Why local rally championship is painfully grinding to a halt

Anwar Hamza

Hamza Anwar and his navigator Adnan Din in a Ford Fiesta car compete in Kasarani Super Special stage of the 2024 World Rally Championship Safari Rally on March 28.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

 Amid the glitz and glamour of staging the world-famous World Rally Championship Safari Rally, all is not well in the local motorsport scene.

Severe budgetary constraints, low entries, and in some cases disagreements over competition rules, have occasioned the scrapping of most competitions in Kenya’s top motorsport competition, the Kenya National Rally Championship series.

Issa Amwari, a popular driver in the Mount Kenya region who honed his driving skills in Meru, primarilly in the Nanyuki round of the Kenya National Rally Championship (KNRC) series and used it as a stepping stone to the national stage, will skip Nanyuki Rally today and tomorrow due to medical reasons. He suffered a fractured hand in an accident during the World Rally Championship Safari Rally. Even in good health, he doubts whether he would have competed in the ongoing Nanyuki Rally owing to financial constraints. This is in spite of the fact that he considers the race his ‘home event’ as it takes place near his rural home in Meru.

The 2022 KNRC winner, Karan Patel and Hamza Anwar, alumnus of 2023 FIA Rally Star Programme, are also missing in action. They are joined in the sidelines by more than 50 Kenya Motor Sports Federation (KMSF) Competition Licence holders. Karan said he would have loved to compete in Nanyuki but budgetary constraints can’t allow it when he is also fighting to defend his Africa Rally Championship (ARC) title. The KCB-sponsored driver started his campaign to retain the African title last month on a winning note in Uganda, and he is preparing for the next round in Zambia late next month. His title defence will also take him to Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, before he returns home to compete in Equator Rally.

Anwar, too is torn between competing in the KNRC, and the ARC where he lies third. Like all the other drivers, Anwar, who competed in the 2021-23 season of KNRC and ARC under Safaricom’s sponsorship, has recently been depending on wellwishers.

Also missing in Nanyuki Rally is current KNRC leader Carl Tundo.

Extend his lead

But Samman Vohra, winner of the season-opening round in Eldoret who is currently second in the championship, will compete as he hopes to extend his lead over Tundo.

As has been the case in the last three years, the Nanyuki Rally is a reflection of the downward trajectory rallying has taken in the last three years. KMSF’s General Manager, Njuguna Mwaura, said only nine drivers will compete in the third round of the 2024 KNRC series, Nanyuki Rally, which will zoom off today outside Cedar Mall.

Nanyuki Rally has three top drivers, led by national champion Jasmeet Chana, winner of the season opening rally in Eldoret Vohra, and veteran Ian Duncan who will compete in a classic Datsun 240Z car. Shakeel Shah, Joey Ghose and Ghalib Haji are the other notable drivers who have confirmed participation.

The KNRC is the blue ribbon event of motorsports in Africa, and in Kenya. It features an average of eight or nine events organised by 15 clubs accross the country affiliated to KMSF. YThe clubs bid to host the series on a rotational basis. This year's calendar features Eldoret Rally hosted by Western Kenya Motorsports Club, Safari Rally (WRC Safari Rally/KMSF), Nanyuki Rally (Nanyuki Rally Group), Nakuru Rally (Rift Valley Motorsports Club), Machakos/Nairobi Rally (Kenya Motorsports Club), Nairobi Rally (Kenya Rally Team), and Equator Rally (Simba Union Club).

Rallye Sports Club, Mombasa Motorsports Club and Equator Motorsports Club are sitting out .

These clubs also host autocross or circuit racing for ordinary, tuned machines and buggies, rally cross or mixed surface side by side competitions, circuit racing, as well karting for age groups from 11. KMSF has also licensed drifting, 4x4 and hill climb competition. Motorsport has many variants, but is suffering at the apex, which is the KNRC.

Nanyuki Rally has been a favourite event for fans and drivers in the KNRC calendar, but things started going south 10 years ago. The 2014 Nanyuki Rally attracted 45 entries, the 2018 edition attracted 27 entries, the 2019 edition attracted 24, while the 2021 and 22 editions attracted 22 entries. It was not part of the 2023 KNRC calendar, but this year’s edition has attracted eight drivers.

This is not an isolated case. The season-opening Eldoret Rally attracted eight drivers, and six finished. The 2023 KNRC season concluded on a sour note as organisers cancelled the season-ending event, Kenya Rally Team Nairobi Rally, as only three drivers registered to compete. Generally, rallying activities started slowing down in 2022 as a result of lack of sponsorship and aparthy among drivers towards KNRC series at a time KMSF’s records are showing an increase in the number of competition licence holders.

KNRC series

Low entries has become the bane of KNRC series which only three years ago attracted between 25 to 40 drivers in any given event, while the Safari Rally round of the Africa Rally Championship series could attract over 50 entries.

“To be honest with you, the low entries are a reflection of where the country is at the moment. The economy is not good at all,” said Mwaura. “Rally- prepared cars are in the garages. We have relaxed the regulations by extending homologation on gear and vehicles to give those with old cars an opportunity to compete, but this has not really helped,” said Mwaura.

John Kamau, a director at KMSF, said existing problems at the federation should be ironed out by the motorsport fraternity whose investment on cars, spare parts and equipment should not be left to go to waste. Sponsors would like to see more entrants to realise value for their money

He said that the federation has tried to relax technical regulations in competitions to benefit competitors as has been the case in autocross and rally cross competitions which now attractmore than 30 drivers, but more needs to be done, including combining main KNRC events with Clubman events to shore up the numbers.

Drivers who spoke on condition of anonymity complained of neglect by the government during WRC Safari Rally. They urged the Sports ministry to extend its sponsorship to rallying beyond the Talanta Women drivers’ team to include consistent participants in the KNRC events, besides investing heavily in the sport to attract commercial sponsorships in the long run.