World speed records set
Two of the most thrilling rides in motorcycle history sped Invercargill's Russell Wright to a title even Burt Munro never claimed - the world's fastest motorcyclist.
The records Munro famously set in the 1960s on the salt flats of Bonneville in the United States related only to the Indian brand of motorcycle - still a hell of a feat for an old codger on an old bike, an ingeniously customised 1920 Indian Scout.
By contrast, Wright's July 2, 1955, record was simply and unassailably a world record for any motorcycle - two runs averaging 185mph (298kmh).
Stunningly, these were achieved not on the huge expanses of Bonneville but on a narrow Canterbury road still drying out from rain the night before and on a pretty-much standard production motorcycle.
However "standard" is a word that fails to do justice to the almost impossibly glamorous 1000cc V-twin Vincent Black Lightning.
Just 31 were built and they were effectively a competition-prepared version of the British company's road-going Black Shadow.
The capabilities of Wright's Lightning had been further tweaked - greased? - in New Zealand by the attentions of a brilliant precision engineer, Scottish immigrant Bob Burns, who provided the streamlined shell and turned the engine to breathe a little extra magic into its innards.
The Tram Rd setting at Swannanoa, 35 kilometres northwest of Christchurch, was bordered by gravel verges, wire fences, some people and, on one side for part of the 1km stretch, a hedge.
On Wright's first run a sound like a gunshot pierced even the scream of his engine. He'd hit a bird, but continued untroubled.
Although the Vincent was handling well, a thought intruded into Wright's concentration about the 150mph mark.
"I realised as I was gripping those 15-inch width handlebars, and with the stark knowledge that I had only 2 inches of steering leeway, that I was now completely in the hands of the good Lord above."
On the second run, just at the point where the high hedge on his left side stopped, a wind gust hit the side of the Vincent's fish-shaped shell pushing it across the road and towards spectators. An instinctive and exquisitely delicate correction saved who knows how many lives. This time Wright stepped off his bike with a chalky complexion, to confirmation from an International Motorcycle Federation timekeeper that the 187mph run meant he was now the world-record holder.
Burns then attached a simple sidecar to the bike and broke the record for sidecars, his two runs averaging 162mph (261kmh).
Russell Wright was born in 1929 in Invercargill, the eldest of four children of Charles Herbert and Isabella Wright. He grew up at 383 Yarrow St and used his cash from rabbiting, with some help from his mother (his Dad didn't really approve), to acquire a little James two-stroke
He grew into grasstrack, beach racing, speedway and hill climbs and became friends with Munro, who was at the time the holder of the national record.
By mid-1952 Wright was a partner in a building firm, the success of which enabled him to buy his Vincent. Sadly, the same year he set his record the British company went out of motorcycle production, the worldwide attention he earned coming too late to influence a decision based purely on finances.
Wright did later race at Bonneville and set the best speed of his career, 198mph (319kmh) but the campaign was swamped by the scale of resources mustered by, and priorities given to, the full factory teams.
Soon after his Tram Rd record, the weekly English motorcycle magazine, The Motor Cycle awarded him a trophy and £1000 cheque that he split with Burns. The prize was presented by Prime Minister Sid Holland on the eve of the pair sailing to be honoured guests at the London Motorcycle Show.
Wright returned to build spec houses for a while in Invercargill, then worked as a fencing salesman, acquired a bulldozer and did grading work, and was for the last 20 years of his working life a salesman for National Mutual. He and his wife, Elaine, retired to the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.
In 2001 the British World Speed Record club made him an honorary member and on the 50th anniversary of his feat the Vincent Motorcycle Owners' Club flew him back to Canterbury for a commemoration.
Among the lesser acknowledgments of his achievement was the decision of a parking officer, who held back from ticketing Wright for an expired meter.
"It would've been funny," the officer was quoted, "to give the world's fastest motorcyclist a ticket for loitering."
On his death, aged 83, on January 29, online KiwiBiker tributes called him "a true gentleman and in the eyes of the world one of our most famous motorcyclists of all time".
Wrote one commentator: "Russell came from the days when show-offs were shunned and a great deed earned a congratulatory nod from your peers."
Those congratulatory nods put him, nevertheless, in the motorcycling pantheon.
- © Fairfax NZ News