(25 March 1899 – 6 January 1978)
Herbert (Burt) James Munro was a New Zealand motorcycle racer, famous for setting an under-1000 cc world motorcycle land speed record in 1967 which still stands - when aged 67 and riding a 46-year old machine
Working from his home in Invercargill, he continually modified the Indian motorcycle he'd bought in 1920 to improve its speed - setting a New Zealand record in 1938, and then travelling to compete at the Bonneville Salt Flats for a world record. His efforts, and success, are the basis of the motion picture The World's Fastest Indian (2005), starring Anthony Hopkins, and an earlier 1971 short documentary film "Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed" - both directed by Roger Donaldson.
He had four children, John, June, Margaret and Gwen with his wife Florence Beryl Martyn, whom he married in 1927.
New Zealander Burt Munro was a motorcycle land-speed record-holder of the 1960s. One of his dreams was to run his homebuilt 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle, dubbed the Munro Special, on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. He saved for years in spite of limited means to make the trip to America. He finally came over on a shoestring budget in 1962. Munro was 63 at the time with a bad heart, yet he still managed to overcome numerous obstacles to set world records, even as a muffler was burning the flesh on his leg. In 1967, Munro coaxed his beloved streamlined Indian to 183.58 mph. That set a record in the category of "streamlined motorcycles under 1,000cc." To qualify, he made a one-way run of 190.07 mph, the fastest ever officially recorded speed on an Indian.
"The World's Fastest Indian"
The Early Years
In his mid-20s, Munro began competing in various forms of motorcycle racing in Australia. He rode in hillclimbs, trials, road racing, drag racing, flat track and early scrambles events. In other words, if there was a competition on two wheels, Munro probably tried it. He also participated in economy runs and once recorded 116 miles per gallon in one of the runs.
In the mid-1940s, Munro and his wife divorced. He wanted to build a house with low ceilings to combat the New Zealand summer heat, but it was against local building codes. Instead, he got around the codes by building a low garage. It served as both his workshop and living quarters.
Dedication to motorcycles
Munro's dedication to his motorcycles was enormous. For years, he worked 16 hours per day in the shed. In later life he backed off a bit and was working just 70-hour weeks. While many of his neighbors viewed him as somewhat eccentric, he did not live the life of a hermit. Munro was a member of a motorcycle club and attended many club events and had a lot of friends whom he helped and who in turn helped him in his racing endeavors.
Land speed record attempts
By the late 1950s, Munro's bikes were getting so fast that he was running out of room to run them on New Zealand's speed courses. He considered trying to run on some of Australia’s dry lakes, but in 1957 after visiting the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, his goal became to compete on the flat and vast expanse of Bonneville's salt bed.
The 1962 trip to Bonneville
Munro arrived at Bonneville ready to make his runs only to be told he was not pre-entered so he wouldn’t be allowed to compete. At home in New Zealand, riders simply showed up, signed up and raced. Munro's American friends, among them Rollie Free and Marty Dickerson, both of them long-time, well-respected members of the Land Speed Record fraternity, talked officials into letting Munro make his runs. Tech officials looked the other way, ignoring many of Munro's unorthodox means of putting his ancient Indian together.
In his inaugural run at the Salt Flats, Munro set a world record of 288 km/h (178.97 mph) with his engine configured with 850cc of displacement. Munro continued to compete at Bonneville through 1967, when he 68 years old. He survived a crash at top speed in 1967.
In a New Zealand motorcycle magazine, Burt was quoted as saying, "At the Salt in 1967 we were going like a bomb. Then she got the wobbles just over half way through the run. To slow her down I sat up. The wind tore my goggles off and the blast forced my eyeballs back into my head - couldn't see a thing. We were so far off the black line that we missed a steel marker stake by inches. I put her down - a few scratches all round but nothing much else."
During his life, Munro's accomplishments were little known outside a select group of motorcycle enthusiasts. With the release of "The World's Fastest Indian" in 2005, Munro suddenly became a cult hero in New Zealand. There, the movie became the biggest domestically produced film ever produced.
Munro had a son and three daughters. His son, John, said that Munro would have shrugged his shoulders and smiled at the popularity he obtained after his passing.
"I'm sure he would have never believed the popularity the movie gave him," said John Munro. "I think he would have been quietly pleased at being able to share his life with millions of people."