Z-Hook streamliner project gained a powerful benefactor when Parts Unlimited founder and CEO Fred Fox jumped onboard with sponsorship funding and the logistical support of PU suppliers.

The E-Z-Hook sourced what was then touted the fastest engine in regular production, the ZX-11. The Kawasaki-powered streamliner rocketed to several SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) records at Bonneville. The high-water mark of the lime green E-Z-Hook came in 2006, when Wheeler stole the show during the epic streamliner battle in 2006. During that event, held during the BUB Speed Trials, Ack Attack first shattered the standing record only to be outdone by BUB, which set the new record at 350 mph. Yet neither was the faster than Wheeler – who piloted the E-Z-Hook to a one-way run of 355.303 mph. But that record-setting run ended with the E-Z-Hook on its side – having blown its front tire on deceleration – and it couldn’t make the return run required within the two-hour time limit to set an FIM-sanctioned world record. It appeared the E-Z-Hook streamliner had reached the limits of its design.

Fortunately, the LSR dream didn’t die. Now Wheeler’s E-Z-Hook project has been restarted with financial backing and technical support from some major players in the motorcycle industry. Parts Unlimited founder Fred Fox stepped up to provide overall sponsorship, as well as logistical support from several of companies which Parts Unlimited distributes like Vance & Hines and Performance Machine. E-Z-Hook (where Wheeler still works as an engineer) remains on board as the anchor sponsor and serves as de facto team headquarters – housing the build.

The invigorating influx of resources has Wheeler burning the midnight oil retooling his E-Z-Hook for a 400 mph attempt this September.

Vance   Hines Hayabusa engine #1.
Byron Hines, of Vance & Hines, oversaw the build of Wheeler’s new Hayabusa engine. The turbocharged Inline Four should more than double the previous ZX-11 engine.

Hayabusa Powered Drivetrain

Despite its long association with Kawasaki, the redesigned E-Z-Hook streamliner switches over to Suzuki’s Hayabusa engine. The ZX-11 ruled the roost in 1990 as Wheeler prepped his streamliner up for its first runs, but the mighty Hayabusa has since taken over the LSR scene (see sidebar). Wheeler experienced Busa power firsthand in the Ack Attack streamliner (designed by his friend and riding buddy Mike Akatiff and which sources a pair of Hayabusa engines), when Wheeler served briefly as pilot before Robinson took over for good in 2006. Though the 275-horsepower ZX-11 was able to hit 350 on more than one occasion, for a serious 400 mph attempt Wheeler deemed a power upgrade necessary. 

Vance & Hines has stepped up to provide the Haybusa engine, with Byron Hines himself supervising the build from the company’s Indiana race shop. V&H brings ample NHRA drag racing experience to the table and can get close to 500 horsepower even without turbocharging. Terry Kizer (AKA Mr. Turbo), who built the original ZX-11 motor, returns to turbocharge the V&H Busa mill. MoTeC provides the electronics, and the new E-Z-Hook will benefit from traction control to harness the prodigious power on tap. All told Wheeler reckons the new engine should approach 600 hp.

Weismann transmission case. Input shaft fits on transmission output shaft.
The auxiliary transmission from Weismann
will be a critical component for 400 mph.

The new engine is only one aspect of the drivetrain upgrades that Wheeler believes will make 400 possible. Another critical component to the E-Z-Hook 2.0 is its secondary transmission. This extra transmission, designed by Wheeler and built by Weismann, piggybacks onto the conventional six-speed gearbox to handle speeds from 0-100 mph. From there the E-Z-Hook shifts over to the standard gearbox’s first gear which takes over until 180 mph, and the true LSR drag race begins. Building speed quickly is important, even on a 12-mile course, so the performance of the secondary transmission will be critical to achieving top speed potential.

Another upgrade for the E-Z-Hook is the switch to belt drive from the jack shaft to rear wheel. Chain drives have been the bane of other streamliners, notably the current world record-holding Ack Attack. Heat generated by the turbo-charged/high-horsepower runs render them vulnerable to failure, and they must be replaced often. The new E-Z-Hook belts have been tested at over 400 mph and 600 horsepower. Precise engineering of the sprockets has proven a costly requirement to ensure smooth running.

