• You barely had two seconds to read the number of the car flashing by to confirm that this was indeed your favourite driver whom you had just seen whizz past.
• In total, I worked at CMC for nine years and this gave me a close-up look at all that went into making the Safari Rally the premier annual sporting event in Kenya.
Like many other Kenyans who grew up in the 1960s and 70s, I was utterly fascinated by the Safari Rally from the time I was old enough to be allowed to stand by the side of the road and watch the amazing cars speed by.
I memorised the names of the top drivers, in much the same way that a current fan of the English Premier League would know all the top players in that league. I knew what kind of cars these top rally drivers would drive, and the car number for any given year.
Knowledge of such details was essential for a full appreciation of the Safari Rally.
Because unlike now when a fan of any Premier League football team can look forward to slow-motion playbacks of their favourite player score, such luxuries were not possible when watching the safari rally live, back then.
Zooming past at incredible speeds
You barely had two seconds to read the number of the car flashing by to confirm that this was indeed your favourite driver whom you had just seen whizz past.
This was not always easy. The Safari Rally always took place during the Easter weekend, which was well into the rainy season, during those times of more predictable weather patterns. And so, the cars were often sprayed all over with mud from an earlier section of the rally.
The Safari Rally was a spectator sport like no other. Usually, you have to go to a specific venue like a stadium, to watch competitive sports. Also, usually, you have to pay for this privilege.
But when it came to the Safari Rally, all you had to do was study the map of the rally route which every newspaper published prominently in the week before the Easter weekend. Identify the place closest to you where the rally cars would pass, and the time when they were expected to pass. And then show up with your friends and family to watch them zoom past at incredible speeds.
Even in those areas doomed by the Safari Rally’s schedules and routes to have the cars pass by late at night — and perhaps amidst pouring rain — ordinary Kenyans in their hundreds would patiently wait by the roadside for a glimpse of the fabled rally drivers and their latest rally cars, roaring through the night with their dazzling lights which seemed to turn night into day.
The best in the world
Thinking back on those happy days, I also remember the names of the best drivers that we all memorised; those who were considered most likely to win in any given year.
Like our top marathoners of today, these were not just the best drivers in East Africa. They were the best in the world. The Safari Rally had global status as “the toughest rally in the world” and no rally driver worth his salt back then, would consider his or her career complete if they had not competed in and successfully finished the Safari Rally.
And so come every Easter weekend, we all settled down to watch at the various stages, a contest of man and machine which featured global rallying icons like: Bjorn Waldegard, Juha Kankunnen, Miki Biasion and Carlos Sainz.
As well as local legends like Shekhar Mehta, Johnny Hellier, Jim Heather Hayes, Joginder “The flying Sikh” Singh, Steve Anthony and Patrick Njiru.
I would like to say a bit more about the two most famous (as well as most accomplished) local rally drivers. These men were every bit as famous and as widely regarded as Kenyan national sports heroes, as marathoner Eliud Kipchoge is at the moment.
Joginder Singh and Shekhar Mehta
Singh was nicknamed “The Flying Sikh” for good reason. No matter what car he was driving, it always seemed to spend most of its time suspended in mid-air, literally flying past the delighted observers; hitting the ground only briefly; and then taking off into the air again.
He won the rally three times; in 1965 with Jaswant Singh in a Volvo PV544, in 1974 with David Doig in a Mitsubishi Colt Lancerand in 1976 with David Doig in a Mitsubishi Colt Lancer.
If anyone in Kenya achieved the status of a national hero through rallying, it was undoubtedly the Sikh superstar Singh.
With his brother Jaswant, he was not only the first Asian driver to win an international rally but also the first man to win the Safari three times.
His tally of 19 finishes in 22 Safari starts was unique. A record of consistency in “the world’s toughest rally” that is unlikely to be beaten.
Mehta was less flamboyant. But in the end, he was the more successful rally driver, the most polished and professional rally driver you could ever find. He was admired by many as “the professor” of Kenyan rallying.
His tally in terms of outright wins, made him the most successful Safari driver of all. His astounding record of five victories in the original endurance marathon style Safari, ( four of which were consecutive ) has not been equaled.
Waldegard came closest to Mehta’s record with an excellent tally of four Safari wins, but not consecutive.
Mehta won Safaris in 1973 with Lofty Drews Datsun 240Z, in 1979 with Mike Doughty Datsun 160 J, in 1980 with Mike Doughty Datsun 160 J, in 1981 with Mike Doughty Datsun Violet GT and in 1982 with Mike Doughty Datsun Violet GT.
An insider’s view
Most of my friends were hardcore devotees of the Safari Rally just as I was. But I was luckier than most in that I was employed at the Cooper Motor Corporation (then, as now, known simply as CMC) in 1978 as a Personal Assistant to the Chairman, Bruce McKenzie, who had previously served as a Cabinet Minister in the first cabinet of independent Kenya, as the Minister of Agriculture.
In total, I worked at CMC for nine years and this gave me a close-up look at all that went into making the Safari Rally the premier annual sporting event in Kenya. Thereafter, I worked for Toyota Kenya where I continued with my close-up experience of the Safari Rally.
