Burt Munro’s World’s Fastest Indian Land Speed Record
(Special thanks to Burt Munro’s son, John Munro for his assistance with material for this article. Images are from the Munro family collection.)
In 1967, Burt Munro made his seventh trip to the Bonneville Salt Flats. The record he set at that 1967 event was not the first land speed record he established at Bonneville; in 1962 he had set a record in what was called the 55 cubic-inch class at the time. Munro set a 55 cubic-inch record of 178.971 mph, as well as a new record in the SA 1000 class in 1966 at 168.066 mph.
Munro ratcheted the SA 1000 class record up to 184.087 mph in 1967—a record that has stood the test of time and still stands in what is now the S-AF 1000cc class. All the records were set with his hand-built 1920 Indian Scout based streamliner.
It’s worth noting that the two-way average speed calculation on the original 1967 record certificate was inaccurate. The certificate states the speed record as 183.586 mph, but it’s actually 184.087 mph as shown in the current listing of AMA National Land Speed Records. It was Munro’s son, John (interviewed below) who first noticed the error and got the official listing corrected 47 years later!
As of 2016, there are only four records in the AMA record books that have stood longer than Burt Munro’s 50-year-old 1967 class record, The 500cc S-AF class record set in 1958 at 212.288 mph by Jess Thomas; the 650cc A-AF class record set in 1961 at 159.542 mph by Gary Richards; the 650cc S-AF class record set in 1962 at 230.269 mph by Bill Johnson; and the 650cc APS-AF class record set in 1965 at 161.793 mph also by Gary Richards.
Munro’s epic land speed racing achievements were the subject of Roger Donaldson’s 1973 documentary “Offerings to the Gods of Speed,” which Donaldson used as the basis for his 2005 feature motion picture, “The World’s Fastest Indian,” starring Anthony Hopkins.
In 2009, Donaldson published a book that is an excellent companion to the movie DVD we reviewed called, “The World’s Fastest Indian-Burt Munro a Scrapbook of His Life.”
Burt Munro became a particularly memorable figure in motorsports because he overcame long odds, had exceptional mechanical skill, was totally original and, despite nearly no financial resources, managed to achieve what he set out to do.
We reached out to Burt Munro’s son John in the process of developing this article. He was kind enough to give us some of his thoughts on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of his father’s landmark achievement, along with photographs:
UMC: Looking back on your father’s passion for motorcycle land speed racing, his formidable mechanical skill and his remarkable achievements against some long odds, what do you feel were the most significant factors that drove him?
John Munro: “Well I think I have the same problem as Dad had. If I am told ‘it can’t be done’ or ‘that’s not the way it’s done’ I will try everything to prove them wrong.”
UMC: His achievements inspired a documentary film, a feature film, at least three books, innumerable magazine articles, include a record that has stood half a century and his story may well have inspired others to compete; in your view, what it the most enduring part of Burt’s legacy?
John Munro: “It is just that – inspiring others to have a go at their dreams come true.”
UMC: There were some crashes along the way and no doubt a good share of close calls, yet Burt seemed to never let fear get in the way. In Roger Donaldson’s book, he said, “All you accomplish smoking cigarettes is to destroy your lungs, whereas I take the risk of destroying my whole body in high speed runs—I know that.” He went on to quote McKlusky, saying, “Danger is the salt of life.” Did he ever talk about fear beyond that or what his strategy was in dealing with it?
John Munro: “No he never talked to me about it. I believe he had a very high pain threshold. There is the example of the occasion in 1945 when he was deluged with a pot of boiling caustic soda straight onto his chest. He had the presence of mind and the mental strength to dash out the door, run across the yard and climb into a water tank. He remained there till the ambulance arrived about an hour later. I don’t think he had a strategy. Just determination to succeed in making that bike go faster.”
UMC: As we observe the 50th anniversary of Burt’s long-standing record, what are your thoughts you may care to share?
John Munro: “I have said to me many times that there will never be another Burt Munro. While this may not be the case my family and I are very proud to be the descendants of a person who taught himself many engineering and other disciplines. Using these skills he made a mark on our community that has inspired many to rise above themselves. This surely is something that is lacking in most in today’s population.”
In the course of our correspondence with John Munro, we were surprised to learn that an official AMA Number 1 plate symbolic of holding a land speed record has never been issued to Burt Munro.
That may be because the practice had not yet been implemented for land speed racing in 1967. Perhaps this would be an opportune time for AMA to issue a special 50th Anniversary Number 1 plate! For that matter, maybe something similar for those other four record holders whose marks have stood over half a century, as well!
There may even be some perfect opportunities for the AMA to do so this year, if it were so inclined. John Munro informed us that Indian Motorcycle is planning a special commemorative event in August of this year at Bonneville during Speed Week, and that he, his wife Margaret, and other family members plan to attend. In addition, they may be in attendance at events at El Mirage and Lake Havasu. Stay clicked to Ultimate Motorcycling for more details on this as they become available.