Last Thursday “members” of the “motorsports fraternity” were “invited” at Nairobi’s go-kart track; not for a race but to air their views as far as motorsports in the country is concerned. Unfortunately, I didn’t attend, even though I am a member of the motorsports fraternity; and with good reason. I spent the afternoon thinking about washing my car, watching BBC Top Gear reruns, taking tea (it was really cold outside) and then actually washing car. That was not the good reason; the good reason I did not attend is because the invite was made in the most condescending, cold-shouldered, borderline-threatening manner; and that is disregarding the insanely short notice (we have things to do and we prefer making plan in advance). I do not respond well to snide and patronizing remarks especially on matters that affect me, however indirectly. So, to the person who made that frigid invite: the tea was sweet, the Top Gear was entertaining and my car is clean. How was your meeting? If you expect positive results, learn to ask nicely. Despite the ultimatum issued thence, I do have an opinion to share about Kenyan motorsports and it is this:
There isn’t enough sex in it.
Hold up; before anybody calls my editors to ask why this article is in the newspaper and not in their Recycle Bins, listen here. Nobody is advocating for the inclusion of lewd acts, indecent exposure or blatant pornography in the world of active engines; no, this is yet another of my numerous literary tools that I presume will be quickly taken out of context thus generating a sizeable and vitriolic mailbag resulting in yet another self-imposed temporary house arrest for fear that a lover of motorsports may run me over in their half-finished “racecar” if I dare step outside. I’m not asking for attempts at procreation, by “sex” I mean “excitement”. The same way cars are described as “sexy” (please never, ever mount a motor vehicle -or even try to- because exhaust pipes can get very hot) is the same tone with which I am accusing Kenyan motorsports of lacking that pulse-quickening X factor. What I’m saying is: Kenyan motorsport is boring.
Sure it is exciting for drivers, as they push their cars, built on a budget, to maybe 75 or 80% or their capability; half the mind on the task at hand and the other half on potential repair bills should they wreck. And that is where the problem lies: nobody wants to go all out. Not the drivers, not the organizers, not the government. In Murang’a we did see some spirited driving, but ours is a fringe operation and I remember clearly declaring some of these people as having unique psychological profiles given how hard they pushed their daily drivers. I get the feeling if they were in full-on sponsored racecars, the entertainment quotient would probably double or even triple.
This is what I mean by there isn’t enough sex in motorsports. I have a younger sister with a skewed perspective of how the world operates (“Don’t keep an open mind, your brains might fall out,” she once declared sagely), but once in a while even she may say something like “I was watching Formula One highlights the other day and that African guy, whats-his-name, Hamilton; he was driving like a sociopath”. She knows Lewis Hamilton (who is British, not African) and she knows enough about motorsports to know when a Grand Prix driver is throwing his teammate under the bus. But if I mention Thethy this is the response I’m likely to receive:
“Is he the guy that sold you the Subaru?”
“Is he the guy that owes you money?”
“Was he driving one of the many Golfs in the last Great Run?”
“Goddamit, woman, he is a local rally driver!”
She will then give me one of those looks that suggest in no uncertain terms that that would be an opportune moment for me to stop talking. In simpler terms, she couldn’t care less.
Not that she doesn’t want to; it’s just that she, like me, couldn’t be bothered. We were once great fans of local rallies. Our paterfamilias would grab our little pre-teen hands and walk us to the road back in the glory days when the Safari Rally was part of the WRC circuit; where we would stand and wait in the dark of the night for those boosted machines to come thundering down the hill from Kaptagat, fly over the railway line where we were standing, land hard in a shower of sparks before braking even harder and drifting through the T-junction and roaring off towards Eldoret town, drivers -both local and international- snap-shifting as they tried to save that extra half-second in the few short moments between the time they shot past us and when they reached the town hall, which is where the finish line was. Those truly were the glory days.
And that is what we are lacking now. There is no wow factor. There is no luster, there is no pizzazz, there is no flash of skin, there is no drama, there is no flamboyance, there is no good reason to stay interested. There are few if any easily accessible road sections, there is no real rivalry between competitors, the sport has become more isolated than ever and from my cynical bird’s eye view of affairs, it looks like most competitors take part simply because they can. Think I’m talking out of the side of my neck? Does the name Patrick Njiru ring a bell?
It should. The man was a national hero. Everybody knew him. Matatu drivers wanted to be him. Children wanted to meet him. Housewives told throttle-happy husbands not to try to be him as they drove home in the evening. Cooking oil merchants wanted him in their advertisements. He was a reference point, he was a household name, he was an SI unit and come rally time; none of the local fans could spell “Björn Waldegård” (RIP) properly or even point him out in a lineup, skilled as he was; but everybody knew Patrick Njiru and they knew that he had switched from a Subaru Legacy to a Subaru Vivio, and my father quietly told me that the Vivio was going to cost Njiru the championship because it had inadequacies, and that is the exact moment I became a petrolhead at the tender age of seven; and sure enough the old man was right: Patrick Njiru finished so far back that year he may as well have finished behind the donkeys. The entire nation was brokenhearted for him, and wished him better luck next time (and please get rid of that damn Vivio); so when he eventually got into an Impreza and started systematically clearing the field, cheers could be heard from the neighbor’s house where there was a color TV on which rally footage was being watched during news time. An entire country cheered the man on right up to the moment he lost it and went off at 200km/h, barrel-rolling, binning his car and landing himself in hospital. The silence that followed that crash could have been heard around the world. The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I can dare say that there were tears in several pairs of eyes. I know there were in mine.
