37 years ago, Mike Pero won the last of his six national motor-cycle racing titles, then retired to focus on family and business commitments. He has not forgotten the thrill of racing though and after time in cars and jet ski racing he is now back on the seat of a grand prix machine.
It might not be at a national level, but it is still racing in a Classic category of the sport which, like the cars, continues to gain momentum in popularity.
For the record, during the period from 1977 to 1982, Mike won two 350cc championships, two 500cc, and two production titles along with twelve national grand prix victories. He also still holds the New Zealand land speed record for a 350cc bike. This was set at 238km per hour back in 1979 when he was nineteen.
The end came in a spectacular fashion as he picked himself up off the road following a crash at the local Ruapuna raceway (a track that now bears his company name). “As I looked up, I could see my wife and daughter in the pits and immediately thought ‘for goodness sake what am I doing this for? They are far more important,” he explained. “Ironically, I then tried racing jet skis which are more dangerous than racing bikes. The water changes all the time, but a sealed track surface does not.”
Racing bikes for Mike started when he was only 15. He had no special interest in motor-bikes when growing up, but a Christmas day ride with a cousin on his Yamaha 250 changed all that. “I just had to have one,” he said.
His first race meeting transpired after a loss of licence dictated that the only place he could ride was on the track. This was at the Levels circuit near Timaru where a couple of wins set him up for what lay ahead.
Such was his interest in the bikes, his first job after leaving Shirley Boys High, was at Doug Cresswell Suzuki in Christchurch where he started as an apprentice mechanic and finished when working for Norgo Motors. The business juices that obviously ran through his veins kicked in and Mike and friend Al Dick established their own motor-bike business with the formation of Monarch Motors.
The focus on racing cars unfolded some sixteen years years later when the advent of a new V8 category began to grip the country’s enthusiasts. The impact was not lost on Mike, who then embarked on a new involvement with motorsport. He was one of the first to build a new 2001 VX Holden Commodore.
This all started off well, when he and another Christchurch local, Steve Rae, won the LK 500 endurance race at Ruapuna. This was a long distance race and in the early days of the fledging category. The field was chock full of the best drivers in New Zealand at the time. His own two-car team eventuated with another local driver, Wade Henshaw, driving one car and Mike the other. Henshaw was second in the 2005/06 national championship with Mike ending in the middle of the table.
“I really didn’t realise how big the difference was between the bikes and cars back then. The learning curve was even greater because I had gone straight into the V8’s without doing any racing at a lesser or club level,” he explained. “With the bikes 90% is the rider, but the cars are 50/50 between driver and car where you have to rely so much more on your crew to give the best set up and driving where it is just so different to sitting on a bike seat with no protection around you at all.”
After retiring again, Mike then became the principal sponsor of Greg Murphy in the Super Touring car championship for a short period. It was an association that he thoroughly enjoyed, which also provided an insight into why Murphy is such a good driver and why he has become such a wonderful ambassador for the sport.
Roll the clock forward to today where Mike is happy to have returned to his first love, racing motor-bikes, but these are now classic. It has given him an opportunity to reunite with bikes from an earlier era and to catch up with old mates. This includes racing a 1995 Yamaha TZ250 at the classic rounds in New Zealand. “I might not be racing at 100%, but it is probably around 85% and something that you still do without thinking a lot more about. I still love it!”
A special moment (bucket list worthy) occurred recently at Hampton Downs when he did a few laps on a replica Suzuki RG500, a bike on which Englishman Barry Sheene had won a world championship in the 1970s. “That was really special, I still have a smile when thinking about it.”
“Mike Pero, Motor Cycle Racer”; give it a red background and it fits comfortably alongside his promoted commercial ventures.
Words by Lindsay Kerr