Sunday, 24 November 2013

Wheels of History

Every healthy nation should have a sport that has the power to stop everything else going on. Ice hockey,
football, rugby, whatever… Something that generates interest in nearly everyone, if maybe only occasionally, and still isn't all that serious, not really a question of life and death.

A big boss joined us for a day on the course I happened to be sort of an instructor on. One day around lunchtime, he got up and announced in the deep voice of authority that it’s time for a brake and directed us all out. We all took position along the road outside the station, in an atmosphere of eager anticipation. Lots of other people had made the same move. It was rally time!

Motorsports probably isn't the first thing that comes to most people’s mind when talking of Kenyan sports. On international arenas, it sometimes seems that Kenyans do one and only one sport: running. Of course, Finns would know that there’s a tradition of rally in Kenya, if only in organizing the legendary Safari Rally (a part of the World Rally Championship from 1973 until 2002. Few notice that the Safari Rally is still alive and well, both as a part of the African Rally Championship and, while a bit stuck in history, as the East Africa Safari Classic, where only cars of built before 1979 (K-35, that is) can participate. I happened to be witnessing the latter case.
First impression

And now the show was here! After a time spent standing in the roasting sun in anticipation and ignorance an unmistakable sound emerged from uphill. Soon you could hear the crowd in the bend just above us cheering right before a yellow Porsche 911 appeared in a cloud of dust and zoomed past us. Rocks went flying, no-one was standing at a safe distance and everyone was more or less hit, but most significantly no-one cared. Blinded and deafened, we went back to waiting for the next mean machine to pass. Then we repeated that pattern about 60 times. No one was going to return from this lunch-brake.

Wake-up, sunshine
The following morning I woke up around dawn to the sweet sound of an untamed racing engine in my room, or so it appeared. After rushing out not knowing whether to be panicked or excited, I quickly deduced that the rally was back, this time starting for a stage basically off the yard of the research station. More surprising than the early hour was that the whole town was already out, ladies, babies and gentlemen alike. The experience was made all the more surreal by the fact that there were basically no security measures taken. Anyone could, and did, walk up to the starting line for some close-up photography, some tire-kicking and hand-shaking with the heroes themselves. It was as if the whole thing was some informal and ex-tempore street race. Still everything went along in perfect order with no incidents of any kind, each car roaring off into the dark-green, misty forest of the morning hours in its turn and on time while no-one made at all uncomfortable by the large, interested crowd.

I wouldn't like to be the killjoy that finds something negative even with this great, universally entertaining event, but it was impossible not to notice how all participants as well as organizers, whatever nationality they were representing, were of a very pale color. It is not the cheapest of hobbies, and so, sadly, it seems even in to be Kenya very much a white man’s sport when it comes participating as anything else than a bystander…

Anyway, there was no question of the greatest local legend. Ian Duncan, winner of the Safari rally in 1994 when it was part of the WRC, is still competing at the age of 52. Also I was proud to notice that other names I could pick up from discussions in the audience included Vatanen, Kankkunen, Mäkinen and Grönholm in addition to Burns and the rest! No Finnish participants this time around though.

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