World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea paid a glowing tribute to Ulster road racing king Joey Dunlop as the Kawasaki star was crowned the 2015 Irish Motorcyclist of the Year at the Cornmarket Motorbike Awards in Belfast on Friday night.
The Ballyclare man was a clear winner of the main accolade following his stunning success on the world stage last year, when Rea won 14 races to dominate the series after switching to new team Kawasaki from Honda.
The 28-year-old’s grandfather John sponsored Joey in the 1970s and ’80s, with the Ballymoney legend claiming the first of his record 26 Isle of Man TT successes on the Rea Racing Yamaha TZ750 in 1977.
As he collected the famous Irish Motorcyclist of the Year trophy in front of a packed crowd at the Ramada Hotel, which bears a mini replica of Joey’s iconic yellow Arai helmet, Rea recalled how he had drawn inspiration from five-time world champion Dunlop, hailing him as a ‘great role model’.
“This trophy means a lot to me because my grandfather was a big fan of Joey Dunlop back in the day and I got the chance when I was younger to spend some time with him,” Rea said.
“It was great to have that role model and it was special to be in his company and realise what a great person he was; they are great memories.
“My family have been behind me from the beginning and I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved. It was 14 years ago today that my mum and dad sent me off to Spain to ride with Jeremy McWilliams and I wouldn’t have been able to do this without them.”
Rea became the first motorcycling world champion from Northern Ireland since Joey and Brian Reid claimed the Formula 1 and Formula 2 titles respectively in 1986 and selflessly seized the opportunity to pay homage to the pair when he sealed the World Superbike championship at Jerez in Spain in September, donning their helmets during his post-race celebrations.
“To be able to wear their helmets was nice for me, coming from a country so rich in motorcycling history as Northern Ireland,” Rea said.
“To be able to pay tribute to them was so important to me and also for the fans. I’m so grateful for the support from Northern Ireland because for all the support here for boxing and golf, we’ve put bikes right up there as well.”
Rea flew into Belfast following a two-day test last week at Jerez and will resume his pre-season preparations this week with a further shakedown at Motorland Aragon in Spain.
He will then make the long trip to Australia for the season opener at Phillip Island as he focuses on the successful defence of his world crown.
“Kawasaki gave me a great opportunity to ride a championship-wining bike and I hope to be able to defend that title on the new ZX-10R.
“It won’t be easy, but my goal is to retain the title this year,” he said.
“I’ll have a fight on my hands and I’ve got a really tough team-mate to beat [Tom Sykes] and Chaz Davies as well. It’s a good moment for the championship with Yamaha coming back in as well but we have a great package with the ZX-10R and I know if we can put together a year with no mistakes, then we can have another great season,” he added.
“I don’t like testing but you have no idea how excited I am to get to Phillip Island and have those first two races.”