T-Man Cometh

Tully takes Cody for a spin in “The Beater” last week.

TULLY SANEM, 36, sits at the computer in his bedroom with a fluorescent light on and the blinds shut. His legs are crossed and I see a dried glue stain on his gray pants. He sips his coffee out of a red mug with "T-Man" written on it in black marker. Sounds of Nickelodeon cartoons filter in from the nearby living room, one with blankets strewn across the ground and a mattress-less futon frame sitting near the TV.

Despite being the world's foremost homemade Tumbler go-kart builder, Tully says the schematics for his model aren't selling as well as he'd hoped. His go-kart, also known as the "T-Kart," is fashioned after the Batmobile seen in the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale film franchise. The vehicle itself resembles a black army tank more than it does an actual car. So far, he's sold 34 plans through eBay auctions. Five of the buyers haven't paid. For a time, he ran it under a special listing of $20, but in two weeks he sold only three. "I want to be selling these things for people who want to build the damn things," he says to me. "Why doesn't anyone else have this passion?"

He checks his video views and channel subscribers on YouTube every day and writes them  down on a Kool-Aid stained piece of paper. Today, the views for his sixth and most well-known video sit at 241,464, a couple hundred more than when he checked it the day before. He opens a page with a line graph showing how many views his video has had on particular days. On Aug. 9 and 10, 2009, the line juts up like a steep mountain face before peaking, followed by a gradual downward slope into a stagnant valley of irrelevance.

In the fall of 2008, the world's first homemade Tumbler was no more than an idea in Tully's head.

Now, type "Tumbler go kart" in a Google search and his videos and other related links are the first hundred or so of 81,000 results. But it's not like Tully is a hardcore fanboy of the billionaire-turned-vigilante superhero — he doesn't own any Batman films, nor has he seen the record-shattering, box-office juggernaut "The Dark Knight." Rather, he wanted to use the Tumbler as a model for a go-kart; but because no one, at least to his knowledge, had built one yet, he also figured it would be a good business opportunity to make his own and sell the schematics.

Tully made money by mowing lawns most days in the spring and summer of 2008, but winter hit and he looked for another source of income. He didn't find any jobs that suited him, so he stayed at home and kept an eye on his two kids, Allie and Cody (ages 5 and 2), while his fiancé, Crystal Zier, 31, spent her days working as a housekeeper. It was during this time at home, on the computer, that his infatuation with the Tumbler grew.

His only prior experience with welding and working with metal was his brief stint building hog confinement fences in Iowa, a job he held for four months right after he got out of jail. He also owned almost no equipment — just a Ryobi wood saw, a drill press and a 110-volt, 90-amp Flex Core welding machine. But something was calling him, and experience or no experience, gear or no gear, by November he began building — or at least planning to build.

Tully sketched the layout for the T-Kart using a CAD program he pirated back in Iowa called Solid Works; the process took him three months. Then, on Jan. 31, he activated a thread on Chickslovethecar.com, a website dedicated to all things Batmobile. The thread, "T-man's Tumbler go kart," would serve as his build log and outline the journey from conception to completion, every step of the way. "Ok...Ive decided to do this," reads his first post.

For the next five-and-a-half months, T-man updated his log often, posting pictures, asking for feedback and sometimes sharing bits about his life. One post in May shows a close-up shot of his bleeding hand over a sink: "the drill flew down and tore through the top of my hand, right above my thum, slid down the bone, went through some muscle and pocked out the bottom....to make a long story short, I went to the hospital got fixed up, came home and finished what I started (with a gimp hand)."

In April, Tully began supplementing the build log on CLTC with frequent video progress reports on YouTube, some of which were recorded by Crystal with Allie and Cody either visible in the foreground or heard in the background. In the first two videos, the T-Kart is without its distinct panels and instead appeared as its naked frame with two pieces of plywood roped down for a seat.

But with each successive video, Tully added more to the body, and slowly, it started to resemble the famous squad-car crusher. The steering was a little shoddy, he said in the videos, but that was something he'd change later. By mid-June, working on the kart became a way for him to clear his head, an escape from the mounting pressures of a July 13 eviction date. By June 23, 3:10 p.m., he was done, save for the paint job.

On June 25, the day he got the panels painted, a story about Tully's endeavors ran as the main front-page article of the Missoulian. Tully hoped the exposure might serve as a launching pad for a real business. The plan was simple: sell the schematics for 40 to 60 bucks and, before he knew it, there would be parking lots filled with T-Karts. He would get sponsorship deals from big names like Miller Beers, the U.S. Army and professional sports teams. Soon it would go international: Kids in suburban Italy would be driving mini-Tumblers in the streets.

