THERE’S little down time in the life of Tony Rees, a life lived in top gear, often astride a motorbike at speeds of up to 290 kilometres an hour.
“Well, I do like to go fishing sometimes,” Tony says, when asked what he does to relax from the high-powered world of motorcycle road racing. However, he soon changes his response to the somewhat different, “actually, I’d like to go fishing sometimes”. It finally comes to rest with, “really, I should go fishing sometimes”.
It’s hard, it seems, for anything not powerful and on two wheels to get much of a look into Tony Rees life, or the busy Rees family rural household where even the land is turned over to a race track.
Tony’s induction into Motorcycling New Zealand’s Hall of Fame last month, acknowledging his stellar career and broad contribution to the sport, marks another achievement in a long list for Whakatane’s acclaimed racer. “It really was a great honour, though at first I felt embarrassed. I was surprised. I hadn’t seen it coming,” Tony says.
The road racer has accumulated a glowing list of accolades since being introduced to the sport at the age of 19. Looking back, he says it is hard to imagine any other path he might have taken.
“I always had a fascination for things on two wheels,” he says. As a child it had been bicycles until, at age 11, he had his first experience of motorbikes. “There was an old pull-start bike we fixed up and got going. The throttle jammed when I was riding it and I went straight through a hedge into the church next door.” Growing up in Taneatua was a great place to be a young rider, he says.
But it was in 1985, when Tony was 16 and working as an apprentice at a Whakatane motorcycle shop that his boss, Phillip Sheaff, decided to enter him into a road race. The race was Tony’s first, and would mark the beginning of a racing career that continues today – not only with his own, ongoing competitions, but also with the racing careers of his two sons, Mitchell, 25, and Damon, 23.
With his sons taking to the sport at an early age, Tony says the world of motorcycle racing has been a great way of life for his family. “We’ve done a lot together,” he says, with Mitchell and Damon both involved in motocross for many years before moving into road racing. “We’re always heading off an adventure somewhere.”
It was 1994 when Tony set up his own motorcycle shop, Tony Rees Motorcycles, before moving to the current location in Whakatane’s Gateway Park in 2002, and through all the years, running the business has needed to blend with Tony’s national and international competitions.
“I have a fantastic team of people that keep things running here. They’re our A Team”. He says his wife, Vicki, is the backbone of the family. “She’s the positive driving force that keeps everything on track. She’s amazing, I don’t know how she does it.”
His accolades range from Shell Rider of the Year in 1987, just two years after his first race, to his most recent title of 2017 New Zealand Superbike Champion – a title he also won in both 2001 and 2005.
He won the 1988 NZ Castrol Six Hour Endurance event, and has competed in numerous events in Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Belgium, with impressive results.
Tony was named New Zealand Road-racer of the Year in 2005, and won national Open Sports Production class titles in 1997, 1998 and 1999, as well as uncountable national events including the iconic Paeroa Battle of the Streets that he won last year for the 10th time.
Though forced to sit out competition this past New Zealand season after fracturing his hand in December, Tony says he counts himself lucky. “It was my first broken bone in the sport for the past 17 years,” he says.
There were earlier breaks, he says – a fractured pelvis, a collar bone. But nothing, compared to more than a dozen breaks he has sustained over the years riding dirt bikes.
With road racing, “the speeds are much faster, but we have forward momentum on our side. You just have to be sure you don’t hit anything,” he says. With dirt bikes, falls happen at much lower speeds, “but the impact can be much harder”.
Tony says his contribution to the sport, and motocross events such as the Tarawera 100, are his way of giving something back to a sport that gives him and his family so much.
Currently out of action himself and focusing on his sons’ Australian competition season in the role of crew chief is a position he’s delighted to take. “I’ve been there, done that, and it’s great to just focus on the boys at the moment.”
With Damon winning the NZ 600cc Supersport Championship last year and currently lying in third place in the Australian Supersport Championship, and Mitchell finishing second in the NZ Superbike Championship this year, Tony says he and Vicki are “very proud”.
But while enjoying the role, it does bring new challenges. “When I’m about to race, the helmet goes on and the nerves go away, but when the boys are racing, it’s much, much harder. The nerves don’t go until the boys pass that chequered flag.”
The most difficult scenario is when both he and his sons are racing in the same event. Seeing a yellow flag raised signalling an accident ahead, Tony’s first thought is where his sons are.
“The consoling thing is that, so far, I’ve known that they’ll be behind me,” Tony smiles, but it’s a situation he predicts is about to change.
Asked how will feel the day one of his sons beats him on the track for the first time, his answer is, “I’ll feel very proud. And that day is not far off. I reckon I’ll have my work cut out next season.”
By Lorraine Wilson