in late august 2004, following the bonneville nationals, i got a call from my brother, mark, telling me that “the redhead” streamliner was going to be used in a movie about the late burt munro staring anthony hopkins called "the world's fastest indian".
through the redhead’s owner, jim lattin – the lattin part of lattin & gillette racing team – mark and my dad, elmo, where going to be race car wranglers for the production, which was going to be filmed, where else: on the bonneville salt flats.
i knew i couldn’t let this opportunity slip through my fingers and asked to have my name put into the mix, despite having just started working for a new owner of kptl and losing all the vacation time that i had earned with the previous owners, the holder hospitality group.
so, i took a leave of absence and began planning my trip to be a part of the production.
i have had several small world connections with kiwi burt munro, besides racing on the bonneville salt flats.
in the 1970s, while working for a photo company in monrovia, california i used to see burt’s bike almost every day sitting in the front of a motorcycle shop in duarte; burt used to leave the bike up here in the u.s. and just take the engine and transmission back to new zealand with him.
also in the 70s, in a quest to seek relief for the headaches from which i have suffered since 1964, i was under the care of a chiropractor in covina, who was a new zealander. one day in august (1974?) i told chris (i’ll be damned if i can remember his last name and he always insisted that i call him chris) that i would not be coming in for a couple of weeks as i was going to go to the salt flats to go racing. he said he grew up around the corner from an old motorcycle racer in the little town in which he lived in new zealand. i told him, “you must mean burn munro!” “how did you know that?”, chris asked. i told him there was only one motorcycle racer from new zealand that i was aware of, so it had to be him. chris told me he used to hang out in burt’s shed, watching him work on his bike and listening to him tell stories about racing his highly modified 1920 indian scout motorcycle. if you’ve seen the movie “the world’s fastest indian” this scenario will sound familiar to you and i still think of chris every time i watch the movie and “tom” is on-screen.
within 5 or 6 weeks of first hearing about the movie i was headed from carson city to fallon to meet up with my dad and brother to begin our trek to wendover on the utah/nevada border.
in addition to the redhead, the producers also wanted to use my dad’s deuce street roadster.
now, before i go any further i want you to know that only a 1932 ford is a “deuce”. not a chevy, not a plymouth, not anything but a ford is a “deuce”! anyone who tries to tell you different is either trying to bullshit you, is foolishly mistaken or is in complete denial.
the “little deuce coupe” that the beach boys sang about (written by brian wilson and l.a. radio “bossjock” and racing aficionado roger “hot dog rog” christian) is a 1932 ford coupe. i’m not sure, since there is no reference to it in the lyrics, if it’s a 3- or 5-window coupe. but, one thing is for certain: it’s no damn chevrolet. back in the days of real hot rods no real hot rodder would want to have anything to do with a 1932 anything but a ford. don’t get me started on what people call “hot rods” these days.
(ron pointed to an mg the other day and said “there’s a nice hot rod.” i tried to tell him it wasn’t a hot rod and he told me i didn’t know what i’m talking about. this, from a man who cannot drive a car with a manual transmission without stalling the engine, jerking and/or smoking the clutch or grinding the gears when he can find the right gear in which to shift into. typical sports car-guy: no driving ability; just ego!)
btw: the line in the song: “and she purrs like a kitten till the lake pipes roar” refers to the exhaust pipes hot rodders used to build from 1936 ford torque tubes (drive shaft housings), which fit perfectly onto the headers and, not only improved the flow of exhaust, but made for a really nice mellow sound. these torque tube exhaust pipes were commonly referred to as “lake pipes” because pioneering hot rodders raced on the dry lakes in southern california.
so, after packing up the power stroke and loading the roadster on the trailer we were off to “the salt” with a few stops on the way to hunt for the occasional geocache.
our first stop, once we hit wendover, was at the former “state line inn” - now known as “the nugget” - to check in with the producers and secure our rooms. it was there that we befriended one of the production assistants: steve schrader. mark and i would spend much or our free time on the salt during filming with steve and i am still in contact with him to this day. it was also here that we met scott chester, the bonneville production supervisor; scott was the racers’ liaison during the production.
