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Organisers of this year’s Rally of Otago have been overwhelmed with the numbers of entries received for this year’s event, to be run on April 14 and 15.

A record number of entries, 99, have been received for the event, including a staggering 15 from overseas – 12 of which are from Australia.

Based in the South Island city of Dunedin, the event comprises round one of the Vantage Aluminium Joinery New Zealand Rally Championship, the Dunlop International Rally, and the Rally Xtreme Challenge, with strong competition expected in all categories.

Reigning New Zealand Champion, Richard Mason, will start the event with the coveted number one on his door, and he’s sure to come under fierce pressure from a host of other Subaru-mounted drivers, including Sam Murray, Chris West and Emma Gilmour.

However, it’s the two of the international entries in the NZRC field which look likely to create most of the interest in the national event. Scotsman Alister McRae will drive a locally prepared Impreza WRX in the event as he chases the New Zealand Rally Championship title for the first time.

A former Rally New Zealand competitor, this will be McRae’s first sojourn to the south of the country, and after father Jimmy’s exploits at the wheel of a Ford Escort in the last two Otago Classic Rallies, the youngest of the rallying McRae’s will be keen to start his season on a good note.

American Rally Championship and Subaru Rally Team USA driver, Ken Block, will also contest the event, driving an Impreza WRX. Block, 38, who recently created history by jumping a rally car 52 metres for a TV stunt back home in the States, will contest three events in New Zealand this year, starting with the Otago Rally.

Much interest will also be taken in some of New Zealand’s most exciting young drivers, including Sam Murray, Brett Martin, Dean Sumner and Haydon Paddon. In addition, former Ralliart factory driver, Mark Tapper, will start as favourite in the battle to be the first Ford Fiesta ST driver home.

Tapper will compet against the similar cars of Kayne Barrie, Dermott Malley and Chris Lange in the category.

Legendary New Zealand driver, Reg Cook, will again compete in his Nissan Pulsar. Cook became well known in the mid-1980s, contesting the Rally of New Zealand in a factory-backed Nissan 240RS, and is still actively competing over 20 years later.

Former World Rally Championship star, Alex Fiorio, heads the field in the Dunlop International Classic Rally. The Italian, who finished second in last year’s event, will drive the same left-hand drive Porsche 911 that he used last year.

Co-driven by the experienced Fabrizia Pons, Fiorio will start the event as the favourite to win, but will be under intense pressure from Christchurch’s Deane Buist in the leading Ford Escort RS1800. Always fast and spectacular, the aggressive Buist has been plagued by bad luck at the Otago Rally, but will be hoping that this is his year.

Bert Murray will drive the ex-Neil Allport Group B Mazda RX7, while two-time Australian Rally Champion, Geoff Portman, will start from position four in a Datsun Stanza. This will be Portman’s first rally in New Zealand, and he heads a list of 10 Aussies in the classic field.

“I think that the number of international entries that we have received this year signals a bit of a coming of age for New Zealand rallying,” event spokesman, Roger Oakley, said today. “Over the past few years we have put a lot of effort into attracting overseas competitors to the rally, and it is really starting to pay dividends.”

Forty-two cars have entered the Classic Rally, and this year looks like being the best chance yet for the Ford Escort RS1800 stranglehold on the event to be broken. Gary Adcock and his Triumph TR7 V8 will be in contention, as will Duncan McCrostie in his Nissan Bluebird, while other cars as diverse as Trevor Crowe’s V8-powered Skoda and Mark Laughton’s Rover-engined Hillman Avenger will also spice up the field for the large number of spectators expected to watch the action.

In the Rally Xtreme Challenge, local favourite Mike Turfus will pit his Lancer Evo 7 against Jeff Judd’s Impreza WRX and Andrew Hawkeswood’s Evo 6, but others, like Regan Ross and Greg Teece (both in Lancers), will be pushing hard.

Turfus is keen to put the memories of last year’s Otago Rally behind him. Running as zero car on the 2007 event, he rolled at the spectator point on the penultimate stage, causing much panel damage to his car, and plenty of embarrassment to his pride!

The 2007 Rally of Otago will once again feature the popular Forbury Park super special stage, on Friday night to start the event proceedings, and to finish the rally on Sunday afternoon. With grandstand seating and catering facilities available, the stage provides an ideal opportunity for spectators and service crews to watch the cars in action.

Another feature will be the tarmac stage run around Dunedin’s industrial district, where three (and often two) wheel driving thrills the thousands of fans every year. The tarmac stage will be the final stage on Saturday afternoon.

The rally service park will again be based at the picturesque township of Waihola, and it’s here where many fans see the real action of the rally. While there will be no sideways action to keep you entertained, the chance to watch some of the country’s most talented service crews in action can be a real highlight.

This year’s rally is sponsored by The Otago Daily Times, Dunlop and Scenic Circle Hotels.

For more information, check out the event website

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