Ted Clough has been in New Zealand for the last couple of weeks, which is why we’ve been fortunate enough to share some Guess That Bike posts from a Kiwi museum. One of the reasons for his trip was to check out the Burt Munro Challenge, and he’s been kind enough to share a recap!
The 2020 Burt Munro Challenge, Invercargill, NZ
By Ted Clough
My wife and I spent 3 weeks in New Zealand last year and had a wonderful time. I figured it would be a long time before I was back, so we covered as much as we could. Last August, Erik, one of my riding buds from Atlanta, who has ridden extensively in places like Morocco, South Africa, Patagonia, Alaska, tossed out that he was interested in touring New Zealand, and might I be interested? Of course, I was interested! With the blessing of the most wonderful wife in the world, we started planning. He had heard there was a big rally in February, and wanted to incorporate it into the trip.
If you are any sort of self-respecting motorcyclist, you know who Burt Munro is. He was the crazy Kiwi who spent a good portion of his life chasing speed records at home in New Zealand, and, most famously, at Bonneville. He was, of course, the subject of “The World’s Fastest Indian”. If I lost you already, there is a brief Wiki here.
Of course the Kiwis are very proud of Burt, and evidently there is a strong bike culture in the South Island, so after the success of the movie in 2005, they decided to put on a rally and held the inaugural Burt Munro Challenge in 2006 in Invercargill, Burt’s hometown at the southern tip of the South Island. It was a huge success and has grown to be the largest motorcycle rally in the Southern Hemisphere. It attracts thousands of bikers and includes 5 days of racing, attracting top-level competitors from all over New Zealand and Australia. To get an idea of the Burt for an American biker, think of a smaller version of Daytona Bike Week combined with Barber Vintage Weekend, with all venues within about 5 miles of each other.
The rally site is a giant campground with food, vendors and bands, basically surrounded by 3 of the racing venues: There is a road course, a dirt-track oval speedway, and, best of all, the beach! They also run a one-way hill climb (similar to Goodwood) and a local street race in an industrial area just on the outskirts of Invercargill. The whole town is basically taken over by bikers. We booked a room 5 months in advance, and got one of the last available rooms.
We had rented bikes in Christchurch and spent a few days working our way South. The southwest part of NZ was having record rains – over 40 inches in 40 hours! – so we actually had some difficulty just getting to Invercargill. A number of the main roads were under water. This was the week a couple hundred tourists got stranded at the famous Milford Sound when the only road to and from was washed out. Luckily by Thursday, the rivers had subsided enough so we could get to Invercargill.
We rolled into town, got set up in our hotel downtown, and immediately headed over to the drag races. These were at a classic drag strip by the racetrack, and were definitely a run-what-you-brung sort of affair. There were some pro drag bikes – think Hayabusas with extended swingarms, but there were also a bunch or ragged-out old Indians, Harleys, Triumphs, even a rusty Vespa 150. Good fun – lots of wheelies from the Ducati Streetfighter, who couldn’t keep the front down in 1st or 2nd.
On Friday we spent some time at 2 big attractions in town: the Motorcycle Mecca Museum, and E Hayes Hardware store. The Mecca is without doubt one of the largest motorcycle museums in the world. It houses an extensive collection of mostly vintage bikes.
There is a strong British tilt, but all sorts of interesting bikes. There was also, of course, a section on John Britten, with a few of his bikes.
I think I saw 5 Brough Superiors all in one place, they had one of the new Brough SS100’s next to them for comparison – nice!
Vincents, Velocettes, Triumphs, BSA’s, Nortons and Indians by the dozens. There were 2 full floors of bikes, and also a car collection in the basement. Like Barber, it was a little overwhelming, in a good way.
Next stop, just down the street, was E. Hayes. E. Hayes is a traditional hardware store but not like one you’ve ever seen before. Interspersed throughout the store are all sorts of vintage motorcycles and moto-memorabilia. Oh, it’s also an Indian dealership. But their big draw is the original Burt Munro Indian. They also have one of the movie prop bikes, which, interestingly, has a Ducati Pantah engine.
