Move over Burt.
Another team of Kiwi adrenaline junkies will attempt to crack a record-breaking 320kmh this week, on a motorbike built in a Christchurch shed.
Between Friday and Sunday, 56-year-old UK ex-pat Phil Garrett will try to set a New Zealand motorcycle land speed record, tearing down a closed McCrorys Rd in Pendarves, near Ashburton.
Alongside fellow drivers Rob Small and Des Bull, he will tackle the feat on a 46-year-old motorbike, one almost entirely rebuilt in his Burwood garage by hundreds of people.
“We are actually doing a very similar thing to what Burt Munro did in 1967. His bike was 47 years old, he was also chasing 200 miles per hour, and it took him about 20 years too.”
Anyone who travels over 200mph (321.9kmh) on the Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States, where Munro’s world speed record of 296.26 kmh for an under-1000cc bike still stands, is awarded a red hat, a prize coveted by many but achieved by very few.
Garrett said he has always wanted one of those red hats.
He initially built a sidecar racer – which took three and a half years, involved 500 people and cost $220,000 – and it broke the world record for fastest 1000cc sidecar at Bonneville in 2005.
But it only reached 272kmh, not the magical 320kmh Garrett was after.
A few years later he bought a little green 1975 Kawasaki Z1000 with a good racing track-record in the US, and went about completely transforming it.
“Our build team met every Tuesday for two years – probably about 6000 or 7000 hours have gone into this bike.
“It would never have got to that speed, so we had to innovate. We had this idea to put a second gearbox in the back wheel … It turned out the last time someone had done that to a motorcycle was in 1907.”
The bike – now turbocharged and a 1300cc – has a theoretical speed of over 400kmh, and has reached 240kmh in practice runs on a rolling road test bed.
If it reaches 320kmh, it will cover the length of a rugby field each second.
“It was that Kiwi can-do attitude – we refuse to be beaten.”
Garrett said after years of trying, getting the bike to Bonneville proved too hard logistically, so in 2017 they decided to attempt the outright motorcycle land speed record for New Zealand instead.
The current record is held by Johnny Hepburn, who reached 307kmh in Southland in 2000.
But Garrett and his bike would still have a way to go to reach New Zealand’s outright land speed record, a whopping 458.2kmh set last year by a jet-powered dragster created by the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
Garrett and his team decided to use a road in Ashburton so all their supporters could come and watch.
“We can make our own red hat if we earn it.”
They had everything ready to go in late 2019, with a 70-page event management plan covering everything from earthquakes to hedgehogs running across the road, and Garrett thought nothing could stop them but the weather.
But on March 23 last year, the Ashburton District Council cancelled his road closure permit.
Just hours later, the Government announced the whole country would go into level 4 lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19.
“For the first few moments after hearing the news of the lockdown I was stunned. So much work by so many people with nothing to show for it.
“I could have gotten angry but [I] quickly realised that all that work hadn’t been for nothing – the planning was done, the relationships we had forged were still in place, the locals were still keen for us to run and the bikes would wait.”
Garrett said he is really excited, and a little nervous, the event will now go ahead.
“This year, three days out, everything is looking good. The planets are finally aligning.”
At the event this weekend, University of Canterbury student Sytse Tacoma will also try to break the electric bike speed record on a fully electric motorcycle he built himself, and a one-wheel motor vehicle will also race.
Besides his desire for a red hat – and to win a $50 bet made in a bar one night many years ago that he could not do it – Garrett said one thing the team is really passionate about is inspiring the next generation.
“I’m a migrant from the UK, and coming to New Zealand is the best thing that ever happened to me. I wanted to say thank you, and to make New Zealand proud.”
Garrett and Small have given motivational talks to more than 6000 Canterbury schoolchildren to encourage them to follow their dreams and never give up.
“I’ve always been a motorbike nut, and I looked up to John Britten and Burt Munro as a kid,” Garrett said.
“I like to think there could be some kids somewhere watching what we’re doing and thinking, ‘Hey, I could do that too’.”
As to whether there could be a movie about him in 20 years, Garrett said it would be quite humbling.
“I just hope you don’t have to die before they make a movie – I’d like to be around to see it.”