Editorial: Burt Munro, legend

Last updated 09:23 24/01/2013
PIONEER: Burt Munro and his 'Munro Special' Indian Scout Invercargill, 1938.
Neco Richter and Leo Munro-Heward
NEIL RATLEY/Fairfax NZ
Neco Richter, 9 and Leo Munro-Heward, 12, who is a relative of Burt Munro, climb aboard a replica of Munro's Indian Scout at Teretonga Raceway.

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OPINION: We think of him as a local hero, our do-it-yourself genius who spent decades tinkering with a 1920 Indian motorcycle in an old rundown shed in Invercargill and turned it into a world record-setting speed machine on the Bonneville salt flats.

We're proud of his achievements and of the commemorative annual Burt Munro Challenge that attracts more than 1000 motorbike fans to the city each November, even though local funders have to top up the revenues it generates to meet the $350,000 cost of running it.

But Herbert James "Burt" Munro was much more than a local legend, and the recognition accorded his feats by Time magazine - identifying the Invercargill event as one of its top five must do festivals of 2013 - is being applauded by thousands of people around the world on Facebook, YouTube and internet message boards.

Munro is a true international sports legend, his name probably much better known overseas than in New Zealand.

Time, which rates the Munro Challenge as one of five annual festival events not to be missed alongside the Pasola, a religious and sexual renewal celebration in Indonesia, and the Eurovision Song Contest that attracts a television audience of more than 100 million, said that as well as the seven separate racing events of the week-long challenge the live music, food, camping and Invercargill's famous hospitality made it one of the most colourful motorsport festivals ever conceived.

The glowing testimony is sure to be a boon to the Invercargill Motorcycle Club, struggling each year to beg, borrow and connive to get enough money to run the event, and to E Hayes and Sons, that has one of Munro's original racing bikes on permanent public display.

And it should make fundraising to keep the event going easier for the volunteers at the motorcycle club, the people who fronted an Invercargill City Council meeting last year to plead for more money after running at a loss in 2011 when southerly gales battered the region and washed out most of the planned events.

The challenge did better last November, attracting more than 1300 participants and, according to Venture Southland, bringing more than $1.1 million in extra spending into the province. Support is growing and the Time article is certain to pull in more overseas fans.

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One wonders, though, what Burt would make of all the fuss. A pensioner when he set his last and still unbeaten speed record at Bonneville at the age of 68, he lived for his motorbikes - he is reputed to have built more than 10 of them from the basic 1920 Indian design in his workshed.

He lived there, too, even though he had a perfectly reasonable house on his section, more comfortable eating and sleeping among boxes and shelves of motorbike parts that he had made himself in his thirst for speed. And he wasn't exactly the ideal neighbour, more an irritating rogue who would test his latest design - no muffler, full revs - at all hours of the day and night.

The only time he appears to have taken any notice of complaints was when long-suffering neighbours insisted he sort out the waist-high wilderness of his section. Burt doused it in petrol and set fire to it - problem solved.

He did have a sense of humour. He became Burt late in life, after a newspaper in the United States, reporting on one of his first trips to Bonneville, inadvertently spelt his name wrong.

Herbert James "Burt" Munro - March 25, 1899 - January 6, 1978 - would have loved all the fuss if he was still around. Most of all though, he would have loved the racing, especially if he was in the thick of it.

- The Southland Times

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