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Lord of the Piston Rings

Had you been at the Bonneville World Finals this past October, off in the distance to the north west you would have seen a shimmering apparition - what appeared to be a mirror image of the pits you were standing in but time-warped back to 1962.

Silk parachutes covered the pit areas dotted around an authentic reproduction of the original SCTA timing tower. And, in those pits were some of the coolest cars and motorcycles as well as many of the cars that actually raced the salt flats more than 40 years ago.

The purpose of all this was the shooting of a movie starring Sir Anthony Hopkins about the late New Zealand motorcycle racer Burt Munro who died in 1977. Burt grew up in Invercargill on the very southern most tip of the south island and he was still record breaking at Bonneville in his eighties. The man was a legend both at home and in the U.S., where he set numerous records on his streamlined Indian.

Burt Munro

 From a screenplay written by director Roger Donaldson the movie is provisionally titled "World's Fastest Indian" and also stars Lana Antonova. It is due to be released sometime in 2005 and tells the story of Burt's long journey to the record books and not just the part on the boat up from New Zealand. This is a man who made his own crank and heads, cast his own pistons, fashioned rods from Ford axles and eventually molded his own streamliner body. He even "shaved" his own tires with a knife.

The bike used for filming in semi-streamlined state

Burt purchased the Indian Scout new in 1920 for 140 pounds and developed it continually for the following 44 years until he was too old to race. Over the years, he gathered an impressive mantlepiece full of records. His best run came in 1967 when he garnered the American AMA 61 cubic inch record at 183.6 mph with a qualifying speed of 190.07-his fastest speed ever. Two years later he got the record for the most number of runs in a streamliner-14 in four and a half days.

Of course the movie can't tell the full story but anytime Hollywood, or in this case "Wellywood" (it's a New Zealand production), looks at motorsports there's the outside chance they might do its home town boy justice as well as give us petrol heads a movie to enjoy.

Footnote: A couple of days after we were on the salt, a rain storm came through and put the film set under 15 inches (40 mm) of water. It destroyed the set and distributed the detritus over a five mile area. All of which had to be picked up.

Hard to believe this is Bonneville!!

Also out on the salt at the same time was a crew from BAR racing trying to do a fashion shoot with a couple of Formula One cars, assorted models and 50 million gallons of salt water.

Oh well, such is "lakes" racing...

For more info about Burt go to

Story & photos: Tony Thacker

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