In July, Tully got to work on his own website, tmanskarts.com. On the main page, he has links to his build log and YouTube channel, as well as a scrolling picture display showing the kart at various stages in its evolution. Running across the page are various sub-menus like comments and chat, a QnA forum and a products page — the last of which plays AC/DC's "Back in Black" when selected. Above the menu bar is a Google language translator option.

Then something strange happened: Everything worked. On Aug. 9, Tully's 36th birthday, his video "T-Man's Tumbler go kart (driving it)" was featured on MTV Splash Page, an offshoot website of the popular music channel dedicated to covering the latest in movies and comic-books.  The video was then picked up by the likes of Geeky Gadgets, Cinematical and countless auto blogs and tech sites. "After that man, it just BLEW UP," he says.

 

THE WORK TULLY did on the T-Kart in the summer of 2009 kept him from mowing the lawn much of the time, so he relied on Crystal's income to help fund the project, which he estimates cost about $2,100 (she paid $1,000.) He started on his next creation — "the A-Kart," named for his daughter Allie — in August and is waiting for the T-Kart sales to pick up so he can pay for various parts; until then, Crystal will have to continue shelling out the money. Though she was supportive at first because he had nothing else to do with his time, Tully says they're now at a point of desperation and Crystal now sees the T-Kart as a waste of money, something they don't have a lot of these days. "Money's always important for those who don't have it," he says.

To keep the family's heads above water, Crystal is acting as the surrogate mother for a couple in New Jersey. If she successfully gives birth, Tully says they'll get $2,000 for each of the nine months, $2,300 if she gives birth to twins. So far, she's attempted to become pregnant three times; the first two tries didn't result in a pregnancy, but the third did. It was going according to plan, Tully says, until one day he saw Crystal in the bathroom, standing over the toilet with blood in it. "I looked up and said ‘Oh my God, is that what I think it is?" She nodded.

Though Tully says the miscarriage was due to the stress of the move, they never let the host couple know about the eviction. A week ago, Tully and Crystal went back to New Jersey to have the procedure performed again, and according to her Human Chorionic Gonadotropin levels (HCG for short), she's pregnant. In order to get her body to, as he puts it, "think it's pregnant,"

Tully has been injecting an olive-oil compound into her lower back every night. While the money in the end may be enough to help them out of their bind, the process is beginning to take its toll on Crystal. "Her fucking chemicals are going up all the time," he says. Tully knows little about the agency they're dealing with, except for the name of the lawyer who specializes in surrogacy cases: Melissa Brisbane. But even without being able to put a face on the agency, Tully insists on advocating for the surrogacy cause. "We're like the advertising agency for the agency in Montana," he says. Crystal, however, sees things differently. "She doesn't let anyone know what's going on in her life...[she] should be shouting this shit from the mountain tops."

HIS PLACE OF ZEN, his Bat Cave, sits between two duplexes on a block without a sidewalk. Here, in a garage across the street from a little league baseball field, Tully finds his purpose.

Stacks of unpacked boxes from the July move sit in the back next to old radio equipment he hasn't used since 1999 when he lived in Le Mars, Iowa. "Pirate Radio," as he called it, was a way for Tully to get his voice on the airwaves a couple hours every Saturday. He has shelves organized into different categories (miscellaneous lubricants, funnels and other storage crap) located right below his small collection of police nightsticks and ninja swords still in their sheaths. Cans of Arabica Coffee are seemingly everywhere, some used for holding tools, others as ashtrays.

The space he has now is bigger than where he made the T-Kart, and Tully is taking full advantage of it. The A-Kart rests near the open garage door and, like his previous creation, is fabricated from the ground up with little to no outside help — all he needs is his trusty Flex Core welder, his drill press and wood saw, upon which rests a plastic Winnie the Pooh cup. He decided to paint the A-Kart metallic-purple to appeal to a less edgy crowd than the mini-Tumbler's fan base, but remarks that it looks like the Joker's colors too. Unlike the T-Kart, the A-Kart has a seat installed — a fishing seat, to be exact.

On the wall facing his duplex hangs a whiteboard with a crude timeline of his life sketched in blue marker. It begins in 1999. During his childhood, Tully says he moved between living with his dad in Sioux City and his mom in Le Mars. At age 11, while staying with his mom, she promised the fifth grader that if he got all B's that school year, she would buy him a three-wheeler. School was hard for Tully, getting the occasional C, but mostly D's and F's.

THAT YEAR, he busted his ass in his bedroom, not talking to any of his friends. At the end of the year, he fulfilled his end of the bargain, but his mom did not. "I made a choice at 11 years old that I was never going to try that goddamn hard again," he said. "It was a con to get you to do better. I think I was more pissed at myself for believing it." He lived with his grandparents from the age of 12 and stayed with them until the end of high school; his father died of cirrosis of the liver when Tully was 15.

