Sanford Kosman: Chassis Master
Sanford Herschel Kosman, born 21 June 1941, is an intense man with unique talents and complex personality traits. He never attained an engineering degree, yet he found ways to configure motorcycle chassis to handle up to five times what factory engineers, with fancy degrees said were needed for a motorcycle combination. Sandy didn’t have an AKC registry certificate, no papers, no degrees. But for a pound puppy, he was a big dog with big ideas that worked brilliantly during his creative years as a high-performance motorcycle racing specialties manufacturer.
More motorcycle drag races have been won by racers seated upon a Kosman chassis than any other single chassis manufacturer.
In fact, Kosman Specialties chassis manufactured between 1975 and 2015 have won more motorcycle drag races at every level of the sport than all other motorcycle drag racing chassis combined. An addendum will follow this story for clarification. Terry Vance, 14 championship seasons, George Bryce 12 championship seasons often with two bikes, always #1 or two in points, Dave Schultz 1991 & 1992 seasons, the famous Eagle 1 Kawasaki Pro Stock Motorcycle was a Kosman chassis. Matt Smith, 2007 through 2010, all wins on a Kosman-built frame. Teson & Bernard T/F, Terry Vance T/F, the Denco Triple: all were Kosman-built chassis.
Sandy Kosman, like a Shaman, spearheaded motorcycle drag racing chassis design and developments much the way Dr. Robert H Goddard influenced rocketry. Everything created in the modern era is a direct descendant or a variation of what these men once created from their visions. The work of both Kosman and Goddard laid foundations, for others to build upon. To this very day as you read this, engineers still create designs based upon their original concepts.
To tell Sandy Kosman’s tale so that the average NT (Neuro Typical) person can begin to grasp the enormity of his accomplishments, the first one must understand the challenges Sandford Kosman had to deal with from birth. An affliction that both blessed him and taxed him from his youngest days to his latest years of life, Sandy was firmly on the autism spectrum.
Sandy, like so many who are “On the Spectrum” is simply wired differently from birth. His neuro pathways, brain circuitry, and information processing are vastly different from your average neurotypical person. The blessing of Sandy’s autistic nature is that he thinks differently, feels differently, sees things no one else will find readily apparent. As a result, the sum of the inner workings of his mind in analyzing concepts and data: Sandy is a natural wizard at envisioning mechanical things working in concert. Yet sometimes painfully oblivious to interpersonal interactions.
The taxing aspect of Sandy’s affliction became readily apparent to those that know him well, or who worked with him on a regular basis. Sandy’s personality could be a lot to handle for anyone who worked with him up close. His ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder, was obvious. His quirks are blatantly visible and have often caused embarrassment. Because of this, it can be very easy to misread Sandy, who in fact is a very warm-hearted guy who wants people to be happy and successful. His autistic wiring just sometimes caused him to seem aloof, perhaps at times ambivalent. This unnerved people, sometimes very important, influential people.
For example, if Sandy was a participant in a conversation and it seemed uninteresting to him, he’d just up and walk away on occasion. Also, anyone trying to touch him, hug him, invade his personal space – bad idea. It wasn’t that Sandy didn’t want people to feel deeply connected to him. His wiring for his behavior was such that like most people on the spectrum, he is wired to be ambivalent to other people’s feelings. He didn’t often pick up on social cues, and he sometimes didn’t seem to give a hoot what someone else said or wanted. Because from birth he was not wired to. He just doesn’t think and process thoughts like the average NT person does.
A great example of this came from his wife Karen, who was with Sandford from about 1980 throughout the rest of his life. She recounted once, in an interview, his actions after a family picnic.
“One time, while we were still dating, we took his son Seth out for a picnic. Which involved bringing a lot of this and that to the little family outing. We had all kinds of stuff with us. Now we get back to the house afterwards and when we return, he grabs his daily paper off the front porch. Then walks into the house, kicks his footwear off and hits the bed with the daily news-paper. I sat in the van and thought about this for a few minutes, quietly, alone. Then I decided to confront him. I was flabbergasted “Hey, wait a minute, we’ve got all this stuff to come in. Did you stop to think, we have a lot of things that need to be unloaded from the van? After being out for the afternoon, perhaps Seth might need some attention?” Sandy just looked at her puzzled. He was not uncaring; he simply had a thought process that hindered his cognitive awareness in some social interactions.
