Nothing holds Tom Kullen back. The man behind the successful Bonneville Vintage GP races, Tom has spent most of his life with the throttle pinned. His right hand only slightly rolled off the gas three years ago when he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
“Throughout March and April I was coughing,” Tom says of 2010, the year his illness made itself known. “I was prescribed antibiotics and was tested for allergies, etc. They didn’t do a scan right away.” A resident of Park City, Utah, Tom Kullen's been a skier since he was 7, and spends much of his time as a ski instructor — often at 10,000 feet above sea level. “I had a coughing fit that put me on the ground; that’s when they finally discovered I had a tumor blocking 70 percent of my airway. I was told it looked ‘troublesome.’”
Getting into bikes
At home, Tom displays several black and white photos. The images showcase proud relatives astride circa 1908 Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles. In another image, taken around 1917, his grandmother poses with a Harley-Davidson Silent Gray Fellow. “My grandfather was a machinist, and he had an Indian or two. They were always in pieces, though, from what I can remember,” Tom says.
Unlike other parents who told their children they couldn’t have motorcycles, Tom’s didn’t have an issue with powered two-wheelers. A Hodaka Super Rat served as a bush beater, and Tom worked as a busboy during high school to buy his first road machine, a Honda Dream 160. From home on Long Island, Tom and his friends would take road trips into upstate New York. His next ride was a 1972 Honda SL350, but when the cam chain tensioner failed the cam seized in the head. That’s when he bought his 1970 Dunstall Norton 810.
“My practical, BMW-riding uncle told me not to get the Norton, that I’d always be fixing it,” Tom recalls. “I rode it quite a bit, but there was always a lot of fixing, too,” he admits. After high school, Tom and his good friend Rick Pellegrino traveled to Utah and became ski bums. They got maintenance jobs in Alta at the Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge, and two years later Tom returned home, loaded his Willy’s wagon with all his worldly possessions — including the Dunstall Norton — and headed back to Utah.
Back in Utah, he enrolled in the arts department at the University of Utah, figuring he could ski while going to school. “I was paying for school, and I couldn’t even afford a lift ticket,” Tom laughs. To get his fix, he volunteered as a ski patroller. “I wasn’t getting paid, but the big thing was I was skiing.” Tom graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and put his hands to ceramics, sculpture and graphic design — a little bit of everything, he says. Tom planned to teach high school art, but life took a turn when he designed a bag to carry medical equipment.
“The rescue gear we were using on the mountains was antiquated, and we couldn’t keep the bandages dry,” Tom says. So he sketched out a bag fitted with individual pockets constructed of waterproof Cordura. The bag was strapped on, fanny pack-style, via a Velcro inner strap and quick release outer strap. A canvas company made the first pack, and other ski patrollers soon wanted their own. Tom began cutting materials himself and hired a seamstress to sew them, and he started Lone Peak Packs. Soon, he was selling ski patrol gear worldwide and followed up with an adjustable harness to hold Motorola MX-series radios. “I ended up with some patents, and the radio harness just went ballistic. Military and police forces from around the world were buying them, as were forest services and the FBI swat team,” Tom says. “Just about any kind of rescue organization was ordering them.”
Tom also designed some of the first mountain bike pannier systems, but what he really wanted to do was take his ski patrol emergency skills to the next level. “I wanted to become an EMT, and that meant doing shifts in the emergency room,” Tom says. “I enjoyed that fast-paced environment and ended up going to nursing school, all while I was operating Lone Peak.”
He worked as an emergency room nurse for seven years and sold Lone Peak in 1987 for enough to buy some property in Park City. “The company (Lone Peak) is still in business, and I saw my radio harness designs on the search and rescue teams involved in 9/11 — they had the Lone Peak labels on them.”
Time to go racing
Always simmering below the surface was Tom Kullen’s passion for motorcycling, including dabbling in club racing on his Dunstall. As a member of the Utah British Bike Club, he’d often visit with other like-minded enthusiasts. One of them had a full machine shop, where he was turning out parts for a medical laser company. “Coming from a machinist’s background because of my family, I was interested in the parts and contacted the laser company,” Tom says. “Turns out, I got a job with them covering the Rocky Mountain area as a salesman.”
While selling lasers Tom joined the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) and spent more time with the Park City Motorcycle Club. Representing a hodge podge of riders and machinery, from cruiser to sport enthusiasts, the club was looking for some kind of motorcycle event to hold in the city. With memories of the epic Steamboat Springs AHRMA races, held on the closed streets of the Colorado city until they were canceled in 1998, Tom and the club devised a plan in homage of the Steamboat event.
“Why don’t we see if we can recreate the Steamboat races here in Park City?” Tom recalls thinking. “We spoke to AHRMA officials, Park City officials, and got the go-ahead to stage races here.”
In September 1999, Tom was responsible for setting up the road course with an army of volunteers, including Boy Scouts, who put up orange snow control fence around the entire course. “We had to bring in 4,000 bales of straw to protect riders from trees, buildings, walls, utilities; all kinds of obstacles,” he recalls.
After much preparation, the race went off without a hitch. The high point for Tom was racing his Norton at 100mph-plus through town, blasting through stop signs — legally. Most residents enthusiastically supported the event and wanted it back, but there were half a dozen vocal locals who shut it down. “It was a one-year wonder,” Tom says.
Tom worked with some other laser companies, accumulating stock options with the last outfit he worked for. When the company went public in 2003, he decided it was finally time to cash in and invest in what he really wanted to do — play with motorcycles full time.
