As an investment fund manager, Tonia Stokes sometimes found herself being introduced to clients as the company’s fastest funds analyst.
But the compliment refers not so much to Stokes’s speed at forecasting returns as to her speed on the racetrack – she is Australia’s fastest female motorbike sidecar rider and the other half of the country’s first all-female sidecar road racing team.
Sidecar racing had been primarily a male pursuit, with the occasional exception of a woman ‘swinger’ (the passenger in the sidecar) until Tonia started competing in 1993. But, as she puts it, sidecar racing is not a man’s sport by definition – ‘It’s only a man’s sport because only men have done it,’ she says. Another woman rider started racing from late-February, with another all-female team, but this is an achievement Tonia feels she can share in.
Stokes’s swinger, Marie Henson, responded to an announcement at a race meeting. The team has just completed the first full season racing together, and for their overall results have been placed second in their field by the Sidecar Racing Club of Victoria. Nationally, they came sixth in the Australian Historic Road Race Championships, but picked up a fourth in the NSW Championship and a third in Victoria’s oldest road race event – the Southern Classic.
Naturally, Stokes is often asked what made her take up a sport seemingly so far removed from her career in financial services. ‘I was at Sydney University studying economics and my boyfriend of the time had a motorbike,’ she says. ‘We went on a two week holiday and I got really bored just sitting on the back. So when I came home I went out and bought a bike.’
After moving to Melbourne, she went to see a race at Phillip Island. ‘It was there that I first saw sidecars – and they just blew me away.’ And she was racing in a few months’ time. The sidecar club stages an annual event where experienced riders invite members of the public to go out on the racetrack as passengers. ‘I tried that, and I was hooked,’ she says. ‘For a long time people said to me ‘have a go’, but they meant of course I should try out as a swinger, not as a rider. It was never meant that I would ride.
‘But I thrive on challenges and excitement,’ she says, ‘and racing was a natural extension of my already keen interest in motorcycles. Sidecar racing to me provides the greatest adrenalin rush of all motorsport because of the unique three-way relationship between machine, rider and passenger.’
Stokes started out racing sidecars but moved to solo motorbikes for a few months until she came off, broke a wrist and dislocated an elbow. ‘I thought I’d like the glamour of racing solo bikes, but after I fell off it was back to the sidecars. I can push the bike harder and take more risks with a sidecar,’ she says. ‘If you make a mistake on a solo, chances are you’ll fall off and be injured.’
It was while she was out of action that Stokes found a willing team-mate in Henson, and she says the two make a near perfect pair. ‘You can’t talk out on the track; you have to have a silent language,’ Stokes says. ‘A lot of the time I’ll be thinking, ‘I hope Marie does this’, or ‘she’ll have to lean that way’ and she does just that. And it works the other way. She can touch me and I’ll know from that touch whether she means someone’s coming up from behind, something’s wrong or to go faster.’
But while the rider is the active part of the team, it is the passenger that lets it all happen. ‘Or put another way,’ she says, ‘the rider determines whether you win or lose; the swinger whether you live or die.’
In the meantime, Stokes started her own motorbike shop, Alias Motorcycle Engineering, specialising in the design and manufacture of racing sidecars, race engineering and general motorbike repairs. The shop employs three people and is not only a critical factor in Stokes’s racing career but also to another five or more sidecar teams through sponsorship and technical support. But Tonia has to limit her involvement mainly to weekends and after hours as she is still furthering her career in investment management.
Now assistant manager of Asian equities for the Norwich Group, Stokes is grateful for the support she has from the company. ‘But they do worry,’ she says.’ Monday I didn’t turn up to work and my boss was in a blind panic. Now, while I can arrange days off for qualifying, he prefers not to know where I’m going.’
In a way, Stokes says that the name of the motorbike shop came about as a label to her own lifestyle. ‘Most people wouldn’t expect a woman to run a motorbike shop, or to race motorbikes, and there aren’t many women in funds management either,’ she says. ‘So really I’m living a sort of alias existence no matter what I’m doing.’
This story first appeared in Good Weekend magazine