How the Sandy Kosman SF Design Shop Changed Motorcycle Racing Forever

When Sandy Kosman lay with his hands clasped behind his head and stared at the ceiling, his thought process was so intense that his daughter Nadia loved to sit and watch the wheels spin.

Before long, the wheels in his head would be sketches on paper, sketches that would later become motorcycle wheels spinning faster than they had ever spun before.

Kosman was a self-taught designer of high-performance chassis and wheels for road racing and custom drag bikes, working out of a shop called Kosman Specialties on Fell Street, San Francisco. He had been diagnosed in his 60s as being on the autism spectrum, but kept designing and drawing Lewy body dementia, which made the job too difficult. He died May 21 in Portland where he lived with his wife, Karen Danielson, and daughter Nadia DeSimone. He was 80 years old.

“Because of autism, my dad spoke a different language,” DeSimone said. “If you learned that language, you understood the mind of a genius, and it wasn’t just about motorcycles. He could take any situation and turn it around in his mind to solve the problem.

Motorcycle racing requires instant acceleration, with speeds reaching 250 miles per hour in seconds. Kosman Specialties on Fell Street, did not build engines. He built frames, wheels and suspensions with the goal of making them ever lighter, but strong enough to hold together at top speed.

“Sandy is not from the world of motorsport. He wasn’t a racer and I’ve never seen him on a motorcycle,” said John Stein, author of “Motorcycle Drag Racing: A History.”

“But the drama of motorcycle racing, its sights, sounds and smells, appealed to him on a visceral level. He was a visionary in that he could see a need and formulate a solution, improving the performance and safety of a racing motorcycle.

According to Stein’s research, Kosman Specialties was the first to design aftermarket racing wheels for Harley-Davidson, disc brakes for dragsters and 15-inch wheels. Kosman chassis have been used by National Hot Rod Association Pro Stock Motorcycle Championship winners in 2007 and 2009, and championship motorcycle racing teams for Honda and BMW.

“If you were serious about racing, your bike was equipped with Kosman products. The components he built were the best you could find,” Kent said. “This little guy working in his garage was building a brand before anyone knew the name Kosman would become a buzzword.”

Kosman has raced, but not aboard anything on wheels. He was a long-distance runner and ran the San Francisco Marathon and other 26 miles while pushing a cart he designed to carry his son Seth, who suffered from muscular dystrophy and mental disability.

“His devotion to Seth was total. It was definitely something to see,” said her nephew Joshua Kosman, classical music critic for The Chronicle. “Everything my uncle had in mind he pursued with total dedication – not just motorcycles, but golf and math puzzles and his family.”

Sanford Herschel Kosman was born on June 20, 1941 in Oakland to the middle of three brothers. His father, Victor, was an engineer who designed dams for the government. It was migratory work, so the family moved from Redding, site of the Shasta Dam, directly to Massena, NY, where the Moses-Saunders Power Dam was being built on the St. Lawrence River at the Canadian border. Kosman graduated from Massena High School a year earlier, in 1958, and enrolled at the University of Michigan to study math and psychology.

His plan was to pay for his studies by playing poker and billiards, which did not leave him enough time to attend classes. He left without a degree, and after trying the same plan with the same results at the University of Denver, he ended up in the state of San Francisco.

He got a more stable job, driving a bus for Muni on the 1-California line. Kosman convinced a statistics professor to allow him to take all the term exams in one sitting. He got an A in the statistics class, but unfortunately there weren’t enough like-minded professors, and Kosman ended up dropping out for good.

“He was a very smart guy who never went to class,” said his old friend Joyce Fishman, who met Kosman through her husband, Irving Fishman. “They weren’t quite hippies, but almost.” Kosman wasn’t quite a biker either, but he had some biker friends, and so he started working on motorcycles in the basement of the Fishman cottage in the Richmond district.

In 1964 Kosman married Susan Kosman, a cousin. They eventually moved to Daly City where Kosman opened his first store, in 1965. The marriage ended in divorce and Kosman raised Seth alone in Mill Valley and later in San Rafael. In the early 1980s, Kosman met Karen Danielson on a double date. Each came with someone else, but they left together. They married in 1987 and became a marathon trio with Seth in his personalized cart, until his death at age 17 in 1986. Kosman never ran another marathon.

Two years later, a daughter, Nadia was born. The family moved from San Rafael to Healdsburg where they lived on a hill overlooking a golf course. Kosman drove to work in town driving an El Camino with flames painted on the hood. The hours were long and extended well into the evening, when regular customers Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady of the rock band Hot Tuna passed by with their guitars.

Jim Dour, who worked there as a mechanical engineer and designer, recalled Kosman as “very, very bright and quick at math. He was creative but he didn’t do much real work.

The work he did was mostly at the end of a broom. “You would drop by to talk to him and he was always sweeping the store or had just finished sweeping,” Fishman said. “He liked to run a neat shop.”

Kosman once had as many as 15 employees, but by the 1990s had downsized to a small store on Oak Street and then to a store in Windsor, north of Santa Rosa. Kosman suffered a stroke in 2009 and the following year sold to Bob Steffano, a Humboldt County entrepreneur who purchased the business to preserve the Kosman name.

“I really believed in what they did there,” Steffano said. “The design and manufacturing quality at Kosman served the entire motorcycle industry. He was so innovative that other companies picked up his ideas and followed them.”

In the introduction to Stein’s 2017 book on the history of motorcycle drag racing, Kosman explained motorsport’s hold on him.

“It is the story of a subculture that represents the best of the American experience,” he wrote, “the intersection of unassuming individuality, unparalleled empirical and intuitive engineering and friendships that started in the race that transcended that shared experience and lasted a lifetime.”

As Kosman’s dementia worsened and he began to slip away, he began to address his granddaughter, Yael, as if she were his son, Seth. She had been born on Seth’s birthday, April 13, and had visited her grandfather on the day of his death, which was also the anniversary of his son’s death 36 years earlier.

“I’d like to believe he knew,” DeSimone said. “He died wrapped in a quilt my mom made for Seth, and that’s what he’s buried in too.”

In addition to his wife, daughter and granddaughter, Kosman is survived by his younger brother Michael, a cello maker in Woodstock, Maryland.

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: swhiting@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @SamWhitingSF

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