Caltech graduate students who did the aerodynamic work on Sams Liner for their graduate degree thesis.
Clay model used by the team to test the aerodynamics.
(Above) Caltech graduate students who did the aerodynamic work on Sam’s Liner for their graduate degree thesis. (Below) Clay model used by the team to test the aerodynamics.

Aerodynamics Remain Key

The new Hayabusa-powered drivetrain and secondary transmission are headlining upgrades, but they are not the key to the E-Z-Hook’s success. Long underpowered compared to its larger rivals, the E-Z-Hook remains so, to a certain extent, even with the Busa boost. (The Ack Attack’s two turbocharged Busa engines make somewhere in the order 700 to 900 horsepower, while the BUB Number Seven claims around 400 hp from its larger displacement 3-liter custom built V-Four.) Instead the E-Z-Hook streamliner gains its advantage via superior aerodynamics.

The secret to the E-Z-Hook’s aerodynamics were unraveled by a group of graduate students at the California Institute of Technology in the late ‘80s. Five grad students spent a year honing the shape, along with two weeks of wind tunnel testing, to develop its remarkable 0.1007 drag coefficient. A flying machine without wings, the new E-Z-Hook streamliner will source the exact same aerodynamic shape.

While the streamliner shell will be identical, the chassis underneath has been re-engineered to accommodate the new engine and drive train components. Designed by Wheeler in CAD, the chassis parts are being machined in house or sub-contracted out. (Pieces are still being constructed as Wheeler rushes to assemble the new chassis.) But despite accounting for the new engine, transmission and belt drive, the dimensions for the new streamliner are unchanged. This includes the 18 foot 5 inch length, which is notably diminutive compared to the Ack Attack and BUB machines. The E-Z-Hook will remain much lighter as well, and the addition of the new drivetrain components shouldn’t push the weight too far over the 1100 pounds of its predecessor (a figure which includes Wheeler’s weight as pilot).

The only visible exterior changes on the E-Z-Hook will be its branding, as the familiar lime green paint scheme is replaced with, for now, with a new blue and white colorway. E-Z-Hook remains title sponsor, with Part Unlimited and other contributing sponsors added to the re-badged streamliner.

Rear wheel and rear sprocket for rear wheel belt drive. Gates belt is designed to deliver over 500HP at over 450 MPH. Conventional O ring chains have always been a weak point and last only 1 run with water cooling.
Performance Machine built a custom wheel to Sam’s specs. The new wheel was required to run the latest tire from Goodyear – rated for 450 mph. Note the rear sprocket, also redesigned to incorporate a new belt final drive.

New Tires and Wheels

There is still one more critical change to the revitalized E-Z-Hook. While engine power and aerodynamics are crucial, the tires and wheels have been the limiting factor in its chase to 400. Tires able to withstand the stresses of 400 mph have been hard to come by in land speed racing – particularly for two-wheeled streamliners. Goodyear has developed a new rear tire that will run on the E-Z-Hook.

The new rear tire is rated for speeds up to 450 mph. However, a new wheel was required to handle the extreme tire loads, which include tire pressure that can reach 150 pounds per square inch. Enter Performance Machine (another Parts Unlimited supplier), which delivered a new rear wheel built to Wheeler’s specifications.

That’s the solution out back, but the front tire is a different story… The last time we spoke with Wheeler face-to-face was on the Bonneville salt in 2006. His E-Z-Hook streamliner had just skidded to a stop, crashing after its 355.303 mph run – at that moment the fastest time ever recorded on two wheels. His front tire had exploding on deceleration from the load shift. It seemed the E-Z-Hook project had reached its apogee, as fitting a larger tire (similar to those on its rivals) would be impossible within its smaller dimensions.