He didn't have Montana in mind as a place to live. Before leaving Iowa, he was in a somewhat serious relationship with a woman whom he decided one day he didn't like. Though she moved out, she continued to drive by the house every night. If there were other people at the house, she would write down their license plate numbers and obtain their addresses — that way, when Tully wasn't home, she would know where to find him. While driving by one night, he wanted to make sure she'd stay away for good, so he pulled out his Marlin .22 and fired seven shots into a pallet stack across the alley. Sure enough, she stayed away, but because one of her friends told the police about the incident, Tully was a wanted man. That's when he decided he would move out to Montana to stay with a friend.

He lived in Missoula before moving in with "some girl," but when she joined the Forestry Service, he was again without a roof over his head. For the next two and a half years, Tully was homeless. He lived out of his Buick Century and tried to find work. For a steady meal, he visited Missoula 3:16, a local soup kitchen where he met Crystal's mother and aunt, who later introduced Crystal to him. The two started dating while they were still homeless but found a place within a few weeks. On April 21, 2004, Crystal gave birth to Allie.

When Tully's great grandfather died that year, he went back to Iowa for the funeral. He was planning to be there a few days and tried to keep a low profile, but was arrested because of his outstanding charges from five years before. He was sentenced to a year in prison. "It wasn't as badass as you think it was," Tully says. "I met a lot of people who didn't deserve to be there." After serving eight months of the sentence he was on parole for four months, but had to stay in Iowa. He built hog-confinement fences, and it was then that he got the chance to work with a welder. One night he remembers staying late and building a four-foot metal statue all from scratch — his first creation with the welder. By Christmas of 2005, Tully made it back to Montana to join Crystal and Allie for the holidays.

AFTER BORROWING a trailer hitch from Tully's neighbor, we prepare the Tumbler go-kart for its cross-town voyage to the weighing station. We unprop the trailer from the cinder block sitting in front of the duplex and move it to the driveway where the T-Kart sits. On nicer days, Tully leaves it out for the passers-by on Stephens Avenue to admire it. He reaches in and turns the steering wheel, guiding the tires as we push it onto the flatbed. He tells me to pull back the pins, making sure the ash-black coat of paint doesn't get scratched by the tension rods intended to hold the back gate in place. With the kart  now fastened in the trailer, we embark.

He smokes a USA Gold cigarette as the brisk autumn breeze fills the cabin. With the weight of the T-Kart behind us, Tully takes his time when turning corners and drives several miles per hour under the speed limit. Not more than a block away from the duplex, the conversation shifts to his frustrations concerning the slow sales of the kart schematics and with potential business opportunities that aren't panning out. Earlier in the week, he received an e-mail from the owner of a Colorado-based metal shop who expressed interest in obtaining the plans so they could build multiple versions of the T-Kart. He also received two inquiries from people in China, one asking for just the plans and the other for the specifications — something he says isn't typical.

The plans in themselves come incomplete, he says, and require the assistance of the build log on CLTC. You can't have one without the other.

He still hasn't sold any additional plans since earlier in the month and says he's beginning to lose hope. There might've been an opportunity, or so he thought, to make some sales in Poland because of a recent article written about him in a Polish media outlet, but so far he hasn't had any luck there either. "If I walked into a bank and asked for a loan," he says, "they would laugh at me and tell me to leave."

The first time he got the T-Kart weighed was earlier in the month and the results were less-than-desirable. When he took it to a local steel company, the kart weighed 600 pounds, which Tully finds hard to fathom for a couple reasons: one, he can't believe he put that much material on it, and two, he can pick up the front end (last time he checked, he couldn't dead-lift 300 pounds.)

But here, at Muralt's Travel Plaza some 12 miles west of his duplex, he hopes to set the record straight. We park in a space facing away from the gas station and Tully goes inside. He emerges five minutes later with two sticks of beef jerky and tells me it's not gonna happen: the scale is owned by the state, and it costs nine bucks to weigh anything. We pull around the fuel pumps, back behind the main station and past a fenced-off go-kart track. We turn around and head back toward the truck stop, a place he once parked his car when he was homeless. During those summers, Tully remembers parking in the shade of the semi-trucks. He once woke up so dehydrated his eyes wouldn't focus.

JUST AS WE'RE leaving, I turn to him and say, "You know, let's just get it weighed."

"You sure about that?"

"Yeah, it's no big deal. We came all this way out here so we might as well."