There is also a mock-up streamliner that you can try and crawl into for the obligatory photo op. Burt was definitely not an XL! The position in the bike is basically lying on your stomach, knees behind, and feet all the way back – I have no idea how he managed it – the clipons are only about 10” apart.
There is also a recreation of Burt’s actual shop, complete with his tools, and his famous display of hundreds of broken engine parts, Burt’s “Offerings to the God of Speed”
Very cool store – got my T-shirt and off to the races again.
Friday night was the big draw – beach races. The beach is similar to Daytona, though not as hard or smooth, and not as much was left exposed at low tide. The weather was good, but the wind was a solid 25-gusting-to-40-mph direct crosswind coming in off the water. The course was ½ mile up the beach, turn at the cones, and ½ mile back, with the return leg in/out of the water! Holy crap!
Didn’t seem to bother these guys one bit. There was a huge crowd all over the dunes – I would estimate a couple of thousand people strung out down the first ¼ mile. They ran multiple classes. There were more run-what-you-brung guys – some of the same from the drags, on all sorts of inappropriate bikes. Side note: I believe part of the Burt Challenge competition was to compete in multiple events, so we saw many of the same bikes and riders at Drags, Beach Races, Road Races, Hill Climb, etc. Pretty cool…
We watched one poor guy wrestle a KTM 1190 around in the deep sand, dropping it 3 times until it finally died. Several guys on hard-tail Indians bounced down the course on their seat springs. The serious players were on 2-stroke 250/350s, or more recent 4-stroke 450 dirt bikes. It all culminated in a 50 mile Burt Munro Challenge race at the end, which was won by a Kiwi on a Honda CRF450. Some of the dirt bikes were modified with aux fuel tanks to make the 50 miles, but some actually did pit stops – very entertaining! If you are interested, you can check out all the results here.
Saturday there were 2 more sets of races – “Sprint” road races at the track, and later, “Speedway” races at the dirt track. The road races were comparable to a combination WERA/AHRMA race. There were vintage classes running hardtail Indians and Harleys, Sportsman classes with the likes of Norton Manxes, Triumphs, Tritons. There was a SuperMoto class, and a Pro class with the likes of MV Agustas, Ducati Panigales, Suzuki GSX-R’s, and the like. Again, a great mix of racing, under mostly fair skies.
One of Erik’s friends from Australia was in town with his group, so we hooked up with him for a few beers, then headed over to the Speedway races. Their Speedway is comparable to our flat-track, but with purpose-built, skinny-tired speedway bikes designed to go only left. It is also very popular in Europe. They also do sidecar speedway, which only go right. Again, they are purpose-built racers with some very strange wheel geometry – the sidecar wheel is canted at least 30 degrees inward.
The “monkey” spends most of his time either right behind the driver, or hanging off to the inside of the turn basically skimming the dirt with his elbow/shoulder. Like our flat-track, it is multiple heats – I think the announcer said they had a total of 80 heats to get through! At least they shortened several from 4 to 3 laps due to impending inclement weather.
The Speedway was some of the best racing – lots of close action, as they were basically sliding the whole lap around. Big crowd favorite, too – thousands of fans all around the track. Different clubs/groups had rented semi-trucks that were parked around the track, and with the sides opened, they became basically box seats that provided weather protection and a great viewing angle. Pretty cool.
Back at the rally site, each night they had vendors and bands set up in huge tents, and downtown Invercargill was also pretty hopping with all the restaurants and bars busy all week.
By Sunday morning, most people were heading out of town. The whole week was one of the most inclusive bike rallys I have ever attended. There were classic Triumph guys, Baggers, Cruisers, BMW tourers, Japanese and Euro sportbikes, lots of Harleys, you name it. Surprising number of Guzzis and Aprilias, both old and new. Everybody got along – I can’t say I saw anything resembling a fight or even anyone with any sort of attitude, and there was a LOT of beer consumed – just several thousand guys and girls who loves bikes and everything about them and are more than happy to ride through a monsoon to see some races. Very, very cool.