On February 3, 2006, “The World’s Fastest Indian,” a movie based on the true story of motorcycle racer and land-speed record holder Burt Munro, opens in U.S. theaters. The film starred Anthony Hopkins as Munro, the sexagenarian who in the 1960s set several land-speed records on his modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Herbert Munro, who was born in Invercargill, New Zealand, on March 25, 1899, began riding motorcycles as a teenager. He later bought his Indian Scout motorcycle and raced it competitively in Australia and New Zealand. In the late 1940s, Munro, who was considered eccentric by some of his neighbors, stopped working and put all his time and energy into rebuilding his Indian and Velocette motorcycles, modifying the engines and frames and hand-crafting his own new parts. After setting various speed records in New Zealand in the 1940s and 1950s, Munro focused his sights on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Located approximately 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, the Bonneville Salt Flats are a hard, flat 30,000-acre expanse formed from an ancient evaporated lake. In 1914, Teddy Tezlaff set an auto speed record at Bonneville, driving 141.73 mph in a Blitzen Benz. By the late 1940s, Bonneville had become the standard place for setting and breaking world land-speed records and has since attracted drivers from around the globe who compete in a number of automotive and motorcycle divisions.
In 1962, Munro sailed to America on a cargo ship, working as a cook to pay his fare. After making his way to the Salt Flats, he set a world record of 178.97 mph with his engine bored out to 850 cc. Over the next few years, the determined Munro, then in his 60s, returned to Bonneville again, racing there for the final time in 1967, when he drove 183.586 mph and set a new speed record in the sub-1,000 cc motorcycle class. His one-way qualifying run of 190.07 mph was the fastest speed ever clocked on an Indian motorcycle.
Munro died at the age of 78 on January 6, 1978. According to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum: “During his life, Munro’s accomplishments were little known outside a select group of motorcycle enthusiasts. With the release of “The World’s Fastest Indian” in 2005 [it opened in New Zealand in October of that year], Munro suddenly became a cult hero in New Zealand.”