The Safari Rally needs neither introduction nor explanation, a motorsport myth whose folklore supersedes definition of any other sporting event save the Olympics Games in terms of media coverage and appeal in Kenya.
Between 1953 and 1996 the Safari was front page news, commanded live radio coverage long before the era of digital technology, defied the best technological automotive engineering and at one time excited Hollywood. In Kenya nothing mattered during the Safari.
The event defined the course of a new nation in 1963 when a set of seven drivers out of 86 starters conquered the 4989km challenge. This aside, the Safari is a reminder of Kenya’s once promising potentials of an aspiring economic power house and a major global sporting destination in the first two decades of independence.
At its prime the Safari humbled the best drivers in the world at every edition and became a pilgrimage for TV journalists, writers and celebrities, _ peaking to 100 personnel in 1963, not to cover Kenya’s historic first self rule Madaraka celebrations which were only 45 days away but the Safari of that year.
The gods of the weather opened the heavens before and during the rally which started on April 11 and after three days and four nights of rallying through flooded rivers and slippery roads in East Africa for 4989km, the field of 86 was decimated to only seven who became part of Safari folklore as the “Unsinkable Seven.” In 1968 a similar scenario was replicated by another group of seven who became known as “The Magnificent Seven.”
They crucially catapulted Kenya in the limelight of international sporting arena, giving the Safari its now famed toughest and greatest Rally in the world tag and the country.
Additionally, the other PR platform for the Safari was the vanquished overseas drivers who for the eighth year running up to 1963 were overwhelmingly beaten by locals and continued to do so until 1972 when Hannu Mikola and Gunnar Palm broke the jinx in a Ford Escort RS1600.
They returned home and broadcast to the world that here in Kenya was a unique challenge those bold enough to come and try the adventure themselves. The same scenario of 1963 was repeated in 1967 by another group of seven or the “Magnificent Seven.”
Another distinction of both editions (1963 and 1968) was the winner Nick Norwicki and Joginder Singh who came fifth. At independence therefore Kenya was thirsting to have a truly national hero and he happened to have been the first all-Asian crew of Joginder Singh and his brother -in-law Jatswant Singh. Joginder transcended the colour-bar and everybody 60 years and below grew up looking to live to Joginder’s ideals as boys.
Joginder won the 1965 Safari, 74 and 76. He took part in 22 times and finished 19 times. In his last Safari in 1980 Hollywood was getting excited and selected TV star Parker Stephenson to co-drive him in a Mercedes Benz 450SLC as a smooth entry for the Safari in the Americans psyche, the same year Philip Morris through its cigarette brand Marlboro entered into the biggest commercial sponsorship of the event which last for 10 years. International corporate rivalry reared in the Safari as this sponsorship forced the BBC boycott coverage since independence.
After Joginder another Kenyan rallying hero Shekhar Mehta won in 1973 before taking four other straight wins between 1978 to 1982 growing the Nissan/Datsun into a truly global brand. Then Africans came in with their meager resources.
Sospeter Munyegere of Uganda broke the jinx in 1969 Thuku, Peter Shiyuka and George Githu were the Africans who conquered the Safari. Patrick Njiru finished in 1987 and notched several first including a 4th in 1994.
Then another crop of Africans joined the fray with Phineas Kimathi giving Hyundai their first ever World Rally Championship points after winning the Formula 2 category in a Hyundai Coupe in 1999. Jim Kahumbura, Jimmy Wahome, Jonathan Toroitich and John Ngunjiri are the only Africans to have finished in the World Championship Safari.
Marlboro quit in 1990 after the government refused to liberalise the tobacco industry, denying them a chance to assault the BAT a total monopoly market. But BAT through Sportsman brand sponsored Patrick Njiru in 1993-94 season. Then the parent company under 555 brands which was also the title sponsor of the Subaru World Rally Team stepped in 1995 to support the Safari for three years before withdrawing in 1997.
The company had to terminate the sponsorship because of pressure from world healthy bodies which were lobbying an anti- tobacco sponsorship of sports on health grounds following globally.
By then Safari’s finest hour was over. This did not happen without a majesty leap.
Four months after losing the world championship status in 2002, FIA commercial arm, ISL entered the 2002 Safari TV 36 minutes global coverage wrap in the short feature films competition organised by British TV station, Channel 4 which won a bronze medal.
By ISL admission, it was a painful business blunder to lose the Safari in the championship as it was adjudged as the most virtually attractive outdoor sporting event in the world in the 13-event championship calendar which attracted a 1.5 billion global TV viewership worldwide annually.
From the economic front, the Safari injected US$6 million directly into the Kenyan economy when the world championship circus came visiting in a span of two weeks through hire of helicopters, bed occupancy, fuel, support vehicles, government taxes and personnel.
Enormous free publicity was also generated for Kenya as a tourism destination through 108 minutes of delayed TV coverage spread over three days in all terrestrial TV channels _ SuperSport ( Africa), ESPN (North America ), BBC (UK), Euro Sport (Europe and Oceania)_ besides hectares of international print media coverage.
For FIA to impose stringent conditions for Kenya if it was to return to the championship, it offered both the local officials and government every opportunity to see the value of what they so willingly let go. The federation exhibited a lot of leeway and still does as it continues to encourage Kenyan officials to meet set international standards and the Safari would be given priority.
But it continues to score below average in media, safety and technology.
In February 2003 FIA invited global internet voting among drivers, fans and manufacturers to decide which between the Safari and Rally of Australia should host that year’s eighth round of the championship. Voting started on a Tuesday on the FIA website (www.wrc.com) and a few days later when results were aired by Cable News Network (CNN), the Safari had received 60,000 votes, 20,000 than Australia. Kenyans failed to take any meaningful initiative.
Many works teams mourned the demise of the Safari because the Safari had become the ideal ground to sort out bruised egos after failure in Europe. Some of them went for over kills especially Toyota and Lancia who splashed enough money to finance many small third world countries. Boeing 747 cargo planes loaded to capacity with rally cars, spares and helicopters were dispatched from Cologne (Toyota Team Europe) and Turin (Martin Lancia) to Nairobi for battles royale in the 90s.
In 1993 for example, Toyota fielded four cars, the safety helicopters flying along, above and in front of every car. More helicopters would drop mechanics from the air for emergency repairs. They literally rebuilt the cars, replacing hands-on mechanics cum drivers to sprint wizards who drove cars at their limits, regardless.
One, Tommi Makinen of Finland of Mitsubishi team perfected this in 1996 and changed the Safari from endurance to a sprint. Mitsubishi admitted Tommi’s car would not have survived for another 100km. This marked the beginning for the end.
Nissan pumped in over Ksh700 million in their Safari campaign in 1991 which came to zero. Mercedes, Porsche, Dodge and even East Germany-made Trabant gave a miss all else apart to chase the Safari dream.
To have attained such global interest took 10 years before Kenya attained independence when a group of enthusiasts led by Eric Cecil organised a motorsport event to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth was indeed a great feat for posterity.
After winning in 1966 and ’67 Bert Shankland’s car a Peugeot 404 was airlifted to France for demonstration in a racing circuit. The clip was posted recently in YouTube and attracted 32,000 viewers. Joginder’s Mitsubishi of 1974 was also returned to Japan and displayed in public places, underlining the great Safari legacy and Kenya by extension.