Last week I may have waxed lyrical about my sad but enjoyable adventures behind the wheel of a pint-sized open-wheel racer, and this got me thinking:
I have never discussed motorsport on these two pages. In Kenya, car-based sporting events are few and far between, and our once-strong rallying culture is slowly dying out.
Let us talk a little about motorsport in general, and the Kenyan/East African scene in particular. Consider this an open letter to KMSF, the overseeing body in charge of all motorsport events in the country.
This is what led to my ill-placed prejudice against this sport: go-kart racing is mostly the preserve of pre-teens, more so if they are of Arabic or Indian descent.
(Yes, that is a bit racist and politically incorrect, but look at the driver register of any karting event and you will see my point).
While largely ignored by the majority of us, karting has the biggest potential for gaining and maintaining a veritable fan base, especially among petrolheads. After all, it is the closest thing we have to F1.
Teams could face off, drivers could face off and team managers could get on TV talking rubbish about each other, and this will not only liven things up and increase exposure (leading to sponsorship deals and increased interest), but it will introduce the je ne sais quoi, the X-factor that draws interest, viewership and television deals, much like NASCAR has in the US, or WWE Wrestling worldwide.
If it can be done, a few more tracks and a bit more advertising could improve the rather thin fan base that the sport enjoys. Mombasa, Nairobi and Nakuru should not be the only towns to boast about having a go-kart track.
This is another field infested with children as competitors, but, admittedly, it is the most fun to watch.
The wild antics of the young riders that are aired briefly on prime time news are quite a sight, the tracks they use (with all the jumps and turns and, of course, the dust) are alluring for all, both spectators and aspiring riders, and I can proudly declare that some of these young ones are of world-class standard.
In my opinion, it is one of the most underrated sports, and another event that needs more aggressive promotion. This is coming from yours truly, who has little respect for (and much fear of) two-wheeled transport. Go figure.
The beauty of rallying is that it is not a racing event; it is a time trial, so, as a spectator sport, it can be a little boring for those who are less than fanatic about it. However, this has not prevented it from being the most popular form of motorsport in the country.
It was once a national event, watched by many, but, over time, it has degenerated into a fiesta of drink and gaudy garb for the spectators and a medley of dangerous driving as fans leave the war theater in an attempt to show their peers that, were it not for their tight 9-to-5 work schedules, men like Lee Rose and Ian Duncan would experience first-hand the competitive wrath of a “true” driver.
This begs the question: What the hell happened? Where did charismatic drivers like Patrick Njiru (so loved was he that he was used to promote a certain brand of cooking oil. A rally driver appealing to housewives?
It is hard to beat that kind of charisma) disappear to? Why are the rally stages now so far removed that the common man (people without their own cars) finds it hard to track the action all season round? And why has the driving become less spectacular?
To return to the good old days, the sport needs a little sexing up. KMSF (the chaps who oversee the whole thing) also do not seem to have a clear rulebook, as far as the unknowing layman is concerned.
I am not against any driver in particular, but when was it a fair competition where a man in a puny N16 Impreza had to do battle with another man in a Landcruiser pick-up for the same shot at glory?
If any among you readers remember the late Colin McRae, you will also recall that he was the man who single-handedly brought the Subaru Impreza WRX to fame and cult status.
He was also famous for spending more time air-borne than on terra firma in the early days of his career, and on very few occasions did he return the car to the paddock in one piece.
While this kind of behaviour is risky for the driver, it is also the kind of thing spectators want to see: the most hardcore anoraks, especially in Europe (Finland, Portugal, Italy and England have the most dedicated fanatics) will tell you that the three things they came to see when spectating are; one, a car airborne; two, a car sideways (drifting through corners) or; three, a car crashing. The rest is stuff that you can see anywhere, on or off-season.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not asking anyone to intentionally wreck their car just to make a name as an entertainer. But please remember the heady days of Group B rallying (back in the ’80s).
It was a thrill watching drivers struggling to handle 600hp in a 2WD hatchback that may or may not have had ABS or power steering.
Nowadays they have to make do with a piffling 300hp and plenty of electronic driver aids, plus 4WD is almost a mandatory requirement.
A little more ambitious driving wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Now these are the people who know how to spend a good weekend — having fun, providing entertainment and flair, oozing charisma and, to top it all off, do good in the process: save the wild animals and plants of the Aberdare.
The Rhino Charge is always held on the Madaraka Day weekend (first weekend in June) every year, and the organisational skills behind it are a hard act to follow.
The venue of the competition is kept a mystery until the last possible moment, mostly to prevent the contenders from scouting the place and clearing the whole thing in one smooth move come Judgment Day, but the side effect this has had is to pique curiosity within the fan base, and nothing maintains the interest of the hoi polloi as much as suspense. Agatha Christie realised this and made a killing penning mysteries and whodunits, so there.
The main event, though staged in some obscure backwoods somewhere, never fails to attract a sizeable crowd.
This is because that crowd knows that they will get their effort’s worth as they watch teams pit their sense of teamwork and off-road driving skills against each other as drivers rush in where goats fear to tread in the best and most entertaining wheeled competition since Ben Hur drove a chariot in a suicidal way in the Roman arenas.
To spice things up is the presence of lady teams, such as the Pinks In Charge (catchy moniker) who always try to show their mettle against the “boys”. The Rhino Charge is now a world-class event, and this brings some noticeable questions to the fore.
For starters, the Rhino Charge is now where the Safari Rally once was, and should still be: hugely popular and recognised the world over as a competition not to be trifled with. Incidentally (or coincidentally) it is not run by the KMSF — the Rhino Charge, that is.
Are the two connected? I don’t know, but all I can say is that maybe, just maybe KMSF has a lesson to learn from the Rhino Ark Foundation, the fellows who run the Rhino Charge.
It beggars belief that an NGO (if that is what the Rhino Ark is) can put on a better show than a dedicated motorsports body.
Once upon a time the Safari Rally was an event in the WRC calendar that so inspired the fear of God in manufacturer teams that when Ford were marketing the MK I Focus hatchback in Europe, they simply put a picture of the blue and white Focus WRC with the tagline “Winner of The 1999 Safari Rally” in magazines in an attempt to sell it.
And sell it they did, in huge numbers: in the UK alone they were selling as many as 270 cars per day. How about this? KMSF could rethink their branding and marketing strategies.
How about seeking more corporate sponsors, besides KCB (who are not backward about coming forward to let everybody know that they are the big fish when it comes to sponsoring rally competitions), not only for themselves but also for drivers.
Distinct teams could be established, complete with livery, and the introduction of constructors’ championships be done, so there would be two titles, not one, at stake.
How about increase media exposure for the drivers so that we, the fans, could get to know them better as people, and not just filler material in the back pages of the local dailies?
And, for God’s sake, how about a steady calendar, where we know in January, the rally will be in Eldoret, in February it will be in Thika, and so forth.
How about the rallies are held less on private farms and more on public roads (but closed off to ordinary traffic for safety reasons)?
It feels a bit odd creeping into somebody else’s farm just to watch a few minutes of lethargic mud-plugging in liveried saloon cars, and then calling it a day.