PEORIA (AP) – With the exactitude of a brain surgeon, Tim Pallai prepares to sink a whirring drill bit into a new bowling ball.
For Pallai, this is serious business, a mix of three-dimensional mathematics, physics laws and bowling theory. But he’s creating no mere house ball that some little kid will fling between his legs and bounce into a gutter. Pallai crafts bowling balls as personal as the fingers that will go into it.
By wild estimate, counting each drilled digit, he has done this perhaps a quarter of a million times.
“That’s a lot of holes,” he says with a grin.
He is celebrating a quarter-century at an uncommon occupation: professional bowling-ball driller. Pallai, 50, relishes the work, which he views with a mix of reverence and whimsy. One moment, he says flatly, “It seems almost like I was destined to do this.” Moments later, he’ll laugh about doing “something as silly as drilling holes in bowling balls for 25 years.”
Bowling dates back more than 2,000 years. Though free-standing alleys have been vanishing nationally, lanes still thrive in multiuse recreation centers. According to the U.S. Bowling Congress, 71 million people bowled at least once in 2010, making it the country’s top participation sport.
It certainly was in Marseilles, home to about 5,000 residents about 55 miles northeast of Peoria. There, Pallai grew up, playing three games for a buck at a six-lane mom-and-pop operation. He was good enough to get certified there as an instructor right after high school, then got lured away by an acquaintance opening a bowling alley in Florida. There, he learned to drill bowling balls - and found himself pretty much immersed in the sport in one way or another.
“I used to say I would eat, drink, sleep and have sex while bowling,” Pallai says. “That was a lie, because I didn’t have time for sex.”
Nationwide, there are as many as 4,000 bowling pro shops, nearly all of which have a ball-driller. Some are part-timers who work day jobs. But some, like Pallai, have made a career of it.
“Bowling-ball drillers, once they decide that’s what they want to do, they stick with it,” says Bill Supper, managing director of the International Bowling Pro Shop and Instructors Association. “It’s a great occupation for a small-business operator.”
Pallai became a zealot for his livelihood, honing his expertise at the hands of innovative masters. As he tells it, they were experimenting by eschewing the traditional round holes in favor of horizontal ovals. Look at your fingertips straight-on, as if about to receive a two-finger eye-poke of Three Stooges. See? The tips look like sideways ovals, something that had pretty much gone unaddressed on bowling balls.
“Drilling bowling balls the shape of your fingers,” Pallai muses, chortling. “Who would’ve thought it?”
He says the shape nuance allows fingers to feel tighter inside a bowling ball. That’s a key to Pallai’s craft: eliminating as many variables as possible. A serious bowler strives to be like a machine, doing the same thing repeatedly. Tighter holes mean less wiggle room and variance, thus letting gravity do most of the work.
After a few years in Florida, Pallai decided to move back to central Illinois to operate his own pro shop, first in Streator. For the past 19 years, he has been at The Strike Zone, which he owns at Landmark Lanes. He is so serious about the business that he quit bowling 3 years ago – he was good enough to roll multiple 300 games – to allow more attention to his customers.
Balls run $75 to $220, which includes drilling – a process than can last two hours. But this isn’t simply like trying on shoes: Pallai uses calipers and other tools to take in multiple measurements, including length of fingers and width of knuckles. Then, after considering grip and flexibility, he draws a 3-D diagram on the ball and heads to his custom mill-driller machine.
He plops the virgin orb onto a vacuum-suction circle to keep it in place. Then, he slowly pierces the urethane sphere with one of his 40 drill bits, whirling away toward perfection.
“There’s very little margin for error,” he says about the din.
He flips off the machine, looking at a new hole, perhaps No. 250,001. It looks good, but he peers closely, looking for any miniscule imperfection.
“There’s always something to learn,” he says.
“I’m better today than I was yesterday. And tomorrow, I’ll be better than today.”