Before that I had been an awed observer like everyone else. Now I got to take an insider’s view of just how much preparation goes into making such a glorious success of an event like the Safari Rally — an event which was to make local legends of the likes of Peter Shiyukah, Rob Collinge, Ian Duncan, Vic Preston Senior, Vic Preston Junior, Jonathan Toroitich, Njiru, Mike Kirkland and quite a few others.
So, what then did I learn about the preparations required for a rally car to have a shot at completing “the world’s toughest rally” — let alone winning?
Well, first about the driver. He must have an almost miraculous level of “hand-eye coordination” which makes him, shall we say, “at one with the car”. He must also be hypersensitive to every sound and every shift of his car.
And he would still not make much progress if he were not supported by a navigator who was totally focused on his route notes. By the guidance of these notes, a good navigator is able to effectively “see around the corner” and anticipate what potential obstacle, or bend in the road, lies up ahead, just a few seconds away.
This level of expertise is not possible without a high level of passion for this sport; a profound joy in the speeds which these cars can attain; and the sheer satisfaction at being able to control almost to perfection, a car going at such speeds, on such rough roads.
I also realised in time that, contrary to the impression created in the minds of observers that these top rally cars were in competition with each other (with the loudest shouts of approval from the fans saved for when one of them overtook another) what the professional rally driver really races against is the clock. Each stage of the rally has to be completed within a specific time.
Also, there was an argument often made back then — actually more of a myth — that these rally cars were in no way like the cars you could buy at an auto showroom. Given the degree of modification that took place, they were an altogether different kind of machine. Indeed, they were better defined as high-performance computers on wheels rather than motor cars as we understand them to be.
Some of this may have been true in earlier years of the rally. But when car manufacturers began to use the Safari Rally as a testing ground for new models, the global motorsport governing body, FIA, introduced strict limits on the modifications that could be made.
Limits of surveillance helicopters
Another myth was that victory was to a large degree governed by the size of the support crew, as well as the availability of helicopters to fly overhead as the rally cars they supported raced by.
It is true that surveillance helicopters were a definite advantage for any rally driver. But it was a little more complicated than that.
In one particular Safari, Argentine hero Jorge Recalde in his factory Lancia Integrale was leading the Safari when his own helicopter, which was supposed to be clearing the route and warning him of oncoming obstacles actually scared a herd of sheep into the road directly into Recalde’s path. The Lancia hit the sheep at speed which severely damaged the front of the car puncturing his radiator and oil cooler.
A few kilometres down the road, Recalde’s car broke down, losing his lead with terminal engine damage. It was a bitter pill to swallow as Recalde had been testing in Kenya for Lancia for several weeks prior to the rally, expecting to win.
Another incident was when the Lancia team helicopter crashed in Kapsabet during the rally whilst looking for a landing spot to allow top mechanics to service their cars. Luckily none of the four people on board were harmed.
Arrival of the “invincible” Toyota Celica
Looking back, I can now see, indeed it seems so obvious, that although European models of these cars dominated the Safari Rally for so long (from the 1950s to the 1970s) it was always just a matter of time before the Japanese models emerged as the winners.
For Japanese culture as much as Japanese business practices, focuses intensely on attention to detail, and the most thorough and scientific preparations.
I remember vividly that 1978 saw the beginning of the end for the European car models, such as Ford, Volvo, Peugeot, and other European models.
Soon the cars which captured the imaginations of rally enthusiasts were the likes of the Datsun GTZ (back then what we now know as Nissan cars, were known as Datsun); Datsun Violet GT; Datsun 160 J; Lancia Integrale; the Subaru Legacy; and the Mitsubishi Colt Lancer.
But the most iconic moment in my memory was when the Toyota Celica GT arrived at the podium at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, ready to make history.
A little background here on the Toyota Celica. The Toyota Celica Twin Cam Turbo in the capable hands of Waldegard and a young Kankunnen was a complete revelation in Safari Rally and a very tough opponent to be reckoned with.
It was a monster of a weapon, with supreme power using new Turbo-charging technology.
It was extremely robustly built for the Safari and had fantastic innovative suspension technology. The suspension travel on the Twin Cam Turbo probably doubled that of its rivals back in the day.
This meant it could literally fly over rough Kenyan roads with much more ease than its competitors.
Toyota’s spectacular achievements
The Toyota Celica Twin Cam Turbo later evolved into 4WD versions which again improved traction and road holding to another level.
This car gave Toyota the foundation that led to its record-breaking run of 10 wins — the only manufacturer to do so.
Toyota is also the only manufacturer that has won in every era of the World Rally Championship since the Safari Rally joined the WRC in 1978.
His dominance continues till today, with Toyota having won the Safari Rally in 2021 (when the rally rejoined the WRC after a 18-year lapse) and again in 2022.
The 2022 victory was spectacular and totally in a class of its own, as that is the year Toyota occupied all four top places in the race — in an achievement that will certainly never be replicated by any of the competitors.
Such then are some of the memories of the glory days of the Safari Rally – a glory which has since been restored to Kenya with the current safari rally, which generates great excitement all over the country and is producing a new generation of heroes and legends.
Ambassador Dennis Awori is the Chairman and Country Delegate of the CFAO Group in Kenya, which includes CFAO Motors, D.T. Dobie, Loxea, Laborex, CFAO Agri and Tyre Distributors Africa.