Sandy’s behavior was not much better when he proposed to Karen for marriage. He didn’t exactly get down on bended knee or propose to her in some romantic setting. Instead, Sandy floated the concept of marriage during a conversation. As Karen recalls “Well he never really did propose actually. He just said one day “when we marry” during a conversation. And I knew that was about the closest I’d get from him for a marriage proposal, so, we worked with that” she reminisced, with a fond smile. Sandy’s a bit of an odd duck to those who don’t know him or have no knowledge of interactions with Autistic behavior.
The business that Sanford began in 1964, Kosman Specialties, was all about function and form with eye-catching style. Creating lightweight racing components for racing motorcycles, beginning with oil tanks for flat track and dirt bike racing. Over time, he went on to design full chassis for racing motorcycles. This was a rather audacious undertaking for a man with no welding and fabricating skills. Sandy tried welding once and was near-blind for a few days. He never picked up a TIG Torch again. Sanford was an idea and concept man, a true visionary.
Astonishingly, he infrequently, if ever rode a motorcycle.
The trademark of a Kosman Specialties-created chassis has always been exceptional mechanical function, with high style bordering on art. Every chassis and racing component created by Kosman, even to an untrained eye, frequently elicited a wow, when examined closely. Kosman products have always been the lightest, strongest, best-looking racing components anyone could buy anywhere.
Sandy’s story begins with his mom and dad being two very highly intelligent people who raised a young man with a naturally inquisitive nature about things engineering-related. His dad was a civil engineer who worked in the realm of environmental engineering. In the early 1950’s Sandy’s family moved from Sacramento, California to Massena, NY, as his dad was working at the time for the US Government, in the designing and building of the locks for the seaway.
Sandy attended Massena Central High School, in NY, where he graduated in June of 1959. Throughout his later life, Sandy attended several colleges including Michigan State University and San Francisco State College, taking courses when time permitted, but never completing a degree program.
When it came to sports, Sandy loved playing gold and shooting pool. He was an outstanding golfer and watched the professional circuit very closely. He also enjoyed physical fitness in general and loved running for its physical and mental health benefits. It was not uncommon for Sandy to run in 5 and 10K races, sometimes on his own, and other times while pushing his son Seth in a custom-made wheelchair that Sandy designed and had created at his shop.
Seth was born with Muscular Dystrophy, a progressively debilitating disease that causes loss of muscle mass and function as people age. Sandy loved him completely and took him everywhere. Seth was not only wheeled about by his dad while he was competing in cross-country racing events, but Sandy brought Seth along with him frequently to motorcycle drag races.
Young Seth Kosman became well known within the motorcycle drag racing community both from his interactions with the racers visiting Kosman Specialties production shop, and from his interactions with the racers during national events. Orient Express Funny Bike pilot Jon Baugh commented, “Seth was uber-smart like his dad. It impressed me, that as a teen, he was frequently in the company of thirty-something drag racers and he always kept pace with the conversation. He was very funny too, great sense of humor.”
Tragically due to his disease, Seth passed away in 1986 at the age of 17. After the passing of Seth, Sandy’s life went into a tailspin and he was understandably devastated by his son’s passing.
Sandy’s creative idea factory, which came to be known as Kosman Specialties, evolved from a basement start-up in the 1964/65-time frame. By the late 1960’s he moved manufacturing to 340 Fell Street in the down-town of San Francisco. After the earthquake of 1989, the shop moved to 55 Oak Street, just a few blocks away. A secondary production facility was opened during the Oak Street era of the 1990’s and over time, the San Francisco operation was shifted to the Windsor, California location in April of 1996.
During the production years of Kosman Specialties, they were well known the world over as the number one parts source for high-performance motorcycle racing chassis products. Lightweight aluminum alloy wheels, Ceriani front ends, then in later years, custom front end components made by or for Kosman. Lightweight gas and oil tanks for racing were in stock ready to ship. The craftsman at Kosman also created whatever customers wanted, as the customer specified. What they really became renowned for though was their complete rolling chassis creations that were not only sanitary, rolling works of functional metal art, but more often than not: they became the world’s fastest and quickest motorcycles.
