Epic Rides: The Burt Munro Challenge In New Zealand

The Entire World of Motorcycling—in One Weekend

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More south than you've ever been, on the south end of the South Island of New Zealand, once lived a motorcyclist named Burt Munro. For a country with a total population less than half the Los Angeles basin, New Zealanders have an uncanny habit of punching far above their weight (see also: rugby, sailing, wool production). Burt Munro was no different, singlehandedly modifying an ancient Indian motorcycle into a Bonneville land-speed record holder and taking up permanent residence in our collective imagination after Sir Anthony Hopkins played him in the movie The World's Fastest Indian.

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In Burt's hometown of Invercargill, the Southland Motorcycle Club (SMC) holds an annual rally in his honor, called The Burt Munro Challenge. The SMC puts on an entire racing season in a single weekend. Classes include several divisions each of modern and vintage motorcycles, competing on everything from a conventional road circuit to city streets to a dirt track to the same stretch of beach where Munro once made speed runs in his famous streamliner.

Two circus-size tents, one for food and one for bands, dominate the large field adjacent to Teretonga Park road course and Oreti Park Speedway. Brightly colored dome tents and 1,000 motorcycles huddle along the tree line to the west. A half mile away, on Oreti Beach, competitors sprint down the long, smooth sand on everything from vintage Rudges to modern Yamahas to Harley-Davidson Sportsters. Sand and salt spray blast into the dunes, scouring spectators’ eyes. You’ve got to really love motorcycles to be here.

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The next morning dawns chilly and overcast. Rain starts as soon as I arrive at Teretonga Park for the Burt Munro Challenge Road Race series and persists for the remainder of the day. Races run rain or shine. This close to the Antarctic, there are no do-overs. Between downpours the sun shines and the wind blasts. Tire selection is critical: The track surface in a single lap can vary from damp to submerged.

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At Oreti Park speedway, the heat races start shortly after the Teretonga Road Races finish. This small dirt oval contains the best racing. Fast, handlebar tangling, four-lap heats are do or die. Specially constructed sidecars, wheels already tilted toward the inside of the track, run clockwise, opposite the motorcycles (not simultaneously). Alternating the circulation, spectators crowding the barriers receive an even coat of sticky dirt.

Streamliners, supermotos, speedway sidecars, vintage road racers—you can see all those and more in action at the Burt Munro Challenge, all to celebrate the memory of one very humble (and very stubborn) Kiwi-born motorcycle racer.©Motorcyclist

Ten hours of racing and I bail. Burt would not be happy, but I’m going to town, where the main streets of Wyndham are barricaded off to form an intimate street course. Another full slate of racing is on tap. You get your money’s worth when you register for SMC’s Burt Munro Challenge.

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The three-day rally ends with a sigh, moto-pilgrims dispersing by ones and twos throughout today’s final track sessions. It’s an inspired gathering of real motorcyclists and one worth traveling halfway around the world to attend. We join the melancholy exodus out of town, turning east onto the quiet, post-rally highway and twisting the throttle on the Victory Road Annihilator, traveling considerably slower than Mr. Munro would have preferred.

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