'Toughest motor race in the world'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Easter holidays in Kenya always mean the Safari Rally, regarded here as the toughest motor event in the world. Millions of Kenyans turn out along the 5,500-kilometer route to watch this classic race. It lasts five days, ending on Easter Monday, and covers huge areas of the country -- from the chills, hills, and possibly spills of the Mt. Kenya highlands to the hot Indian Ocean coast and way up to the arid deserts of the north.

It is a rally for famous drivers like Jean-Pierre Nicolas and Harry Kalstrom, and for modest local amateurs. Conditions are the same for all competitors -- very hard going over appalling roads, slush and mud to the axles, tough hill climbs, and river crossings where flash floods are not uncommon, nearly drowning drivers, co-drivers, and vehicles.

This year Kenya is experiencing a prolonged drought, and the weathermen predict dry and dusty conditions. That is worse in the eyes of the rally driver than slush or pouring rain. Imagine being late along the line and catching the red dust clouds from the men in front, getting into ploughed-up sand drifts, finding your engine covered with the red dust of Kenya.

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The Safari Rally has been run every year since 1953, when it was launched to celebrate Queen Elizabeth's coronation and was called the Coronation Rally. In 1960 it became the East African Safari, and included Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya over a huge route.

In later years, the Tanzania and the Uganda sections of the race were dropped because of various disputes among the three nations.

For years, famous drivers from Europe never won. The local drivers stayed ahead. The myth was broken in 1972, however, when Hannu Mikkola of Finland and Gunnar Palm of Sweden won. Ove Andersson of Sweden became the second driver from Europe to win, in 1975. Bjorn Waldegaard won in 1977 and Jean-Pierre Nicolas in 1978.

Then victory reverted to a local man when the Uganda-born driver, Shekhar Mehta, won last year. Another Asian, the amazing Joginder Singh, known as "the flying Sikh," has won three times, and is trying for another win this year.

Millions are spent by teams representing the major car companies: this year Mercedes, Datsun (five cars this year), and Opel. Last year Mercedes was reported to have spent $:2 million ($4.4 million) flying five cars to Kenya, putting up helicopters and spotting planes, and covering the cost of servicing and spare parts.

Private drivers, by contrast, have to get along with what they can collect in the way of commercial sponsorships.

Two women are entered this year, after a series of rallies that have been lacking women drivers. They are Shekhar Mehta's wife. Yvonne Mehta, who is co-driver to a Kenyan, Ann Taieth. Both are experienced rally drivers.

A number of black African drivers are entering, but on the whole they have not had much luck. The huge cost of this type of racing usually is an obstacle, for the price of special racing machines and spares keeps rising, and the Africans often lack experience, as well.

The Safari Rally also costs the organizers a lot for promotion, even though more than 1,000 enthusiastic amateurs of all races man the route for free, handling checkpoints and giving directions.

The Safari Rally was suffering financially before a cigarette company came to its rescue this year and pumped in a great deal of cash in return for publicity it will gain from the event. The company has been a Grand Prix sponsor for eight years and now has two racing teams in Europe.

Some cars already have been entered, wiht drivers from as far afield as Japan , the United States, and Thailand. The financial prize is considerable: $:2,000 for the winner.

But the battle to win is formidable, a searching test of cars and drivers over some of the worst roads in the world.

The rally is scheduled to be flagged off by Kenya President Daniel arap Moi on April 3.

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