Land speed racing legend Sam Wheeler killed in crash at Bonneville Salt Flats

Posted at 5:33 PM, Jul 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-28 19:33:51-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Sam Wheeler was a land speed racing legend, and Monday he lost his life in an accident while doing what he loved.

The 72-year-old California native had a dream of breaking a speed record in a homemade machine known in the racing community as a streamliner motorcycle.

Mike Cook, the event coordinator for Test and Tune at the Bonneville Salt Flats, says Wheeler had already reached more than 300 miles per hour.

"He wanted to be the first motorcycle to go 400 miles an hour, and to do that you need to test, and test, and test," Cook said.

Cook said Wheeler was testing on Monday and everything seemed to be going fine when, all of a sudden, the tail of his bike started to wiggle. From there, it landed on its side, jumped up, and then rolled over twice.

Daniel Warner, a record certifier, was a few miles away when it happened.

"I looked up track and saw this big dirt cloud and all that," Warner said.

"It landed on the roof, as you would call it, and his head was in the roof," Cook recalled.

It wasn't long after that violent crash that Wheeler was pronounced dead at Intermountain Medical Center.

Larry Volk, Vice President of the 200 mph Club, says it's a risk all racers are aware of.

"It was a freak deal, let's face it," Volk said. "It could happen to any of us. I'm sorry to say it, but it could."

A uniquely Utah sport, land speed racers are like family, and Wheeler was one of the patriarchs.

"Growing up with this sport, I probably have about five heroes and he was one of them," Cook said.

"We feel the pain," Volk said. "There is no doubt about that. All of us do."

Wheeler is survived by a wife and two children. He was one of many out at the Bonneville Salt Flats this week testing and preparing for Speed Week, which takes place at the Salt Flats starting on August 13.