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Column: Up to speed

2010-07-19 08:39

Dave Fall

An interesting-looking DVD arrived in the post recently called “The World’s Fastest Indian.” I figured the film was about an Asian athlete of some sort; how wrong could I have been!

The DVD sat on our coffee table, unopened, until the other evening when our mild Cape Town winter decided to play hardball. As alluded to earlier, the movie isn’t actually about a track star, rather a bloke called Burt Munro. A New Zealander (sorry to mention that fact if you happen to be a diehard rugby follower!) who, for his sins, was a motorcycle salesman Down Under and knew a thing or two about tuning up motorcycles — especially Indian vee-twins.

His speed record exploits on the bike in the 30s, 40s and 50s in Australasia were legendary, if a bit before my time. In 1957 his Indian Scout machine had just managed to clock 131,38 mph (210 km/h) while beach racing, yet he reckoned he could go faster…

This intriguing film that every red-blooded motorcyclist will enjoy cleverly conveys further escapades leading up to his first of nine trips to the Bonneville Salt Flats, near Wendover in Utah in the US, where he desperately wanted to set more world records.

Intrepid Kiwi

His health wasn’t the best by 1962 with angina attacks cropping up at the most inopportune moments, so crating up the Indian Scout in Kiwiland and getting himself and machine halfway across the world to the US owed much to the ingenuity of the man, let alone his obvious mechanical skills. He had to get man and machine in time for Speed Week — another twist in the tale for this intrepid Kiwi.

How Munro manages to convince the Southern California Timing Association — the officials in charge at the Salt Flats — to allow him to even run remains an all-time mystery. The guy hadn’t even bothered with mere trivialities such as leathers or filling in the requisite race forms …

There’s some great footage of other machines as well — indeed the Bonneville side of the film is actually a collection of “Speed Weeks” from the 60s including some great character moments from people such as Rollie Free who had held motorcycle records on a Vincent Rapide many years earlier.

Free’s style of riding was totally unique — he would race stretched out on the bike — often just in his swimming trunks — with his legs trailing behind him, no wonder he had such admiration for the tough competitor from New Zealand.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, but if you haven’t seen it you’ve got to get yourself a copy! It stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, another British actor of no mean talent, so you are guaranteed a class act. 


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