SAN FRANCISCO — Authorities are investigating whether a faulty steering wheel caused a California raceway crash that killed two people, including the young cousin of the teenage driver, officials said Monday.
The Yuba County Sheriff's Department is looking into witness reports that the detachable steering wheel came off just before 17-year-old Chase Johnson's car careened off the dirt track and crashed into pit row Saturday evening, Undersheriff Jerry Read said.
"It's shaping up to look like a mechanical failure, but there's still work to be done," Read said of the ongoing investigation.
Race car owner Dale Wondergem, 68, of Grass Valley and Marcus Johnson, 14, of Santa Rosa were killed by the collision at Marysville Raceway Park, about 40 miles north of Sacramento, officials said. Autopsies were scheduled Monday.
The accident occurred when Chase Johnson and several other drivers were doing warm-up laps on opening day of the California Sprint Car Civil War Series. No one else was injured in the crash, authorities said.
Marcus Johnson's father, Rob Johnson, said his nephew Chase told him the wheel detached from the steering column as he was heading into a corner at about 90 mph, according to KTVU-TV. The car hit a sloped wall, launched into the air and crashed about 150 feet from the track, striking his son.
Johnson said the car was brand new, so he believes the steering wheel's quick-release mechanism malfunctioned.
"He had no control of the car," Rob Johnson told KTVU-TV. "I don't know how it could come off. He always double-checked it just to make sure it was down tight. He wasn't careless."
Rob Johnson, who lives in Santa Rosa, said the two cousins were close friends, and Marcus had been helping Chase in the pits during races for three years.
"The two of them were just peas in a pod. They'd do everything together and enjoy every minute of life together," Johnson said. "He was one of the sweetest boys you'll ever know."
Friends and family gathered Sunday evening at Marcus Johnson's Santa Rosa middle school, where they remembered the eighth-grader as a passionate basketball player who loved racing cars.
Almost all race cars have detachable steering wheels that drivers must take off each time they climb 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.
"Wondergem was a racer in the purest sense of the word," Burbach told the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. "I knew Dale personally as a kind, gregarious and positively motivated individual."
The Wondergem family declined to comment to The Associated Press on Monday.
Chase Johnson, a senior at Petaluma High School north of San Francisco, is an accomplished race car driver whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were also champion drivers at the Petaluma Speedway, where Chase was last year's series champion.
"There are no words to express our sorrow. Our family has been racing for four generations and loves the sport that has now brought us so much pain," Don Johnson, the driver's father and victim's uncle, said in a statement on behalf of his family.
The sprint car circuit, where small, high-powered vehicles race on short dirt ovals, is considered a stepping stone to higher level circuits like NASCAR. Many drivers start racing when they're as young as 15, as Chase Johnson did.
Saturday's crash was the second fatal accident at the Marysville Raceway Park in three years. In August 2010, Merle Shepherd of Rio Linda was killed during the Big Rig Trucks exhibition when his truck collided with another vehicle.
Marysville Raceway officials did not immediately return requests for comment Monday.