There is no sex in that preceding paragraph, but I hope you get my point. We don’t have heroes to look up to anymore. We don’t have larger-than-life personalities. We don’t have favorites among manufacturers, or even manufacturer teams. The only people who know what a “Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X RS” is now are probably petrolheads only, but back in the day, everybody knew what a Toyota Celica GT-Four was and looked like. They just preferred to call it a “Flying Sausage”. There is no more excitement, there is little accessibility left and the followers of rally today are but a handful; a dedicated motley crowd left over from the days just before the WRC pulled out of the Safari Rally. I stopped watching the rally after it became an excuse for “fans” to drink heavily during the race and crash equally heavily when leaving the venue afterwards. It became a shadow of its former self; a parody worthy of scathing ridicule.
I will not fully explain why the WRC left: I will leave that to the PR departments of the relevant authorities, but I can tell you how to bring back the sex. It is simple: make things interesting again. Make motorsports accessible again. Create identities, generate beefs, instigate a media storm and manufacture talking points. I know the logistics are hard, but they are not impossible. Stop holding these events in people’s farms where one needs a Landcruiser just to get there. We don’t all have Landcruisers. Go back to the roads. It can be done, with the help of local governments. Sponsors should crawl out of the woodwork and start vocally supporting their charges, not just throwing cheques at them in low-key “briefings” attended by clueless bloggers and unknowledgeable reporters who cannot tell a turbocharger from a trafficator (another reason I stopped attending “press” lunches and dinners. There is little of substance that is actually spoken). With enough backing, perhaps these drivers would stop worrying about scratching their decaled paintwork and actually drive like they are trying to win a championship. If you want to see a man driving like they want to win, go to YouTube and search for the video of the man in the red Evo in Murang’a who eventually won. That was a man on a mission and he was entertaining to watch. Speaking of YouTube, that has now become the go-to avenue for motorsports fans like me looking for a fix. The diversity of motorized competition on the internet suffers no shortage.
Speaking of diversity: it’s not just rally. Who knew there was a go-kart track at Mai Mahiu? Yes, the township is not just a truck stop at a junction; there is an actual racetrack there. How many people know that? There are so many other motor-related competitions that take place too, from buggy racing to off-road time trials to superbike championships; but sometimes it takes insider knowledge to even learn of their existence, let alone the event dates and locations. Is this how we intend to get back on the global map?
(It may seem like I’m picking on the Safari Rally but that is because it is supposed to be the country’s premier motorsport event and once upon a time it was not only an international attraction, it was also famous worldwide for being the ultimate test of a rally car. Anybody that finished the Safari Rally was not only a driver to be reckoned with, but their vehicle must have been pretty solidly built too).
Some time back there was word than a very enterprising politician was going to build a Formula One track in his county. Noble ambitions, but terribly misguided; and for one simple reason: if we don’t have a good enough grip on local motorsports, what makes us think that we can host the world’s top ranking and most expensive car race? We cannot simply skip from having no proper racetrack (the GP karting circuits aside) to building a world-class arena just like that. There are stages to go through. There are feasibility studies to conduct. There is a culture to nurture. Are we even sure the suspiciously shifty Bernie Ecclestone would agree to stage one of his races here? If he doesn’t, other uses have to be found for that track because it eventually has to pay for itself, and such a project that runs into possibly tens of billions of shillings is going to very quickly descend into the abyss of white elephant-dom.
I’ll be honest, that invite really got under my skin. Word of advice: don’t use expressions like “speak now, or forever hold your peace”; or variations thereof when seeking feedback that is intended to make the industry grow. The shortcomings and obstacles facing us as motorsports organizers cannot and will not be solved in a single meeting. I may not have something to say now but I might get inspiration later and come up with a genius idea. Having been asked to shut up, should I carry this idea with me to the grave?
We are a long way off from where we should be and in some ways we may have regressed over the years; which, I presume, is why the meeting was called in the first place. Where is the WRC and why are we not part of their calendar? TV coverage of motorsports is cursory at best and nonexistent at worst. Interviews with drivers all saying the same damn thing (the road was bad, the parts fell off my car, it was difficult etc) do not constitute media coverage. Let’s see profiles, let’s see documentaries, let’s see highlight reels. Let us create a dedicated media monster; a whole other world that expands beyond the racetrack. Let us make things lively and interesting to both car buffs and non-car buffs alike.
Let us bring back the sex into motorsport.