COMMENT: Young boy who idolised Joey is now a sporting icon himself

Ever since he was a wide-eyed schoolboy motocross racer, Jonathan Rea dreamed of one day becoming a world champion.

The Larne Grammar School pupil idolised Joey Dunlop, who was famously sponsored by his grandfather, John Rea, in the 1970s and 80s.

Jonathan Rea celebrates with his Kawasaki team at Magny-Cours in France on Saturday after winning a record third successive World Superbike Championship.

Jonathan Rea celebrates with his Kawasaki team at Magny-Cours in France on Saturday after winning a record third successive World Superbike Championship.

Joey became a household name after winning five Formula One world championships between 1982-1986 and breaking records at the Isle of Man TT, where he still remains the most successful rider ever with 26 victories.

Thirty-one years after Dunlop’s final world title triumph, the little boy with aspirations of emulating his hero has made history himself, setting a new record of three consecutive World Superbike Championship successes with Kawasaki.

Today – just as Jonathan was in awe of Joey all those years ago – aspiring young motorcycle riders look up to Ulster’s new triple champion, inspired by his stunning success on the track.

Rea’s chosen discipline steered him away from the ‘pure’ road racing path that was also trodden by his father Johnny, a talented rider who won the Junior race at the Isle of Man TT in 1989.

The victory champagne tasted sweet for history-maker Jonathan Rea.

The victory champagne tasted sweet for history-maker Jonathan Rea.

However, his family’s ties to Joey and his own admiration for the revered Ballymoney racer left a lasting impression on Rea, who paid tribute to ‘Yer Maun’ and double Formula Two world champion Brian Reid after he clinched his maiden World Superbike crown at Jerez in Spain in 2015.

In a planned celebration, Rea donned original helmets belonging to Joey and ‘Speedy’ Reid on his victory lap, paying homage to two of Northern Ireland motorcycling’s favourite sons.

His touching gesture of respect was a measure of Rea’s humility, honouring two former champions amidst the elation of his own finest hour.

This evening, Rea will receive a hero’s welcome of his own as he attends a homecoming party in Ballyclare.

The 30-year-old has already ensured his name will be etched into the history books as he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats of the World Superbike Championship.

Rea is level on three SBK world titles with Aussie star Troy Bayliss, with only four-time champion Carl Fogarty ahead of him in the hall of fame.

And he could yet outshine them all.

Rea has shown few chinks in his armour over the course of his three championship-winning seasons and it is difficult to imagine anyone knocking him off his perch for the foreseeable future, such has been his command on the Kawasaki ZX-10RR.

At the peak of his powers, there is surely more to come from the 50-time WSBK race winner, who has already put his battle-weary rivals on notice by warning he is ‘eager for more’.

A move to the MotoGP World Championship has been mooted but talked down by Rea, who perhaps has more to gain by enhancing his legacy in World Superbikes.

Whatever happens, Rea has ensured that ‘our wee country’ has left a giant footprint on the history of the World Superbike Championship.

His achievements deserve equal recognition as those of his sporting counterparts from Ulster such as golfers Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.

A nomination for the BBC’s Sports Person of the Year is long overdue, but if none is forthcoming it will have no bearing on how Rea is regarded amongst his own as one of the best there has ever been.