“Selling lasers gave me some discretionary income, and I bought a few motorcycles to restore,” Tom says. He added a small shop to his three-car garage and outfitted the space with MIG and TIG welding equipment, plasma cutting gear, a CNC mill and manual lathe, and metal shaping tools including an English wheel and a planishing hammer. “The idea was to restore some motorcycles and start making parts for vintage British bikes,” he says. “I was experimenting with the race bike, and with my real life racing experience I was going to produce and market pieces such as new triple clamps and adjustable rear sets for Nortons.”
Tom also worked side by side with metal guru Evan Wilcox in Ukiah, Calif. Evan makes, from scratch, exquisite sheet metal for a variety of motorcycles. “At the time, I was only one of four people he’d ever allowed to do an apprenticeship with him,” Tom explains. “My goal was to build hand-formed aluminum tanks, together with the other parts.”
The excitement of the Park City AHRMA race wasn’t forgotten, either. When Tom heard rumors in 2004 about investors building a track in Utah, he learned that famed motorsport engineer Alan Wilson had been commissioned to design the road course for the planned Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah.
The park opened in 2006, and Tom had the first signed contract for a motorcycle race event, the Bonneville Vintage GP. “I was struggling to come up with a name, and I was thinking about the motorcycle history (in the area) and one of the names that popped into my head was the Widowmaker in respect to the hill climb held annually here in Utah,” Tom explains. “I quickly realized that wouldn’t be an appropriate name for a road race. But then I started thinking about the Bonneville Salt Flats, and although the track and the flats are 90 miles apart they are in the same county. Bonneville Vintage GP just popped into my head.”
In September 2013 the track will host the eighth annual Bonneville Vintage GP, and it’s become a successful event thanks to volunteers from the Utah British Bike Club. “They’re the reason the Bonneville Vintage GP works — it wouldn’t exist without them,” he says. Tom has participated each year, even during the worst moments of his cancer treatments. “I still got out there; I didn’t get out to race, but I managed to get out and practice,” he says. In recognition of his efforts, Tom was named AHRMA’s 2010 Sportsman of the Year. “That was one of the highest honors. To me, that’s more important than winning a championship.”
Tom is still racing pieces of his original Dunstall Norton. Pieces, because during a race in Pueblo, Colo., a 7-pound chunk of flywheel let go, destroying the lower end of the engine and pounding a hole in the gearbox before ricocheting up to separate the manifold from the head. “It’s just a good thing I was still running the Commando frame and not a Featherbed,” Tom chuckles, “or the outcome could have been much different.” The Commando frame has a large tube running down its spine that deflected the engine shrapnel; a Featherbed does not.
The Commando frame was badly damaged and had to be replaced, and nothing was left of the engine from the barrels down. Salvageable parts included the Dunstall dual-disc front end, the huge Kosman rear disc brake (designed for dirt track racing; Tom says he rarely uses it), wheels with Borrani alloy rims, and the cylinder head. That’s all that’s left of the original Norton, and for a time, even the original cylinder head looked to be in jeopardy after a valve adjuster screw came loose and dropped into the pushrod tunnel at Miller last year — Tom thought it might not be repairable. Fortunately it was. “(Norton specialist) Jim Comstock told me I’d be better off looking for a replacement head, but I told him that’s the heart of my original bike.”
Tom has done a great deal of work to make the Formula 750 Commando race-worthy, including custom rear Works Shocks and Race Tech synthetic fork oil. External springs allow more fork oil in the tubes, and custom billet aluminum triple clamps increase the offset slightly for high-speed stability, as does a beefier Norton Commando Mk3 swingarm, cast aluminum top Isolastic mount and vernier Isolastic adjusters. The frame is cross-braced in two places on the front downtubes and again mid-frame under the oil tank. The engine cradle is boxed in and gusseted.
The engine Tom’s running now has a billet crank and left crankcase from Norton engine specialist Steve Maney, Carillo rods, J&E pistons, a modified Johnson PW3 cam, 34mm Amal Mk2 carbs, ARD magneto, porting and valve work, and a close-ratio 5-speed TT Industries gearbox. With the engine in the frame, the package weighs only 327 pounds. The last time he put it on a dyno two years ago, it produced 63 horsepower at the rear wheel.
After 27 rounds of radiation treatment, Tom’s last biopsy was negative. “Adenoid cystic carcinoma is an oddball kind of cancer, slow-growing but not considered curable. I’d like to stay in remission for as long as I can,” he muses. Over three years Tom flew to Boston three times, where arrangements had been made for major surgery by one of the few surgeons in the world experienced in the procedure. Each time, he was told the tumor was shrinking due to the radiation — so far, he’s avoided surgery.
During his care, Tom stayed at the Hope Lodge in Boston, where cancer patients and their caregiver (in Tom’s case his very supportive wife, Marti) receive free lodging. “This is an incredible place for cancer patients. I wondered if we could help build something similar out West.” His wondering led to a seat on the board of directors of the American Cancer Society, and Tom’s currently fundraising for the Utah Hope Lodge.
Tom’s also been busy at the Canyons Resort in Park City this past winter, teaching Black Diamond mogul runs to kids who were dragging their feet by the end of the day. When he finished on the mountain in mid-April, he had just a little more than two weeks to get his Norton together again following the damage at Miller to make back-to-back races at Willow Springs and Sonoma, where he took a fourth and two third place finishes in Formula 750 and BEARS.
“I’m trying not to make life easy for this cancer,” Tom says. “It is not what defines me, but it is always lurking in the background. Thankfully, I’ve got a lot of support from my family and friends, and that includes the motorcycle and racing community.” MC
The Eighth Annual Bonneville Vintage GP runs Aug. 30-Sept. 1, 2013.