200 mph crash: Land speed record holder dies at Utah’s Salt Flats

Sam Wheeler, a renowned land speed motorcycle racer, died after the high-performance bike he was testing at Utah's famed Bonneville Salt Flats fishtailed, went airborne and crashed at 200 mph, July 25, 2016 | Composite photo, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Sam Wheeler, a renowned land speed motorcycle racer, is dead after the high-performance bike he was testing at Utah’s famed Bonneville Salt Flats fishtailed, went airborne and crashed at 200 mph. He was 72.

Wheeler died Monday afternoon at Intermountain Medical Center in the Salt Lake City suburb of Murray because of traumatic injuries suffered in the motorcycle accident, hospital spokesman Jess Gomez said.

Wheeler was going about 200 mph during a test run when the back of the streamliner motorcycle started fishtailing, said Mike Cook, the event organizer who witnessed the incident.

His motorcycle began to slide and then popped into the air and came crashing down on the caged section where Wheeler was seated, Cook said. Wheeler was alive when emergency crews extracted him from the car but died about four hours later at the hospital, Cook said.

“We all have real heavy hearts,” said Cook, organizer of Mike Cook’s Bonneville Shootout. “Land speed racing is one of the most family orientated sports there is the world.”

Wheeler, an engineer from Arcadia, California, was known as an innovator and pioneer in the sport. He spent more than two decades building, fine-tuning and racing a motorcycle on which he reached speeds exceeding 300 mph, said Pat McDowell, a fellow racer and longtime friend. At one time, he held the land speed record for motorcycles, he said.

“He’s was pretty much one of the legends of our sport,” McDowell said. “He did it with his brain, not his wallet.”

Wheeler was testing the motorcycle this week in anticipation of two big races in August and September at the Salt Flats. The site brings races from around the country to use the flat, glasslike surface to set speed records.

He had been working on the motorcycle in recent years with a goal of setting the motorcycle speed record and surpassing 400 mph, McDowell said.

Everyone was rooting for him, even competitors,” said McDowell, vice president of the Southern California Timing Association.

Wheeler was known for his ability to build and modify his motorcycle by himself. He was a perfectionist who knew aerodynamics well, said Bill Lattin, president of the Southern California Timing Association, which is set to host a major racing event at the Salt Flats in August.

“He built that motorcycle by hand. Every single part on it,” Lattin said. “He’s been rebuilding it, making it stronger, faster and more aerodynamic.”

He is survived by his wife and two children, said McDowell. Wheeler’s family couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

McDowell, Cook and Lattin said Wheeler was a kind-hearted, laid-back man.

“He was the nicest guy in the world,” Lattin said. “He would do anything for anybody.

Written by BRADY McCOMBS, Associated Press

Email: news@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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6 Comments

  • mesaman July 28, 2016 at 9:32 pm

    A sad, sad day at Bonneville. Condolences to the family.

  • debbie July 29, 2016 at 2:44 am

    Really really sad! We are capable of so much more in our lives and I hate it when someone graciously rewards that spirit with effort and then these things happen. It is people like this that teach us we can do more! They take the knocks for us. Hope his family finds comfort quickly.

  • .... July 29, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    I’ve spent many a day out there on the flats. he will be missed. condolences to the family .it won’t be the same without him.

  • Real Life July 31, 2016 at 11:37 pm

    Sorry Dumpster, but it’s hard to believe you about anything. You constantly spew nothing but ignorance. Don’t look for sympathy here.

    • .... August 1, 2016 at 9:32 am

      On behalf of the commenters here. I would like to apologize for the ignorant. stupid and insensitive comment by Real Life. ..I just hope his family doesn’t see his comment and see how ignorant some people here really are ! ……..

  • Real Life August 2, 2016 at 1:00 am

    Oh please!!! Get over yourself man. You are seeking sympathy? You are trying to represent ALL commenters? You are so far gone. You really need help.

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