During Speed Week, in August, 1971, I found myself working as a fledgling reporter for The Salt Flat News, an upstart tabloid billed as “the only newspaper in the world that gives a damn what happens on the Salt Flats.”
Under the merciless Western Utah sun, teams of shirtless mechanics tinkered with high performance racing machines, while wives and girlfriends gazed listlessly at their wristwatches. Children on bicycles and Big Wheels traced aimless figures in the salt crust. Now and again the silence would be shattered by the distant roar of a streamliner hurtling northward toward Floating Island.
Into this picture came Burt Munro, proud owner, driver, chief mechanic and sole member of the Munro Special Racing Team of Invercargill, New Zealand. I immediately sensed there was something extraordinary about this cheerful septuagenarian and his fifty-year-old motorbike—no matter that it appeared to be partially held together by duct tape and bungee cord. Over the years Munro had won reluctant concessions from S.C.T.A. safety inspectors to run his bike on the salt; however this time around, because of a new regulation, officials refused to pass on Burt’s aquadynamic “goldfish” faring. As a result, Burt would be racing this day “naked”, with no crash protection other than his open-face Bell helmet, black leather jacket, and a pair of loose-fitting green leather pants on loan from Kawasaki racer Bently Conway.
I make more exceptions for you than anybody,” said chief referee Earl Flanders as he examined Burt’s machine while jotting notes on a clipboard. “When ya gonna wash it?”
“Wash it? Why?” responded Burt.
“When ya gonna wash it?”
“Wash it with water?”
“Oh, I ‘aven’t ‘ad time to polish mine. It’s been nine months and nine days on that engine last year, and three minutes to three on a Saturday six weeks ago I got it to run right. New cylinders, new pistons, new cam rod, new cams—eight of ‘em—eight new pistons, new valves, all new eccentric tappets and guides. I wasn’t idle. I had three hours off on Christmas Day. In the middle of the day, when they eat.”
By now a small crowd of curious onlookers had gathered round. An ugly duckling amidst a flock of sleek and shiny racing machines, the Munro Special did not exactly inspire awe.
“I wouldn’t drive that thing on the street,” said one bystander. “Let alone out here.”
Fact is, Burt Munro had ridden his motorcycle on the streets, on the beach, on flat tracks, on and off pavement, up and down hills. Since the age of 21, he’d been winning races and setting speed records in his native New Zealand, while racking up a lengthy list of injuries. Amazingly, for half a century he’d been racing the same bike!
Between races and crashes and countless engine blowups, Munro had spent years rebuilding and modifying his machine. In order to fund his obsession, he rented out his house and lived in a cinderblock shed. There he added an overhead cam to the Indian’s original flathead V-twin, machined his own cylinders from seasoned gas pipe, cast his own pistons and fabricated connecting rods from a Caterpillar tractor axle. He’d crossed the Pacific on a tramp steamer, bought a beater car in Los Angeles, fabricated a trailer, driven across the Great Basin to western Utah, determined to see just what his beloved Indian Scout could do on the world’s fastest track.
Presently it came time to put Burt’s machine to the test.
Ker-flush, ker-flush, ker-flush. It was a strange sound that issued from the V-twin’s dual exhaust pipes. Stretched prone atop the bike’s elongated frame, Burt called for a push. A hard push!
Ker-flush, ker-flush, ker-flush. The engine could scarcely fire at idle; however, as it gathered speed the flushing sound gave way to a throaty staccato. A quarter mile down the track, its rider already a speck on the horizon, the Munro Special was beginning to find its rhythm. Then, in a flash, it was gone.
“You live more in five minutes flat out on a bike like this than most people do in a lifetime,” declares Sir Anthony Hopkins, who stars as Munro in the film “The World’s Fastest Indian.” But the machine Hopkins rides in the movie is just a replica; the real Munro Special has since become a venerated artifact—and Burt Munro, who died of natural causes in 1978, an international folk hero.
In all, Burt Munro made ten trips to Bonneville. In 1967, at the age of 67, he set a standing land speed record of 185.586 mph—on a machine with an original top speed of 55.