Russ Collins triple motor Top Fuel bike, the Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe, the first bike of it’s kind to win an NHRA, Best Engineered Award, was built upon a Kosman chassis. So too was RC Engineering’s world-famous supercharged double “The Sorcerer.” Terry Vance on the VHR Top Fuel bike, in 1983 during a test session stopped the clocks with a 6.98 @ 203 MPH, the first T/F bike to crest the six’s and breach the 200 MPH mark. Andy Gotsis, first Top Fuel Harley to exceed the 200 MPH mark, was accomplished in 1995, with a Kosman Chassis. (see the end of this story for a fuller accounting.)
Apart from Sandy’s business, above all else, he has shined as a loving father to an adoring daughter, a husband, a businessman, and yes: a motorcycle racing wizard. A very layered, complicated man. One, who with a phone call, would drop everything to go home and attend to family matters of importance.
His daughter Nadia recalls “My best memories of him in my childhood were going to the park, or for a walk, just spending time with him. He worked a lot! We liked Chinese Checkers and card games. Dad liked to play cards. He loved card tricks. Dad could have been a professional card player and supported himself through early adulthood by gambling. I remember the sounds, the sounds of the cards, with Seinfeld on TV in the background. He would play solitaire over and over and over again while I sat with him. I didn’t care, I was just happy to be together.”
Sandy regretted spending so many years going to college and never getting a degree, so he stressed the importance of education to Nadia. She remembers “When my dad saw the acceptance letter into UC Berkeley, he stood up from the kitchen table and exclaimed, “No shit – really! No shit!”
Such moments are the best moments for the Kosman family. No world land speed record nor first accomplishment in high-performance can measure up to such a moment.
We don’t know the value of a moment until that moment is gone. Sometimes long gone and in either case one fact is inescapable – no matter what, you can’t get that moment back. Today is but a moment in time. We all have more yesterdays than we will ever have of a today for today is always singular. If one is wise, you’ll learn to live in the moment, for all you really have is today. Once the moment is gone – you can never relive it again. Especially when one’s health turns for the worst.
Sandy’s health was changing marked by his 76th birthday. After extensive medical tests, his condition was diagnosed as Lewy Body Dementia. A degenerative condition affecting thinking, movement, mood, behavior. A disease for which there is no cure. In the advanced stages, a patient may have no recollection of who they are, or who they are with, even after being married to that beloved partner for decades.
But for love, there are moments of brilliance possible in the darkness for the faithful.
Oddly enough, there have been magical moments as a by-product of his afflictions with autism anddementia. His daughter Nadia shared one such moving moment she holds dear. “It’s so strange sometimes, his disease. In fact, it’s funny in a way; how one illness overcame the other and gave me one of the greatest gifts I will ever receive.
I was with dad recently and for whatever reason, he noticed my hand and my wedding rings. He reached over and held my hand. He tapped the wedding rings. Then he held my hand for a bit. In 33 years, he’s never held my hand.”
Due to Sandy’s being on the Autism Spectrum, the nature of his interpersonal behavior is such that most all his life he’s never been a hugger or touchy-feely person. This is very normal for people with autism. What Nadia’s theory implied was that for a brief moment, her dad’s Lewy Body Dementia disease overpowered his autism. The Lewy Body deposits in his brain, blocking the nerve impulses, the wiring that normally would have prevented her father from reaching out to hold her hand, provided a blessed moment where Sandy was able to reach out and touch her. He connected with her as never before. A magic moment she will never forget.
Employees: The people who comprised Kosman racing products produced magnificence. It was the people in the shop who made the products Sandy Kosman envisioned; they brought concepts to life. A roll call of the artisans includes, but is not limited to: Parra O’Siochain, Martin Windmill, Peter Anthony, Jim Jennings, Rich Oliver, Jim Dour, Dave Garoutte J.P. Morgen, Mike Kannel, Joe Melo, Jake Rivera, Jose Gonzales, Andrew Perkins, Nancy Prinz, Kevin Crowther, Jed Hargett, Seth Kosman, Tom Wilker, Mike Renslow, Stephen Prinz, George Marionetti, Roland Cushway, Dennis Lee, Pat Birchenal, Craig Hildebrand, Bill Calicura, David Morgen, Kurt Kruger, Cuchulain O’Siochain, Deborah Harris, Erin Elliot, Arthur Langlie, Brad Janacek, Carlos Luna.
