By Pete McNae

Former Nelson streetstock champion and duke of the dunger derby Andy (Andre Vegas) Guthrie is one heck of a talented magician. From his beginnings as a kids’ party conjurer to his current status as a highly sought after professional performer, Vegas has honed and expanded his craft. Yet it’s one of his assistants who has performed the most breathtaking trick of all, making half of herself disappear.

A couple of speedway seasons ago, Nelson’s Zoe Connolly weighed a lot more than she does now. Something close to 50kg more. Connolly was a competing showjumper and enjoyed being involved with performance and stage shows but tended to shy away from the spotlight because she lacked confidence. A choice to clean up her diet and make gym attendance part of her lifestyle has had payoffs that extend beyond dress sizes and readings on the scales. Connolly, 23 and one paper from becoming a pharmacy technician, is a frequent part of Vegas’ stage shows, missing the first couple of meetings of the season at Nelson’s Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway as Vegas vanished her, dismembered her and transported her — as if by magic.

“It’s something I wouldn’t have done before I made that choice to get down to a happy, healthy weight,” Connolly says. “It’s changed me hugely. I loved dance and performance but I didn’t have the confidence to be ‘seen’. For me, losing weight unlocked that confidence but it doesn’t have to be that — any choice you make to value yourself would have the same effect.”

Connolly started her journey to a more healthy lifestyle about the same time as her partner, Cam Lankshear, was dabbling with a shift to speedway. A kart racer and rally driver, Lankshear decided to give speedway a go, buying a David Leitch-built Honda Civic to have a crack in the production saloon class. While Lankshear already had a motorsport background, Connolly was a horsey-type. “Dad once said that if I sold the horse, I could have a ministock but I still have the horse. There was no way that sale was going to happen.”

The plan to share the Civic had its flaws. Waiting a month, instead of a fortnight, to get a drive was frustrating for both Connolly and Lankshear, while Connolly had a pretty decent prang early in her career, piling into a spun car in her second meeting. “That was the night I learned to look to where you are going, rather than focusing on the end of the bonnet.”

Lankshear was running in midfield in the entry-level car, Connolly’s goal back then was to avoid accidents and minimise the number of times she got lapped. The next phase for CZ Motorsport saw Lankshear buy Leitch’s VW Golf with Connolly taking over “Rhonda the Honda”, all the while losing weight while gaining experience and confidence. This season saw her take the next step, buying a Nissan Primera last raced almost five seasons earlier by Henry Ford. A bigger, more powerful car than the Honda, Connolly felt she was ready to push ahead and the Primera was dirt cheap.

Magic show commitments saw her arrive late on the scene this season but she is catching up fast. A big breakthrough came when the production saloon class rep won her first race over at Blenheim’s Eastern States Speedway.

“I’m a bit superstitious. We went to the supermarket to grab a few bits and the bill came to $17.17 (Connolly’s race number is 17) and I turned to Pam [fellow Nelson production competitor Pam Nixon] and said ‘this is it, I’m winning a race today’. I started off the front in the last race, when I usually have got into some kind of groove and just hung on with Dave Allen all over my bumper and coolant pouring over me, screaming at the car to finish.”

Better was to come a week later, at Nelson’s most recent meeting, when she won her first race on her home track, again starting from the front and pulling away as the pack squabbled behind her.

“I just feel like I have come a long way from being so timid at the start to Flintstone-ing with my feet in Rhonda to try to stay with the pack to actually racing a speedway car and showing I can compete. I’d love to be passing more cars but there’s not much room on that mid-low line. Cam doesn’t mind running by the wall but it hasn’t always worked out so well.

“I don’t need to win a race to feel like I have had a good night at the speedway but, having won twice now, I can tell you it’s better than being at the back.”

On Saturday, Connolly will take her place in the five-car Nelson team to run the second round of the Mike Inwood Trophy against Blenheim. The N cars hold a wafer-thin three-point lead after the Eastern States leg and will aim to claim back the trophy with another points win in the first race for the class. After that, they are into the Autobatt Nelson King of the Clay promotion with the Nelson Speedway Association choosing to slash gate prices to get the sport in front of a bigger crowd.

With past TQ driver Jordan Gillespie now moving over from pit duties to a third CZ Motorsport car (the ex-Tony Diedrichs 93N Nissan), the class here continues to grow in strength and Connolly echoes earlier comments about the proddies being a happy part of the pits with drivers getting along as friends.

“It’s been an easy class to rip the piss out of but we are getting a lot of fun for our money and making good friends around the South Island. If money was no object, Cam and I would like to have a drive in a stockcar — that crashing and bashing appeals — but, being realistic, we will keep chasing the productions, maybe aiming for a number (podium place at a national title meeting) one day.

“It’s starting to click. It’s a good feeling to just be comfortable now, on the track, with my health and my lifestyle, in our friend group in the class. I could never go back to where I was.”

  • Zoe Connolly and CZ Motorsport race with the support of partner Cam Lankshear, Jordan Gillespie, Nathan Miller, DJ Musk and Rosie Jefcoate, along with dad and mum (their fitness business Studio One2One has been Zoe’s personal trainer and primary sponsor), Cam’s mum, Hubbers Flooring, Richard Bateman Motors, Richmond Office Products Depot, Supercharge Batteries, Seeka Panels and Parts and High Rev Motorsport.
  • As mentioned, the club has cut its gate prices substantially as a one-off gesture for this meeting. With adult entry at $10 instead of $20 and a family pass (two adults and three kids up to 15) costing $20 instead of $40, the Autobatt Nelson King of the Clay will be a cheap night out for Nelson families. There are also giveaways, including family passes and $1000 cash for a trackside fan. Check the Nelson Speedway Association Inc Facebook page for details.

Photos: Rebecca Connor Maling, BM Photography