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'Turbo Tonsils' Ritchie receives rare honour

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The popular annual Burt Munro Challenge was again a resounding success this season, the event now in its 12th year and growing all the time.

The four-day event attracting about 20,000 fans to the Southland region, the racing was both mesmerising and memorable and all the various activities culminated this year with the awarding of the Munro Family Trophy to Motorcycling New Zealand life member Neil Ritchie.

The 61-year-old Ritchie has long been respected for his role as an event commentator and he has worked at every Burt Munro Challenge since the year that followed the inaugural running in 2006, Ritchie's 11-year involvement highlighted now with his receiving of the event's top award.

This was also particularly notable because this year was the first time a non-rider had been so honoured, although he certainly fits the bill as a man who will work tirelessly in even the most adverse of situations, his voice carrying over the noise of revving engines in rain, hail, snow or, as was witnessed recently, in 30-degree-plus temperatures at the annual Honda New Zealand Motocross Grand Prix at Woodville.

"To me this is a very special event," said the man whose popular nickname is "Turbo Tonsils".

"I have never received anything like this before ... it is an absolute honour," he said.

The Burt Munro Challenge is an yearly celebration of motorcycling in New Zealand, all stemming from the fairytale feats of Southland legend Burt Munro, an inventive and progressive Kiwi who set the first of his three world land-speed records on an Indian motorcycle in 1962, when he was aged 63.

Presented by John Munro and his sister June, children of the late Burt Munro, the Munro Family Trophy is given to an individual who "exhibits the spirit of Burt Munro" and, as a man who has been commentating the sport every year since he began in Taihape in 1982, Ritchie has been at the centre of all motorcycling activities in New Zealand, working as one of the "back-yard boys", for over 36 years now.

Ritchie is certainly "the voice" of motorcycling in New Zealand, something he also hopes might spill over into other arenas as he now also receives requests from other sporting bodies, although his first passion is motorcycling.

He has commentated at motocross, supercross, road-racing, cross-country and extreme stadium enduro-cross events over the years, as well as delivering eloquent and moving eulogies at funerals.

His next assignment is commentating at the second round of four in the New Zealand Motocross Championships near Rotorua in just over a week's time (on February 25), before he heads to Hampton Downs to add colour commentary to the MotoFest weekend, a two-day spectacle that will also feature as the third of four rounds in this year's New Zealand Superbike Championships on March 3-4.  

The annual four-day Burt Munro Challenge again went off largely without a hitch this month, with the Classic Motorcycle Mecca New Zealand Hill Climb Champs and Hirepool Twilight Drag Racing held last Thursday; the Indian Motorcycle New Zealand Beach Racing Champs the following day, Friday; the E Hayes and Sons Teretonga Circuit Races on Saturday and the extravaganza finally wrapping up with the Honda Invercargill Street Races on Sunday.

The only hiccup was that the final street race event had to be cut short due to safety concerns when oil was spilled on the track.

In respect of Ritchie's award, Southland Motorcycle Club president Andy Underhay said the club "wanted to show our huge gratitude to him".

"As a commentator, he's not out on the track and often he gets overlooked. Neil is an icon of motorsport in New Zealand and he has huge respect from competitors, organisers and officials alike.

"Neil didn't fit the criteria exactly for the Munro Family Trophy, because he's not actually a competitor, but he does what he does mostly for the love of it and makes the difficult look easy.

"He is a great ambassador of the Burt Munro Challenge and of motorcycling in general."

Credit: Words and photo by Andy McGechan,


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