- Chassis builders: Jim Jennings, Ronnie Nunes, Terry Knight
- Hired riders: Mike Bruso, Dave Emde, Pee Wee Gleason, Dale Walker
- CNC aluminum: all work was done by Dennis Lee at Mun Manufacturing in Oakland, CA
Kosman Specialties Racing Accomplishments
In the world of off-road racing, such as mile, half-mile, short-track, TT, and road-racing events, legendary racing greats like Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, Randy Goss, Scott Parker, Mert Lawwill, and Dick Mann, all used Kosman racing products.
In the sport of motorcycle drag racing, the greatest names in the sport, all used Kosman products if not fully built rolling chassis, straight from the Kosman shop floor. Terry Vance 14 national champion commented, “I believe most, if not all of them were done with a Kosman chassis.”
- Terry Vance:‘s Tracy body, Top Fuel bike that VHR campaigned between 1980 and 1984 was a Kosman chassis.
- Larry McBride: “My first Top Fuel motorcycle I bought from Terry Vance and Byron Hines was a Kosman chassis. We had a best of 6.49 @ 214 MPH with that bike.”
- Russ Collins: Triple and his bike, The Sorcerer, Kosman Chassis.
- Andy Gotsis: The first 200 MPH pass by a Top Fuel Harley, May 6th, 1995 Kosman Chassis
- Ron Teson: the Teson and Bernard T/F Honda, 1976. Teson & Bernard T/F Yamaha 1978-81
- Carl Morrow: Numerous land speed world records at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
- Greg Cope/Dave Schultz: NHRA PSM “The Eagle 1 Kawasaki we raced in 1991 and 1992 was a Kosman chassis.”
- Bobby Carpenter: Pro Stock motorcycles, circa 1970’s, Kosman chassis
- The Denco Triple: Kosman Chassis
- Pee Wee Gleason: ATP turbo bike 1979-80, Kosman Chassis
- George Bryce: According to George Bryce’s best recollection “During 13 years of STAR Racing in Pro Stock Motorcycle, we were number 1 or 2 in national points and in every year of competition except one, we won all those races with a Kosman chassis. Also all of my Suzuki Funny Bikes were Kosman chassis.”
- George Babor: who worked at Orient Express for years commented “Kosman did all of our bikes for us. Jon Baugh, Terry Kizer’s bike. My road racer was a Kosman. Whatever we needed, we’d call the shop and they would give us a tricked-out component, whatever we needed.”
- The Brunson, Miller Lundquist Funny Bike: in 1986, was entered in, and did qualify and compete in Top Fuel motorcycle. And at that event, in September of 1986, Mark Miller ran the sports first ever pass in the six-second elapsed time zone, in competition, for Top Fuel motorcycles with a Kosman chassis. The team significantly altered the bike, but indeed, that was a Kosman chassis.
- Matt Smith and Angie: Matt Smith Racing – “Matt Smith won his championship in NHRA PSM during the 2007 season on a Kosman chassis. All of our races between then and up until 2011 were won on Kosman chassis bikes.”
- Steve Rice F/B Kawasaki ZX-11 w Kosman chassis: Steve Rice commented “That bike won the 1998 and 1999 Pro Star West, was national #2 in Pro Star Funny Bike. From 2000 through 2003 it was never out of the top three and it held the MPH national record at over 210 MPH from 1998 to 2005. Ultimately the bike had a best of ET of 6.59 and high MPH of 229 MPH in Funny Bike competition.
No other motorcycle racing chassis manufacturer, before or since Kosman Specialties can compare to the total round wins and championships won on Kosman-built race bikes. Kosman Specialties, set the bar so high, for close to 40 years, 1975 through 2015: more races have been won on Kosman drag bikes than any other chassis created by a single chassis manufacturer in the history of motorcycle drag racing.
Epilogue: Don’t hold back, you may never get the chance again to tell someone you love them. Only love really matters. All the rest in life are just things. Things will come and go, they are just things, objects. Only love endures, embrace that, breathe life into it, give it meaning. It’s not what you have in life that matters, it’s what you give meaning to.
Author Final Note: My deep thanks to the Kosman immediate family and friends, also the many former Kosman employees and racers who contributed to this story. Thank you for your time, efforts, and devotion to preserving motorcycle drag racing history.
|Until Next time…
– Tom McCarthy
Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend’s Series with Tom McCarthy is © Tom McCarthy 2022, all rights reserved. No text portions or images from this series may be copied in part, or fully, without the expressed written consent of Tom McCarthy. Violators may be subject to legal action.