Classic Cars

The East African Safari Classic: “It’s all about you, the road and your creator”

The East African Safari Classic: "It's all about you, the road and your creator"

As an adult, Bengi leads a double life. Most of the time, he is a lawyer in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. But on others, he trades in his legal notebook for a jumpsuit and a hard hat. That’s when life falls on him quickly. In a car older than himself, Bengi is ready to cover thousands of miles on some of the toughest rally terrain in the world, pushing his limits in the name of motorsport glory. “It’s just about you, the road and your creator,” he says.

Rally driving is in Bengi’s blood as it is for many Kenyans, where the sport has deep and enduring roots. But drivers behind the wheel haven’t always thought sports audiences. This year, Bengi and his navigator Mindo Gatimu became the first all-indigenous Kenyan team to compete in the East African Safari Classic, one of the country’s most famous rallies.

The race has its origins in the first East African Coronation Rally in 1953, in honor of Queen Elizabeth II, when Kenya was still part of the British Empire. It was designed by cousins Eric Cecil and Neil Vincentran between Kenya, Uganda and part of present-day Tanzaniaand timed to end as the new Queen was crowned at Westminster Abbey, London.

The Coronation Rally became the East African Safari Rally in 1960 and was added to the World Rally Championship (WRC) calendar over the next decade before being scrapped in 2003 and continuing as an independent event.

Rallies were broadcast on national television, with leading politicians waving flags to start races and an infectious energy that swept through the audience, recalls photographer Mwangi “Mwarv” Kirubi, who documented this year’s rally and has watched them since he was a child. “It doesn’t matter what your upbringing, tribe, education or even your age. It’s something that actually brought everyone together,” he says.

“This is not a joke”

In its current incarnation, the East African Safari Classic, the country’s longest race, has a distinctly old-school ethos. Cars must be built before 1985, with only limited tinkering allowed (changing the suspension is allowed, but replacing the gearbox or engine is not, for example). The cars – Porsche 911s and Ford Escorts feature prominently – race 24 stages over nine days over a 5,000 kilometer course, with drivers covering over 700 kilometers on some days. “It’s not a joke,” Bengi said. “It’s (a longer race than) a whole motorsport season in other disciplines.”

With no prizes, drivers only compete for bragging rights. As a result, the event attracts motorsport legends looking to test their mettle. This year, 46 teams from all over the world made it to the starting line. One of the biggest names was Ken Block, international rally champion and five-time X Games medalist.

“I always wanted to come and do it,” he told CNN. “It’s just a really, really tough event and one of the best classic rallies in the whole world.”

The rally pits professionals like Block against part-timers like Bengi, and while there may be a chasm between the quality of their cars, the event has enough unpredictability in its DNA to allow for upheaval.

One aspect is the local conditions, which can oscillate between showers and the bowl of dust. Then there are the many wild animals on the road, which drivers sometimes have to wait for or drive around. The main factor, however, is that the race is blind, meaning drivers and navigators cannot inspect the route before the race and create detailed notes. Instead, stage routes are shared with teams a day in advance, with no ability to preview the terrain.

As race director, it’s Raju Chaggar’s job to create the roadbook – a year-round task that sees him travel around 52,000 kilometers to mark the course and check its condition before the race. “Nobody knows where we are going… It’s the hardest secret to keep,” he admits.

This year’s race, which took place from February 10-18, crossed Kenya and took teams through towns including Naivasha, Nakuru, Nanyuki, Amboseli, Taita-Taveta and Watamu, as well as across several national parks. The races are held on public roads and are generally slower than most rallies, due to the top speeds of older cars, long and demanding stages and blind racing. But unlike WRC events, teams can rely on the public when things go wrong; the organizers have no problem with spectators providing roadside assistance if a car gets stuck.

“You can tell a Kenyan there’s a rally coming up (and) he’ll leave it all,” Chaggar says. “They’re willing to spend nine hours in the sun just to watch the rally. It’s very unique. I think we’re crazy.”

The teams need all the help they can get. Whether it’s getting fuel, maintaining cars or sleeping in a new city every night, “it’s quite a logistical nightmare,” says Bengi.

A race for the ages

In their first year together competing in the Classic rally, Bengi and Gatimu overcame all obstacles to cross the finish line in a respectable 17th position (overtaking Block in 19th place). First place went to Kenyan Baldev Chager at the wheel of a Porsche 911, who triumphed in the general classification without having won a single stage, which testifies to the temperamental nature of the rally.

Kenyan drivers occupied three of the top five places. Even so, there is room for expansion and professionalization in the country, says Bengi, who points out that the country has no factory drivers (professional drivers supported by car manufacturers). “There is room for development, and I think with more and more events coming up, we can develop new talent,” he says.

Japanese driver Takamoto Katsuta and British co-driver Daniel Barritt in their Toyota Yaris race through Kasarani near Nairobi ahead of Safari Rally Kenya last year.  With the event, the World Rally Championship returned to the country after a 19-year absence.
Rally racing is experiencing a resurgence in Kenya. The WRC returned after a 19-year absence with the 2021 Safari Rally Kenya, which has since been extended until 2026. While a stronger footing on the international stage can take time and investment, at home Kenyan drivers are in their element and thriving.

“It’s our backyard,” says photographer Kirubi. “These are the roads we grew up on; the roads we used (to go) to school, to work, to the farm… It’s no surprise that we have local drivers taking the first (classic) rally places. Someone can come with a racing pedigree from the USA or Europe, but man, it’s Africa – and we play it differently.”