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Faulty steering wheel suspected in racing deaths

Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 7:58 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 7:58 a.m.

The sprint car that killed his son Saturday went out of control after the steering wheel came off and the car flew off a dirt track in Marysville at 90 mph, Rob Johnson said Monday.

The winged race car flew about 200 feet into the racetrack pit area, where it struck and killed Marcus Johnson, 14, a student at Rincon Valley Middle School in Santa Rosa.

The driver of the car was Marcus' cousin, Chase Johnson, 17, of Penngrove, an experienced racer and a senior at Petaluma High School. He survived the crash.

Rob Johnson, a former racer who owns a Santa Rosa muffler shop, said he was watching the Saturday night event with his sons and other family members.

Before Chase Johnson took the brand new car onto the quarter-mile clay oval track for warm-up laps at Marysville Raceway Park oval, Rob Johnson said he watched Chase secure the steering wheel's quick-release mechanism, a standard procedure.

"I watched him check it," Rob Johnson said, with an emotional catch in his voice.

The elder Johnson said it is a mystery how the steering wheel came loose.

Undersheriff Jerry Read of the Yuba County Sheriff's Department said Monday that investigators are looking into witness reports that the detachable steering wheel came off, the Associated Press reported.

"It's shaping up to look like a mechanical failure, but there's still work to be done," Read said.

Also killed in the crash at about 6 p.m. Saturday was Dale Richard Wondergem Jr., 68, of Grass Valley.

The two were walking through the pit area when they were struck and killed. Rob Johnson said the car was quiet while it was airborne, evidence that Chase's foot was off the accelerator, and that his son might not have heard it coming toward him.

Rob Johnson said his son was 200 feet from the track, "well removed from any danger area."

In 40 years of racing at dirt tracks across the West, Johnson said he had never seen a car exit through the pit gate in such a manner.

Most race cars have detachable steering wheels that drivers must take off with a quick-release mechanism each time they get in and out of the cockpit, but it's extremely rare for them to come off by accident, said Ron Lingron, the track announcer at Petaluma Speedway, who is a friend of the Johnson family.

"It's a very, very freak accident," Lingron said. "When the steering wheel comes off, you have no control over a car going 90 miles per hour."

Wondergem owned one of the race cars at the track Saturday, but not the one involved in the crash, Read said.

Wondergem is a former sprint car driver who after retirement provided a race car for his son and then for another driver, said Bob Burbach, the announcer at the Marysville racetrack, who said he first met Wondergem 21 years ago.

Burbach told the Marysville Appeal-Democrat that Wondergem was "a kind, gregarious and positively motivated individual."

Wondergem worked for decades with Alf Burtleson, a Calistoga-based contractor who dug dozens of wine caves at Sonoma and Napa wineries and out of state.

Rob Johnson said he was seated in the racetrack grandstand with his younger son, Hayden, and other relatives when the crash occurred. Marcus had left them to go to the restroom. Gina Johnson, Marcus' mother, was not at the track.

Chase Johnson's car had done six laps when it headed into a turn at top speed, Rob Johnson said. The wheels at first turned in the proper direction, but suddenly turned the other way, presumably when the steering wheel came loose, he said.

Chase braked, and the car left the track through the pit gate, he said.

Rob Johnson said he saw the car leave the track, but did not see it land. He immediately rushed to the scene.

The two cousins were close friends, and Marcus had been helping Chase in the pits during races for three years, the Associated Press reported.

"The two of them were just peas in a pod. They'd do everything together and enjoy every minute of life together," Rob Johnson said. "He was one of the sweetest boys you'll ever know."

Chase Johnson is an accomplished race car driver whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather also were champion drivers at the Petaluma Speedway, where Chase was last year's series champion.

The sprint car circuit features small, high-powered cars racing on short dirt ovals. It is considered a stepping stone to higher level circuits such as NASCAR and many drivers start racing when they're 15, as Chase Johnson did.

About 200 people gathered Sunday in the courtyard at Marcus Johnson's school with candles, posters and memories of the young basketball player.

Flowers, candles, photographs and chalk messages were clustered Monday at the door to Rob Johnson's muffler shop on Santa Rosa Avenue.

The family has established the Marcus Johnson Memorial Trust Fund at First Community Bank, 438 First St., Santa Rosa, 95401.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or

guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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