As an adult, Bengi leads a double life. Most days he’s a lawyer in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. But on others he trades in his legal pad for a jumpsuit and crash helmet. That’s when life comes at him fast. In a car older than he is, Bengi is willing to race for thousands of miles across some of the world’s toughest rally driving terrain, pushing himself to the very limits in the name of motorsport glory. “It’s just about you, the road and your maker,” he says.
Rally driving is in Bengi’s blood as it is for many Kenyans, where the sport has deep and abiding roots. But drivers behind the wheel have not always reflected the sport’s audience. 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 nation’s most celebrated rally events.
The Coronation Rally became the East African Safari Rally in 1960 and was added to the World Rally Championship (WRC) calendar during the following decade before being dropped in 2003 and continuing as an independent event.
“It’s no 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 permitted (changing the suspension is allowed, but replacing the gearbox or engine isn’t, for example). The cars — Porsche 911s and Ford Escorts feature heavily — race across 24 stages in nine days on a 5,000-kilometer route, with drivers covering more than 700 kilometers on some days. “It’s no joke,” says Bengi. “It’s (a longer race than) a whole season of motorsports in other disciplines.”
With no prize, drivers compete solely for bragging rights. As a result, the event attracts motorsport legends looking to test their mettle. This year, 46 teams from around the world made it to the start line. One of the biggest names was international rally champion and five-time X Games medalist Ken Block.
“I’ve always wanted to come and do it,” he told CNN. “It’s just a genuinely really difficult event and one of the best classic rallies in the entire world.”
The rally pits professionals like Block against part-timers like Bengi, and though there may be a gulf between the quality of their cars, the event has enough unpredictability in its DNA to allow for upsets.
One aspect is the local conditions, which can swing between downpours and dustbowl. Then there’s the many wild animals on the route, which drivers sometimes have to wait for or drive around. The main factor, however, is that the race is conducted blind — that is, drivers and navigators do not get to inspect the route ahead of racing and create detailed notes. Instead, stage routes are shared with teams a day in advance, with no opportunity to preview the terrain.
As clerk of the course, it’s Raju Chaggar’s job to create the roadbook — a year-round task that sees him driving approximately 52,000 kilometers to mark out the route and check its condition in the lead up to the race. “Nobody knows where we are rallying … It’s the hardest secret to keep,” he admits.
This year’s race, held between February 10 and 18, traversed Kenya and took teams through towns and cities including Naivasha, Nakuru, Nanyuki, Amboseli, Taita-Taveta and Watamu, as well as passing through multiple national parks. Racing takes place on public roads and is generally slower than most rallies, on account of the older cars’ top speeds, the long, demanding stages and blind racing. But unlike WRC events, teams can rely on the public when things go awry; organizers have no issue with spectators providing roadside assistance if a car gets stuck.
“You can tell a Kenyan there’s a rally coming up (and) they will leave everything,” says Chaggar. “They’re willing to spend nine hours out in the sun just to watch the rally. It’s very unique. I think we’re crazy.”
Teams need all the help they can get. From sourcing fuel, servicing the cars and sleeping in a new town every night, “it’s a whole logistical nightmare,” says Bengi.
A race for the ages
Kenyan drivers occupied three of the top five positions. Even so, there’s space for expansion and professionalization in the country, says Bengi, who points out the country has no factory drivers (professional drivers backed by car manufacturers). “There’s room for development, and I think with more and more events coming up we can develop new talent,” he says.
“This is 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 comes as no surprise that we have local drivers taking top spots within the (Classic) rally. Somebody may come with a racing pedigree from the US or Europe, but man, this is Africa — and we play it different.”