Burt Munro Challenge
Finally in the ninth year of the Burt Munro Challenge I managed to take part. Honouring Invercargill’s legendary hometown hero, it’s pretty much equal parts festival and motorcycle racing, giving fans the chance to get together and share their passion on Burt’s home turf.
My bike for the hillclimb and road racing events was one I’ve been privileged to race before – a replica of the 1982 GSX-powered McIntosh Suzuki. This bike was built in 2007 by Ken McIntosh and his right-hand man Peter Welch, the team that built the originals.
As a 26-year-old, Ken achieved an almost unbelievable feat. With his homemade McIntosh Suzuki Superbike he crossed the ditch and took on the factory teams at the 1982 Bathurst 500 endurance event.
With the late Doctor Rodger Freeth aboard, the McIntosh Suzuki claimed the trophy.
Ken went on to build a number of versions with various powerplants and now builds the world’s best Manx Norton replica race bikes for the classic racing scene.
At Invercargill late Wednesday there was no mistaking the Burt Munro circus had hit town. Banners with pictures of Burt and his bikes lined the streets and there were bikes everywhere, parked and on the move, all helping to build the excitement. Strong wind and rain greeted us first thing Thursday and the weather just got worse as we drove to nearby Bluff for my first taste of bitumen hillclimbing.
My sighting run up the hill convinced me to take the course very seriously. Although it’s only short, the climb is steep and bumpy, with plenty of off-camber corners, potholes and water streaming over the track. While waiting for the course to clear I could barely hear WSBK-legend Aaron Slight over the wind. As I leaned toward Aaron a sudden gust all but blew me and the Suzuki over. I barely managed to stop the bike from toppling. This was crazy!
Back at the pits I regretted asking whether the event would continue in this weather. At the southernmost tip of New Zealand you need to be tough even to survive. So everyone was here to race and race we would, come rain, hail or shine. Or on that particular day, come sleet, snow or gale.
When our sighting/practice times turned out to be among the fastest, they suggested we swap our entry from the Pre-1982 to the Outright class to give us a crack at the New Zealand Outright Hillclimb Championship. We had five minutes to make up our minds.
In the Pre-1982 class our chances of a class victory looked promising. How would we go up against the modern sports and motard bikes in the Outright class? What would Burt have done, I wondered? There was only one answer. Jump in the deep end: the Outright class.
With a drying track, I lined up for my first run, keeping the fully treaded wet tyres on for the damp patches. The McIntosh Suzuki growled its way up the climb as I pushed hard for a good time in case the weather got worse. Twice I was really lucky to stay on track when I felt the front letting go. This was really testing stuff.
At the end of the first official round we had the fastest time – a solid 1.8-second lead with another round to go. As I watched the second round closely to see if I needed to go out again and do better, most riders improved their times but my time held.
On a 1982-model McIntosh Suzuki we had won the 2014 New Zealand Hillclimb Championship. We also set the fastest time of the day by just 0.20sec from local ZX-6 Supersport hotshot, Seth Devereux. A great start to the weekend.
A DAY AT THE BEACH
Friday morning we met John Crawford from Invercargill’s Southern Suzuki at Oreti Beach with the Suzuki RM-Z450 they were supplying for my beach race foray. Another Suzuki dealer, Mark Whyte, gave us shelter in his trailer and a loan of his tools.
My brand-new RM-Z got “run in” like no other as I was in top gear and wide open within seconds of going out for my first practice. Although the tough RM-Z never missed a beat it was well undergeared for the speed required. After two more teeth on the front sprocket weren’t enough, Mark found me a smaller rear sprocket and I got back on the spanners.
During my handful of heats I did okay, staying out of trouble and taking sixth in the final Open-class race. Several times I had managed to run in the top three before I fell back when my goggles clogged up with sand. At times I could barely see and I have no idea how the other competitors managed.
IT’S TERETONGA TIME
On Saturday at Teretonga we contested the Pre-1982 Superbike class. I managed the win in Race One by a bike length from John Ross, another local Supersport champion. Race Two again saw John’s Honda breathing down my neck until spots of rain started to fall. I kept pushing as my slick tyres were still offering grip, allowing me to pull away to a comfortable win. With Race Three late in the day I only needed to come home in the top three to secure the Pre-1982 overall win. But it wasn’t to be. On the final lap my rear tyre punctured, making me run wide at Turn Three onto the grass. Very wet and very slippery grass.
Again I was lucky to keep the McIntosh upright. Missing out on that victory was really disappointing because the team deserved a win for all their efforts. But that’s racing. Saturday night we attended a chat show with some very special racers present. It was an honour to take the stage with Ken McIntosh to share racing stories. But for me the highlight was local legend Hugh Anderson. Now 78, Hugh has just released a book on his motorcycle career, Being There (MT #249). With four world Grand Prix Championships and two Isle of Man TT wins to his credit, along with 19 NZ titles, he came a long way from his small dairy farm origins in Huntly. Slight and Robbie Phillis were there as well along with motocross champ Ben Townley and motocross Grand Prix winner Josh Coppins. A lot of talent under one roof.
IT’S RAINING IN WYNDHAM
Driving through heavy rain to Wyndham early Sunday morning, we were again wondering whether the racing would go ahead in such wet conditions. The Wyndham street circuit layout was tough and technical, reminding me of racing the roads in Ireland. I was up for it but with such poor weather the team decided to leave the bike in the van.
I didn’t put up much of an argument after a brilliant year on the McIntosh Suzuki. It carried me to victory and a new class record at the highly competitive Barry Sheene meeting at Eastern Creek in Australia. It had now added a New Zealand Hillclimb title and Teretonga race wins to its tally so I was happy to keep her in one piece after doing such a good job.
Sunday night we ended up at the only place to be after a big weekend’s racing – the hotel bar with the team. John Munro, son of Burt, also joined us for a chat.
It was fascinating to hear from John about the making of the The World’s Fastest Indian film and how faithfully it portrayed the real characters and events it was based on.