BURT MUNRO CHALLENGE
Changing to a midsummer timeframe for the annual Burt Munro Challenge has had a huge impact on the success of the event and a very positive outcome for Southland.
Organizers are buoyed by the success of the 2018 Burt Munro Challenge four-day event, held for the first time in early February instead of November. The move to take advantage of the South’s great summer weather, with temperatures ranging from 25°C to 34°C was a huge gamble for organizers, but it paid off.
“It exceeded our wildest expectations for rider and spectator attendance. Numbers were well up at every event, and we now have a lot of information to take on board and build for next year,” Southland Motorcycle Club president Andy Underhay said.
The club was pleased with the success of new events such as the Twilight Drag Racing at Teretonga Park, which was well attended. Invercargill businesses reported great trading, and, with hordes of motorcycles gathering around the streets of Invercargill and travelling daily throughout the province and Central Otago, the Challenge is now proving to be a major event for the region.
With the relatively small organizing committee pulling off such a large event and having a positive impact on local groups, the amount of planning that had gone into this year’s event was very apparent. Those involved are now looking to 2019’s event following a debrief shortly after.
“This was the first time we had experienced a serious change for the event, and we expected there would be a lot to learn following it,” Underhay said.
The Challenge obviously has a decent overseas following, apparent from the huge number of overseas enquiries. “It was quite surprising how popular the event had become, with an estimated 80 per cent attending from outside New Zealand,” Underhay told us.
Members of the Australian Historic Racing Motorcycles Association (AHRM) also made the trip across the water to ‘The Burt’, including eight members with hand-change motorcycles, making for some interesting race starts.
Walking through the pits on the Street Race day, you could pick accents and names from a variety of countries. The common denominator was an enthusiasm for motorcycles and a big toolbox.
One competitor we spoke to was Mark Brooks from Christchurch. Riding a 1972 CB350 Honda, he displayed a typical enthusiasm as he detailed the comprehensive modifications to the machine he had built. He was typical of competitors we spoke
with, all there for the fun and camaraderie in the range of motorcycle events.
“I used to work for Air New Zealand but I now work for myself. Before, if I got hurt it was OK to take sick leave. Now, working for myself, I don’t take those corners quite so quickly,” he laughed.
Safety of both spectators and competitors was paramount. When light rain began to fall around lunchtime during the Street Race warm-up and qualifying, an oil leak from an entrant’s machine spread over large portions of the track.
Standing next to the track exit to the pits, we witnessed one rider come to grief right in front of us in a fairly hard fall, injuring his leg. For many spectators, the danger was not obvious, but officials recognized that the surface had become quite dangerous. After officials surveyed the track, it was decided that the street racing would be cancelled as it was unsafe to proceed.
The decision, although not popular in all quarters, was the right one, as it would have been a huge task, taking considerable time and resources, to clean up.
Underhay was philosophical about the decision. “I think the Street Race was a success. It’s a very good circuit and it suits riders as well as spectators. It shows what we can put on for next year. It’s those decisions that you don’t make that get you into trouble.”
After 12 years of street racing (including previously at Wyndham township northeast of Invercargill), the Invercargill street circuit was as safe as you could make it, according to Underhay.
“It’s just an awesome circuit. It surpassed our hopes and has helped reinvigorate the Burt Munro Challenge. At the end of the day, safety was paramount. We had 640 entrants racing over the seven days [from when the campsites were open], with just three casualties going to hospital, all of whom were released in a very short time. That’s a pretty good record!”
The surprises were not over yet. The event’s top award, the Munro Family Trophy was presented by John and June Munro, children of the late Burt Munro, to the voice of motorcycle racing in New Zealand, Neil ‘ Turbo Tonsils’ Ritchie. The 61-year- old from the Manawatu is a Motorcycling New Zealand life member and was uncharacteristically short of words at the presentation.
“To me, this is a very special event. I have never received anything like this before. It is an absolute honour,” he said.
Ritchie attended the year after the inaugural Burt Munro Challenge in 2005, and has not missed one since, helping out behind the scenes at them all. He has never been a competitor, but his involvement in all facets of motorcycle racing in New Zealand goes back some 36 years.
The Southland Motorcycle Club capped off the Burt Munro Challenge by making a public gesture in late February, with a donation to the Southland branch of St John. The organization contributes substantially each year to the event, with staff and vehicles looking after competitor and public safety.