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But he had to work for his sixth win as changeable road and weather conditions plus a cow on the road made life challenging for the Gore rally driver.
Being seeded No 1 and starting first on the newly graded and very slippery roads of stages 1 and 2 meant Graves (Mitsubishi EVO) and fellow top seed Kaiapoi driver Job Quantock were effectively clearing the road for the 50 other drivers competing on the Mitchells Flat (14km) and the Waipori Rd (15km) stages.
Dunedin’s John Spencer, driving from the No 7 starting slot, took advantage of the opportunity offered and grabbed an early lead, finishing the stages with a 6sec lead over Quantock, while Graves finished in fourth.
In stage 2 Graves dragged back a place or two by the time he arrived at the first service stop in Lawrence, but it didn’t matter as behind the leading drivers an unintended off-road excursion by Invercargill’s Nigel King (Mitsubishi Lancer EVO) early on in the stage blocked the road and forced the cancellation of the stage.
Spencer said he felt the pressure of being in the lead going into the hard and fast southern section of the rally.
After a long delay forced by the recovery of the crew and vehicle blocking the Waipori Rd stage, rally organiser the Otago Sports Car Club (OSCC) quickly reassembled the competitors and resumed the rally on special stage 3 Cockleshell Rd.
As expected, Graves’ experience on the high-speed Tuapeka West roads in the dry sunny conditions proved invaluable as he dominated, leapfrogging Quantock and Spencer to take a 3sec lead heading back to the service centre.
However, that all changed when a southerly rolled in, bringing much cooler conditions and heavy rain by the time the drivers fronted up to the start of stage 4, Roberts Rd.
Graves continued to keep Quantock, Spencer and an improving Carter Strang at bay through this and the final Breakneck Rd stage, building up a final winning margin of 9sec over Quantock despite the shock of seeing a large black cow in the middle of the road just corners from the finish line.
“It was a tricky rally this year and we [his co-driver was his son Hayden Graves] were driving on the edge all day just keeping our noses clean as the weather changed and the roads became more slippery until we saw the big cow just standing there in the middle of the road near the end.’’
OSCC president Robert McConachie said it had been a good day out .
“There were plenty of people walking around with big smiles and now we are looking forward to coming back here again for the much delayed Otago Rally in April 2021.”