In 1956 the NSU squad came to America in full force. Arriving in Utah on July 25th with a fleet of land speed machines, they dominated nearly every class they competed in from 50cc to 500cc.
H.P. Muller or “Renntiger”, (Race Tiger) as he was known by many, piloted the three smaller displacement machines. He set the world ablaze with runs of 121.7 mph in his 50cc streamliner, 138 in 100cc, and 150.3 in his 125cc machine, which also overtook records for 175cc and 250cc categories. Renntiger was the first to win the 250cc World Championship in Grand Prix motorcycle racing as a privateer and has over 200 victories (two-wheel and four) to his credit in his storied career.
Sam and friends with first streamliner loaded in back of old van.
His teammate, Wilhelm Herz, also found his way into the record books, most notably for being the first to break the 200 mph barrier on two wheels. This was no easy venture for Herz who earlier crashed his 250cc streamliner at 195 mph. After a brilliant run of 189.5 mph in the 350cc category, he nearly went down again when his supercharged 500 was blown off course, careening into a timing light and damaging the nose of Delphin III, so named for its sleek shaped, streamlined body.
The successes of the NSU squad didn’t go unnoticed. An impressionable 13 year old by the name of Sam Wheeler started taking interest in the thrilling spectacle that is land speed racing. Besides stints in desert racing, Hare and Hound, and Enduro competition where brawn and sweat were key ingredients to success, Sam liked the challenges of designing and building one-off racers he could run flat out on open lakebeds like El Mirage or the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Humble beginnings: Notice the surplus nose cone Sam purchased for a dollar…
His first machine, the Electoral Conduit Special as Sam referred to it, utilized a Bultaco 125cc engine which went 95 mph in 1963. This early streamliner was shaped like a bullet and as the name implies, utilized lightweight conduit tubing as the material of choice throughout the chassis. Sparing no expense, Sam purchased the tapered nose cone and a spare from a surplus store for two dollars. This fiberglass cone was merely protective covering for a metal nose cone and was a throwaway item. A sheet metal “skin” surrounded the tubular chassis encapsulating the driver and his controls, minimizing aerodynamic drag.
Sam’s humble beginnings fueled the fire for greater things to come. By 1970 he built a more complex streamliner. The conduit tubing was replaced with carbon steel and the engine upgraded to a 750cc Norton Parallel Twin. Axtell’s dyno recorded 65 rear wheel horsepower and by year’s end Sam had his first record: 208.747 mph on gas.
Sam set a record with the Norton streamliner in 1970: 208.747 mph on gas.
The Norton was later shipped to England and tested in the MIRA (Motor Institute Research Association) wind tunnel. The wind tunnel was so massive a double-decker bus could be placed inside, though there was little interest in anyone doing so. Testing could only be done after midnight due to the huge power draw required to turn the massive fans.
The Norton streamliner showed signs of lifting which required a few minor design changes to eliminate the problem. The bike would later be outlawed from land speed competition due to visibility issues. Sam sat so low in the bike that he literally had to look around the front end to see out of his machine. The record setting Harley Davidson that Cal Rayborn drove into the record books at 265 mph would later fall victim to the same ruling.
The man and his creation.
(Nice tie, Sam)
By 1988 Sam began construction on what is now one of the most recognized motorcycles in the world, the Kawasaki-powered EZ Hook streamliner. At 18’ 5” long and less than 1000 lbs minus the rider, the EZ Hook streamliner is a complex machine in a small package. Sam estimates over 8500 man hours in design and construction. And the project is ongoing…
During chassis construction his boss, Phelps Wood, met Elliot Andrews, the head of the engineering department at Caltech (California Institute of Technology). Andrews was able to find five aerodynamics graduate students interested in taking on the project for their class thesis. With the help of teaching assistant Dennis Moor, the Caltech team went to work testing 1/8 scale models utilizing a water channel. Once the shape was narrowed down a 1/4 scale model was created and placed in the wind tunnel. Using modeling clay and adjusting the ride height from front to rear the finished product is what you see today.
A close-up of the EZ Hook streamliner minus bodywork. (The large training wheels were for testing purposes only.)
Aerodynamic efficiency alone was not enough to reach the speeds Sam needed if he wanted to beat the current land speed record of the time, which stood at 322 mph. The original Suzuki GSX-R750 engine was tossed before ever running, replaced by the more powerful ZX-11 Kawasaki model he still uses today. In 1991 Sam ran his new machine for the first time; 170 mph, naturally aspirated. For such a small machine, there was much room for improvement.
By 1993 Sam had reached 218 mph. His tiny machine was designed around a tireless billet aluminum front wheel which proved to be the Achilles heel of the project. Handling gremlins kept him from any significant gains. At the time, Don Vesco was experimenting with a similar wheel design and Sam followed suit, thinking the narrower profile would be a benefit. It wasn’t until ’94 that Sam gave up on the billet wheel in favor of using a Goodyear tire. Warned that the tire might not be safe at speeds over 300 mph, Sam figured he’d take his chances.
Sam takes off en route to a 355 mph run in 2006. He was unofficially the fastest man on two wheels (he failed to make a return run voiding an FIM record) until the Ack Attack set a new land speed record over 360 mph in September of 2006.
Terry Kizer (Mr. Turbo) came onboard in later years, vastly improving Sam’s engine development program. A new fuel system coupled with Kizer’s own turbocharger and proper engine tuning netted huge gains. Together they have three records that still stand, all in the 1350cc streamliner category: 285.747 mph on gas, 294.855 mph on fuel, and 332.410 mph blown fuel.
In 2006 Sam made a blistering 355 mph pass before skidding to a stop on his side after his “300 mph tire” failed. He’s returned to a tireless wheel configuration and hopes to improve on the design enough to let him reach the true potential of his potent machine. At the Top 1 Shootout this year he entered the timing lights at over 352 mph, but aborted his attempt when his ill handling machine forced him off course and out of contention.
One thing’s for sure, that same young boy that was so intrigued by the NSU team and their accomplishments over 50 years ago, has made a lasting impression of his own…