Side Job: Insane Speed
Monterey’s Tim Cuhna aims at world records when he’s not teaching.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Tsim Cuhna drives really really fast. But as incredible as the Monterey resident’s 200 mph-plus speeds can be, how he reaches them is even more impressive.
For one, it’s not his job; he’s a full-time special education therapist for Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. It’s only during his free time that he can retreat to his garage next to Acme Coffee in Seaside to fine tune several engines he uses to race the Bonneville Speedway, the famous salt flat near Wendover, Utah. Not that the school and speed worlds don’t overlap: Cuhna will occasionally bring his Nebulous Theorum VIII to school and dress kids up in his racing suit and helmet. And that real-world job helps fund his racing hobby, which he calls “my version of knitting and crocheting.”
The fact that he’s forking over his own money to race at lethal speeds also is noteworthy. The Theorum is a streamliner class car – part motor vehicle, part missile – which he helped his partner, 75-year-old Jack Costella of Campbell, Calif., build from the ground up. Many racers making the trek to Utah to zoom around enjoy bigger budgets – some motors alone cost $50,000 – Cuhna and Costella piece theirs together with spit and chewing gum.
“We go out there with a rig built with scrap metal and used material,” Cuhna says, “and an engine we recovered off a wrecked motorcycle for only $1,200. We buy stickers and slap them on to make it look like a racecar.”
Fellow racer Skip Higginbotham has been chasing records since 1959, so he understands how unique Cuhna’s achievement is. “For someone with limited funding to do what he’s doing out here is nearly impossible,” Higginbotham says, “I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys. Costella has a car with less horsepower than mine and his still goes faster.”
Cuhna credits Costella’s “designs and genius” for the car’s ability. Costella owns 80 land speed records in a range of engine classes for cars and motorcycles. He’s been racing since the 1960s.
“Jack wants to go under the wind.” Cuhna says. “This is all of Jack’s brainstorm. I’m just here learning.”
Cuhna met Costella by chance. He was on the way back from a roadster show in L.A. when he stopped by the El Mirage, Calif. land speed racing venue out of curiosity. He saw Costella needed some help with a valve. Cuhna soon joined Costello’s crew and Cuhna spent a good 15 years there. It wasn’t until last year that Cuhna crammed himself into one of Costella’s land-missiles – lying almost completely reclined, and strapped in, he has only enough room to move his hands to engage the shifter, the steering mechanism and safety system controls. The car already has broken three land speed records.
The smaller and lighter design of the vehicle makes the difference. “We make up for the less expensive engines with aerodynamic designs,” Cuhna says.
It also is built to carry various engines, allowing the team to switch engine classes easily while saving money, and concentrating on honing the design of one car rather than several.
Cuhna’s top speed at Bonneville’s Speed Week in August was 221 mph. That’s a mile in about 16 seconds. At 65 mph, it would take almost a minute.
With that speed comes grave danger. In September 2008, Cuhna’s friend Cliff Gullett died on his way to breaking a land speed record as part of a Costella race team. The run on his Streamliner motorcycle set the record at 234 mph, but when the tire on his rear wheel failed, it flipped the bike forward, killing Gullett on the dry lakebed.
Costella did not race any of his vehicles for one year. “Shoulda stopped after Cliff died,” he says, “but I guess I don’t have enough sense to quit.” Today, as was the case before Gullett’s accident, safety systems and equipment – from head and neck protections to integrated fire extinguishers – are the most costly items in Costella’s cars.
Cuhna keeps racing out of sheer confidence in Costella’s designs and because he loves his hobby. Ironically, though, racing is most exciting for Cuhna after the fact, when he gets to see photos and videos of his runs. “When you’re in the car it’s just business,” he says. “You’re just trying to do everything right.”
For Cuhna, racing at breakneck speeds on a shoestring budget through the middle of the desert brings a surprising Zen-like serenity as the mile-markers fly past his side windows. “It seems like I have the time to do everything I have to do,” he says, “and I can think about anything.”