after checking-in at the hotel and dropping off our luggage we headed out to the world famous bonneville salt flats.
the first person we ran into was jim’s son, bill lattin, who was towing the redhead behind his ford power stroke. he had been a part of the scene when the redhead is first seen in the movie: towing the famous streamliner onto the salt behind a vintage gmc suburban.
after a quick “hello, how ya doin’?”, we drove out to the set, which looked so much like the pits for the bonneville nationals we, out of habit, kept calling it: the pits.
except for placing the timing stand (which looked almost identical to the timing stand i remember from the 60s and 70s) at the starting line across from the pits the re-creation of the pits was impeccably accurate.
in fact: it was downright nostalgic!
everywhere you looked were s.c.t.a and bonneville nationals logos on various trailers, temporary structures and equipment. in 1962, for some strange reason, the bonneville nationals logo was red instead of the traditional blue and this did not escape the art department’s scrutiny.
not only did the art department bring back the observation tower missing from the starting line area since the early 60s, they also set up a miniature version of the bell auto parts tent.
when i was a kid the bell auto parts tent was the place to get a really tasty cold drink of water, self-drawn, into one of those old cone-shaped envelope-style paper cups. according to bonneville legend, multy aldrich, it was just the water from the western motel in wendover, which is tasty water on its own, with a lemon sliced into the cooler. that may have been – and surely was – true, but i could never get it to taste that good.
they also faithfully recreated the porta-potties used back in those days (the real ones were hidden behind pits and other equipment made to look like they belonged there) and various other objects d'art that made – and still does make – bonneville a unique experience.
despite the faithful accuracy of the art department exhibited in the pits there were some errors that, regardless of them not being represented in the final product, were painfully way off. i assume the art guys looked at the pits as being more of a communal place than it is in reality: one pit was loaded with nothing but oil cans, while another had a bunch of thermoses. i guess they envisioned the pits as drive-thrus where you come in to get a quick lube in one pit and a cup of coffee in another pit.
it’s been 4-years since the film was shot, but i think it was the first afternoon that we had our race car wrangler meeting back at the nugget, where we learned important things like: don’t ask sir hopkins to say “good evening clarice”. btw: hannibal lecter never did say that line in the movie “silence of the lambs”. the actual line was: “hello clarice.” we also learned that, unlike most movie sets, we were encouraged to take and post on the internet as many pictures as we wanted. i assume this was to build as much excitement in the racing community over the movie as possible while filming continued in new zealand and during post production.
the next day was the latest start we got for the (almost) 2-weeks we were there. but, we still beat the sunrise. the rest of the shoot saw us on the salt every morning at 0400 hours so we could eat cold sausage patties, eggs and potatoes and be ready to wrangle cars into place; we had to stay each night until 2100 hours.
my father, elmo, in the red jacket standing next to scott chester
the first part of the day was spent unloading the cars used to represent the race cars in the movie, most of which were not real race cars or not real bonneville race cars. but, there were enough notable cars there to make this gathering an historic occasion unto itself: in addition to the redhead there were two mickey thompson streamliners (“the challenger” and “the pumpkin seed” – which is still being raced to this day) and the “flying caduceus” of dr. nathan ostich: the first land speed racing jet car, which now resides in the national automobile museum in reno. also on-hand were fred lobello’s original belly-tank lakester and the “black widow” rear-engine modified roadster. many of these car were never expected to ever return to the salt and there they were: all there at the same time!
i love being a part of history!
we also were assigned to our various sections of the set (aka: pits). ours, where we kept the ’32 and hung out for most of the shoot, was in the southeast corner, right next to the art department’s department, which was disguised as another pit.
it was also the day that many of the non-racing cars were given attention by the art department to make them look like real racers. dad’s roadster, for instance, was given some authentic-looking decals faithfully recreated by the art department and a realistic-looking roll bar made out of plastic tubing, which reminds me of a story jack lufkin once told me about hot rodding legend ak miller:
back, i think it was, in the 50s when scta first required roll bars, ak bought a long length of salami, painted it black, and affixed it, somehow, to the chassis. at the end of the week, ak hacked-off slices of the salami and offered it to everyone, including the officials.
