Take it to the Limit: A Motorcycle Documentary with No Bounds

Above all others, Take it to the Limit and On Any Sunday are considered motorcycle documentary classics today.

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courtesy Peter Starr Production Co.
The original movie poster.

On Any Sunday probably registered first in your mind as one of those films, but if you weren’t part of the motorcycle scene during the early 1980s you may not be familiar with the other title, Take It To The Limit, produced and directed by expatriated Englishman Peter Starr.

Starr’s film focuses on what could be described as motorcycle racing’s Golden Era — the mid-to-late 1970s. Limit‘s opening scene features an aerial view of the late Dave Emde riding a 1978 Yamaha XS1100 at speed on California’s Highway 150 along the Casitas Pass. The speedometer needle registers 130-plus mph before the film cuts to Kenny Roberts gracefully road racing his Yamaha TZ750, then cuts back to Emde on the street bike before showing a nasty crash by racer Bob Endicott at Ontario Motor Speedway. The stage is set for the rest of the film, and what follows is a litany of scenes, commentary and interviews with racers, among them American speedway star Scott Audrey, Steve Baker’s unforgettable 1976 Race of the Year win at Mallory Park against Barry Sheene and other greats of that era, and more.

The point-of-view perspective, mixed with racers’ commentary, puts the audience up close and personal with legends such as Roberts after his historic Indy Mile win in 1975 aboard a TZ750-powered flat tracker, a gut-wrenching quarter-mile 199-mph ride with Russ Collins aboard his Sorcerer twin-engine (Honda 750s) drag bike, and a reckless jaunt in a Southern California desert race with offroad master AC Bakken, who wore an eight-pound helmet camera (sorry, no GoPro back then!) for a rider’s perspective of dodging desert pucker bushes at breakneck speeds while overtaking slower riders.

Perhaps the most gripping footage is aboard a Yamaha TZ750 piloted by all-time great Mike Hailwood as he laps the Isle of Man during the 1977 Manx GP open practice. It was Hailwood’s first ride on the Mountain Course in 10 years, and the front story about his ride was obvious — he was helping Starr shoot on-board footage for his documentary. The back story was different, as Starr recalls: “He (Hailwood) wanted to see if he still ‘had it.’ He was toying with making a comeback the following year, but he didn’t want to commit until he knew for sure that he’d be competitive.” Starr said that within two laps Hailwood realized he was ready, and he was; the following year he made IoM history, winning the Formula One TT aboard Steve Wynne’s Ducati. We can thank Starr for helping make that happen in the first place.

And now, back to our feature film: Hailwood and his TZ750 take the viewer for a ruckus ride through IoM’s narrow streets, flashing past stone walls, houses and curbs at 150mph before heading up the wide-open mountain section where he encounters fog while doing 170mph! The whole time Hailwood narrates from the saddle, calmly describing upcoming landmarks of the 37.75-mile course in detail. Amazing.

It’s no surprise that Starr took the rider’s perspective for this film. As a young man working for Triumph Motorcycle’s export department, he also had the opportunity to race with the factory team at various endurance races including the Thruxton 500 (England) and Barcelona 24 Hour (Spain). Like many of us, Starr was a racer.

Eventually, though, Starr acquired a knack for film making, and by 1979 he completed Take It To The Limit that premiered the following year during Daytona’s Speed Week. Limit was an instant hit, earning a gold medal at the 1980 Chicago International Film Festival, and a silver medal at the Houston festival, the only motorcycle film to achieve such awards.

So why doesn’t Limit share On Any Sunday‘s notoriety? Litigation. Shortly after the movie completed its premier show circuit the title got swallowed in a legal quagmire. As Starr explains: “The Cliffs Notes version reads like a horror story of independent film making in Hollywood: Producer makes film, distributor shows film, film makes lots of money, distributor runs away with money, film is buried in legal hassles, producer never sees money and film languishes close to oblivion.”

But, like a memorable Hollywood production, there’s a happy ending, which also serves as the movie’s new beginning: To celebrate Limit‘s 40th anniversary this year Starr is taking it on tour, so to speak, where he will host a full showing at select motorcycle dealers across the country. Admission is free, and the wide screen (13’) and Dolby sound system (Limit is the first ever documentary film to use Dolby sound) is geared to entertain up to 250 people at a time. A Q&A session, hosted by Starr himself, follows each showing.

The original plan was to tour throughout 2020, but the COVID-19 lockdown nixed that. As public-gathering restrictions eased, Starr initiated Plan B, and with help from BMW and Triumph the tour was to resume this summer, visiting 32 dealers. The plan is to open in Los Angeles before heading up the West Coast to visit more dealers, then pointing east working its way to Daytona Beach, Florida, for the annual Biketoberfest in October. By late autumn, he expects to conclude the tour in California where it began.

Starr is donating a portion of profits to prostate cancer research, and he hopes to continue tours with dealers and future motorcycle events for 2021. To find a showing near you visit motostarr.com, then prepare yourself to take it to the limit. MC

Taking it to the Limit traces filmmaker Peter Starr’s personal journey as he made some of the most acclaimed, award-winning films in motorcycle movie history. In these 272 pages, more than 500 photographs show behind-the-scene looks at history being made during races all over the United States and Europe from 1973-1993. From Mike Hailwood’s return to the Isle of Man in ’77 to Kenny Robert’s return to the Mile Dirt track in ’85, it’s all showcased in this book. This title is available at MotorcycleClassics.com/Store or by calling 800-880-7567.

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