Those involved in running events at the Paradise Valley Speedway affectionately call themselves a "big little club", known for punching above their weight and delivering well-run, high-speed events. The club's efforts were recognised at the New Zealand Speedway Awards last month as they took home the Supreme Award for Best Private or Professionally Promoted Track, Best Event for the TWS World 240s and secretary Sonja Hickey won the Jake Pulman Award of Excellence for all her work behind the scenes. Sports reporter David Beck spoke to Hickey about what the awards meant to the club and how they plan to improve the experience for spectators even further.
It is not often Paradise Valley Speedway secretary Sonja Hickey finds herself speechless.
However, the recent New Zealand Speedway Awards night was an outlier. Winning the Supreme Award for Best Private or Professionally Promoted Track, ahead of the likes of speedway giants Western Springs and Palmerston North, was a dream come true.
Paradise Valley also won Best Event for the TWS World 240s before Hickey herself won the highly coveted Jake Pulman Award of Excellence.
She said when she went on stage for the third time she was too overcome with shock to get any words out. Luckily her husband Stan Hickey was there to speak for her.
"They moved us into the privately and professionally promoted category this year, against all the big boys, so I thought we didn't stand a chance. To win that was pretty cool," she said.
"It takes a lot for me to be speechless. By the time I got the Jake Pulman Excellence award I was beyond speechless, it was just one of those nights you don't ever forget."
Hickey has been running the show at Paradise Valley for 18 years now and it is a constant desire for improvement that drives her. This off season the club is working on improving the grandstand at the speedway to allow for more spectators.
"I just have a passion for the sport. When we started the track was pretty run down, there wasn't much left of it, and it's just the challenge of building it into something spectacular.
The awards we got were a culmination of those 18 years and achieving what we set out to do.
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"We're not finished yet, there's still a lot to do. We're right into upgrading the stands, Rotorua Energy Charitable Trust has helped a lot with some funding, it's a big supporter of the track and we do appreciate that.
"I think we have the best team in the country. On an ordinary race night we have a combination of 81 paid and volunteer staff working. If one of them doesn't get things right the whole thing can get out of line pretty quick. We've got a really great team and a lot of us have been there the 18 years I have and longer."
By the time I got the Jake Pulman Excellence award I was beyond speechless, it was just one of those nights you don't ever forget.
The TWS World Invitation Superstock Championship (World 240s), which won Best Event, was held at Paradise Valley Speedway in January. It attracted more than 100 drivers and about 8000 spectators.
"That in itself was huge because it was up against the Palmerston North Teams Champs which is recognised as the country's greatest event every year.
"We always have a top field, all the superstock drivers around the country kind of class it as like a New Zealand title and come back every year. Every year it's grown and every year we've added a bit to it, like this year we added a women's event."
Speedway New Zealand general manager Zoe Irons said the Jake Pulman Award celebrated service and excellence in the sport.
"Sonja has given pure dedication to her club in multiple roles over four decades.
"Her ongoing commitment to the Rotorua Speedway Club has seen new clubrooms for members to enjoy, new seating to support growing crowd numbers, and world class events that put the small track in Rotorua on the map. Sonja is renowned across the country for running a slick show and for advocating for a voice for competitors nationally.
"Sonja has also supported the sport on a national level, boasting positions on the Fidelity Fund and Injured Racers Fund - funds set up to support competitor prize money payouts and grants for injured competitors. Sonja was also an orchestrator of the annual awards dinner for the sport, recognising the sport's champions."