it was a different world back then!
the rest of the time we were there was pretty much a blur as far as the days and order in which the various occasion took place; we only had one scheduled day off. but, because of a storm that marched across the salt, we ended up with a late start on one day, which the film makers used to film in town.
one day after that day off, jeff decker, an extremely talented bronze sculptor who specializes in vintage motorcycles (one of jeff’s more recent pieces is a recreation of rollie free – played by william lucking in the movie – riding a 1948 vincent black lightning wearing only a helmet and swim trunks at over 150 mph in 1948) was talking about living his entire life in the state of utah – my favorite state in the nation – and had never visited the mormon temple grounds. mark and i told him about our experience at the temple the previous year, the day before our grandmother’s funeral in magna, utah. we told him how cool it was to learn a bit about our ancestor, henry grow, who designed the tabernacle. jeff said: “one of my ancestor’s also built the tabernacle!” the next day, jeff said he called his mother and she confirmed that the person of which he was speaking was henry grow, making jeff a distant cousin!
i think it was about the 3rd or 4th day that we had the opportunity to meet the star of the film: sir anthony hopkins, who introduced himself to us as “i’m tony and this is my wife, stella.”
he’s a regular guy and a very sweet man: as charming as dr. lecter with much more reasonable dietary habits.
when we told tony that we used to know burt munro he told us how much we were going to enjoy the movie once it did come out. he explained to us that it was very complimentary to burt and that it was not only, in his words, “a splendid script”, it was the most fun he has ever had working on a movie!
i was really happy for my father to be able to meet tony, one of his favorite actors, and tony treated “the ol’ man” like he was the star: “are they feeding you alright?” “are you getting enough water?” “are you staying out of the sun?”
it was a real treat to watch tony perform his craft and to be in a few of the scenes with him, albeit just a non-speaking background player!
i’d known for several years that tony likes to adlib. and, being an adlibber myself, i really enjoyed hearing him modify and adjust his lines from take to take. many of those adlibs (“it’s a cork – cork from a brandy bottle! what’s it look like?”) made it in the final cut.
another scene that showed tony’s formidable skill as an actor, one in which i was a background player, is where wendy (played by: jessica cauffiel) brings “burt” over to a crowd of people to give him a pouch of cash that was collected for him. the scene goes something like this: tony is perfectly playing the almost-comical and gregarious burt munro when wendy brings him over to the group and explains that they have decided to give him the “sportsmanship award” and felt he could use the money more than a trophy. so, they passed the hat around the pits and gave him the money collected. tony went from being the jovial burt to having eyes welled-up with tears and cracking-voice to have director/writer/producer and personal friend of burt munro, roger donaldson, say: “cut! back to one.” now, instead of trying to “stay in character” tony went over and began joking around with the crew, only to bring that emotion up again after “action” was, once more, called and bring that emotion back yet again. he did that, at least, a dozen times before roger called “cut!” for the last time.
now that, ladies and genitals, is acting!
- the entire salt flats erupting into an horrendous thunderstorm, the way they usually do on the salt, in a matter of seconds, which put filming out of the question for a day or two. as it turned out, an even more violent storm destroyed the entire set on the day we left to come home.
- climbing, for the first time in my life, “graffiti hill” on the east end of wendover to ring the bell with mark and bill lattin and watch the shoot go on below.
- watching bill drive the redhead below me, while i stood atop the observation tower, when the crew filmed the ‘chute coming out. btw: you can see me for just a nanosecond from a camera positioned in the “timing stand”, which also shows my brother, mark, as bill drives off of the starting line seconds earlier.
- being a background player in the scene where “burt’s” motorcycle is being inspected. i was “blocked” with karl orr’s beautiful model-t “track roadster”, which is now owned by jim lattin. besides “sharing the screen” with anthony hopkins, the inspector with the best lines is actor bruce greenwood, who has played united states presidents in, at least, two movies.
- standing behind the camera and watching the video split of the redhead being filmed static and making it look like it’s traveling at speed.
- hiding a geocache just west of west wendover, nevada in honor of the movie as we headed back home to western nevada.
it was a very long and miserable shoot of 17-hour days, but i will always cherish that experience!