We pull the T-Kart out of the trailer and before Tully drives onto the scale, he takes it for a joy ride. He blows past parked and slow-moving semis and RVs as fast as his 6.5 horses will take him. The two-and-a-half years of homelessness, the eight months in prison, the eviction and his wife's failed surrogate pregnancies are drowned out by the sound of the high-pitched roar of the motor in his ears, and the wind blowing in his face. It doesn't matter that the plans aren't selling — not now. The same guy who said at 11 years old he would never try that goddamn hard again is driving, commanding, what he made with his own two hands — the T-Kart, his creation, that he built from the ground up. In this moment, nobody can take that away from him. He pulls around to the scale with a new fan awaiting him — a man who identifies himself as a "Montana Mud Nut." He's dressed in a white sweater with windbreaker pants and tennis shoes, his white hair curling out from under his blue cap. "What do you call this thing?" he asks. 

A voice comes over the nearby speaker. "Hey Tully, it doesn't weigh enough to activate the scale at all." Mud Nut has an idea though: weigh the Ranger and trailer with the T-Kart, then without, take the difference between the two and call that the weight. But since we're doing two weighings, the cost will be $10 (that extra dollar doesn't bother me, I tell him). After the kart-less go around, the three of us push the mini-Tumbler back into the trailer.

We walk into the main station and up to the cashier counter. Josh, whom Tully remembers working at the station from his days of living in his car, hands him the slip of paper with the results on it. The four of us peer down at the figures — 3,480 and 2,820. We each try doing the mental math in our heads, but Josh beats us to the punch. It weighs 660 pounds. The Tumbler is heavier than Tully thought.

 

THE PACKAGE containing the olive-oil compound and the needles lies open on the kitchen table and a red biohazard container holding the used needles sits on the kitchen counter; whether they'll still need them is uncertain. A day after the second weighing, Crystal had another miscarriage. "There's a level of being pregnant and there's a level of her not being pregnant. She was on the threshold of that," he says. "We were sure banking on it."

She's at the point, Tully says, where she doesn't know if she wants to go through with it. She's sick of being sick all the time, not to mention the doctor told them to hold off for a year before she tries to get pregnant again. Later today, the family is planning to go to Wal-Mart to get some pills to help flush out Crystal's system. In the living room, Cody and Allie watch cartoons. Gone is the futon frame. Here instead are two car seats for them to sit on. Tully makes them hot chocolate and gives Allie a cup and Cody a cup with a lid. Allie wants one with a lid, too, but Tully says they are for kids.

Tully sits at his computer with Cody on his lap, drinking hot chocolate. He continues to keep track of video six's views every day, trading in the Kool-Aid stained piece of paper for a financial ledger. Since checking it at 2 a.m., it has 228 more views, bringing the total to 255,824, and though the video has several pop ups referring potential customers to his website, sales are stagnant both there and on the eBay listings. At this point, he believes the matter is out of his hands and has been from the beginning. The day his story ran on the front page of the Missoulian, Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died, something he believes dampened his success. "If the Michael and Farrah thing hadn't happened, this thing would've hit public mainstream," he says. "I could become pretty big if things just operated in my favor."

Maybe he could get a job selling cell phones, but who knows how long that would last. Crystal's also cranking up the pressure, telling him that he needs to find a car, which leaves him no time to promote his designs as well as he could. Tully says they're close to breaking up, that getting him out of the picture for her would be more economically practical than funding his inventions. Still, she helps pay for the A-Kart's incoming parts.

He stands by the open garage door, waiting for the word from Crystal to go to Wal-Mart. The garage still has its distinct smell, a mixture of cigarette smoke and coffee grounds. Folders containing the T-Kart plans sit in a box on the table. Cody squeezes his way past the discarded futon frame and walks to Tully. "You want a drink of coffee?" Tully asks. He bends down low enough for Cody to grab the red mug and drink a small sip.

Once the lease is up at the end of the summer, Crystal says they're moving out of the duplex, somewhere without a garage. His whole set up — the karts, the press saw, the Arabica coffee cans filled with tools, everything — would have to go. When that happens, "it would definitely be one of those examples of a failed dream, a broken man," he says.

Crystal makes her way to the mailbox, her shortly cropped blonde hair brushed behind her ears. She keeps her eyes down as she sorts through the mail (coupons, junk) and hands Tully a letter; these are the daily reminders of life away from building — reminders of reality.  She doesn't say a word, nor does she lift her gaze from behind her glasses as she walks back inside. Tully scans the letter, still holding the ripped envelope in one hand with a burning cigarette between his index and middle fingers.

He looks up.

"I wonder when the sprocket and clutch is gonna get here I ordered off of eBay," he says.

steven.miller@umontana.edu