Remains of front tire on EZ HOOK streamliner after 355 MPH run in August 2006. Tire exploded at speed and caused crash at over 355MPH.
Remains of front tire on the E-Z-Hook streamliner in 2006. The performance limitations of the front tire seemed to doom the LSR project, but Wheeler has pressed on with an aluminum front wheel.

But Wheeler is hopeful that the front tire is problem has been resolved. The solution is no tire at all. Instead the E-Z-Hook rolls on an aluminum wheel up front. Aluminum wheels have been successfully utilized on car streamliners, and Wheeler has run the new setup since his 2006 outing. In 2008 he entered the timed mile at 350 mph on the aluminum front, but had to abort the run due to handling issues. The team hopes to have those handling woes remedied by fine-tuning the settings on the Ohlins suspension components.

As far as brakes go… in streamliner racing the true brake is the parachute! To hear MCUSA correspondent and currently the world’s fastest rider, Rocky Robinson, describe it the force of simply letting off the throttle at 300-plus mph is enough to jerk the rider forward into their five-point harness. The streamliners do have a brake, however, and the E-Z-Hook will source a carbon disc package courtesy Lamb Components. The connection between Wheeler and Lamb Components is strong – founder Roger Lamb was the man who helped his then teenage friend, Sam Wheeler, build that first streamliner 50 years ago.

2012 Cook Bonneville Shootout

A half century later and Wheeler has a real shot at history, provided he can make the build in time. The Mike Cook Bonneville Shootout, slated for September 15-19, is the absolute deadline. For now only the Ack Attack is confirmed, and the big blue Ack stands a very good chance of breaking 400 too. Robinson and company nearly crested the mark at the 2010 Cook Shootout – setting the current world record at 376 and exiting the timed mile at 394 mph. After crashing at the 2011 Shootout, it’s been a long year waiting for another opportunity. With Wheeler now back in the mix, the window of opportunity is getting smaller for Ack.

But the great paradox of Land Speed Racing is that the fastest sport in the world can move at a glacial rate. World records can go several years unchallenged, as the natural elements have to be perfect for a world record run. Foremost the salt must be in good shape, with the surface dry enough to provide adequate mileage to reach a world record pace. Earlier meets under ideal conditions have yielded more than 11 miles of racing course, while other seasons the course has been shortened or washed out entirely. Besides seasonal conditions, the immediate wind speed must be optimal as well. World record attempts have to be backed up by a run in the opposite direction, then averaging the two to account for tailwinds and headwinds. A world record must also beat the previous best by 1% – so 380 mph to beat the standing record of 376.

Sam Wheeler is getting ready for another Bonneville run. The land speed racing veteran is retooling the E-Z-Hook streamliner for the world record  and coveted first-to-400 mph title.
Sam Wheeler at the BUB Speed Trials in August 2006. It seemed like the end of the road for the E-Z-Hook project after it topped out at 355 and then crashed on decel. Thankfully, Wheeler’s LSR plans – 400 mph plans – are back on track.

But 380 isn’t 400… World Fastest is a nice title, but the real plum is breaking that century marker. The first rider to do so will seal his name in Bonneville lore next to the likes of Craig Breedlove and Malcolm Campbell. It’s a company where Wheeler would readily be welcomed.

Wheeler epitomizes the everyman garage racer spirit and is universally revered by the LSR community. When the then 63-year-old crashed in 2006, and it seemed like the end of the E-Z-Hook project, the mood was nothing short of heartbreaking. Bonneville’s salt fosters some bombastic personalities, and heated rivalries. Yet Wheeler’s demeanor is humble and soft-spoken. His tally of bitter rivals less than zero. In fact, he is friends with both his first-to-400 threats, Manning and Akatiff. It will cheer the entire LSR paddock to see the E-Z-Hook back in the streamliner hunt and back on the Bonneville salt.

Follow Sam Wheeler’s E-Z-Hook steamliner project courtesy of motorsport production company IGNITION3, which is documenting the potentially history project in video installments. Videos embedded below YouTube. For more information visit the official E-Z-Hook Streamliner website: