Toroitich, Kimathi thrilled Kenyans with style

By PETER NJENGA

KENYA: His father’s face was everywhere including on Kenyan money for 24 years. But Jonathan Toroitich would not live in the shadows of the old man. He wanted to be his own man in a man’s world and chose to feel the heat in rallying. .

Jonathan or JT as he was popularly known became the love of Kenyans and foreigners for his never say die attitude in the company of his great friend, the late Ibrahim Choge. In the 1985 rally, he was brave enough to plough his car through a raging river. Only Kenneth Erickson attempted the suicidal feat and this great picture is immortalised in Reinhardt Klein’s Safari Rally book.

Jonathan started rallying in 1989 and was an instant hit. He sampled factory prepared Toyota cars, always performing well. He never invoked the name of his father, never complained or courted undue publicity.

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Quit safari

 In 1997, he was ready to tangle with the best and did this with  military precision, finishing fifth in the Safari Rally and winning the Kenya National Rally Championship.

After this, JT quit rallying except for a one-off in 1998 to concentrate on farming and business. He also ventured into politics in 2003 but  later chose a quiet life after failing.

So, how were the Safari stars made? Let’s start from the beginning. On April 11 to 15,1963 Jomo Kenyatta flagged off 86 drivers for a 4989km voyage. Of the 86 starters, only seven made it to the finish. They became the subject of folklore and one of them was Joginder Singh Bachu.

 Nick Norwick and Paddy Cliff won, and rightly so, in a Peugeot 404.

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Kenya’s first independent rally was the defining moment of  a new nation.  With the demise of Liege –Sofia-Liege, the Safari was the rally to establish itself as the greatest and toughest.  It lived to that reputation until 2001. The likes of Toroitich, Phineas Kimathi and Patrick Njiru would become part of that legend.

As Njiru’s star shone, his junious were fast learning the ropes and one of the greatest black hopes, Kimathi was emerging.

In 1999, he gave Hyundai Motors of South Korea its first world title,  the Safari Rally Formula 2 title.

This prompted Hyundai to contemplate embarking on a World Rally Championship assault. Although a hotelier by profession, Hyundai had in 1995 noted Kimathi’s spirited rise and nominated him as a development test driver after setting up a semi official rally team in Kenya through the local franchise, Hyundai Motors in 1996.

Between business and rallying, he collected data which was analysed in Dubai and South Africa leading to the development of the Hyundai Elantra which he drove to the national level.

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Kimathi is no ordinary man. He was buoyed by false boyhood bravado after being beaten together with others boys who stayed up late into the night to watch the Safari.

They waited for their hero, George Githu, late into the night during the1979 Safari. But they did not get near their the man as they were chased with kicks and blows by Githu’s mechanics.

This proved to be his turning point. He promised himself he would become a rally driver. This dream took 15 years to realise. 

In  1993, Kimathi got a baptism of fire when his Mazda 323 4WD broke down only 93km to the finish line. Mazda Speed of Japan were impressed and they shipped in a car for him in 1994 hoping for their first Safari finishers’ badge. He finished 13th overall.

The Koreans were happy. After all, their great rivals Daewoo had won the F2 World Rally Championship points in 1995.

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Although never a science student, he was twinned with Hyundai Kenya and their main factory in South Africa for a long term relationship and the entire team waited with baited breath to see his work in 1997. Even a US-based Christian TV station sent a crew to cover every step of his journey. But he met his waterloo after his tyres imported from Malaysia burst in the Maasai plains forcing him to retire the Elantra Coup.

Big break

But his relationship with Hyundai which exists to date elevated him as the most promising and tenacious rally driver of his era, attracting the longest individual sponsorship in Kenya with Shell Oil and Kenya Airways which was expanding into the greater Africa region.

The big break came in 1999 when he gave Hyundai their first World Rally Championship points and title, finishing 24th navigated by Abdul Sidi. In a way,motorsport helped readied him to dine with kings.

Kimathi quit after the Safari was stripped off its World Championship status in 2001. He re-merged in 2010 in a factory prepared Subaru Impreza WRX. The old flair had certainly not diminished as he traded stage times with the best, notching the fastest time in one section and destined for a possible fourth until an electrical gremlin set him back to 17th.

He returned to his home ground in June 2010, before hanging up his gloves.

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Jonathan Toroitich Nick Norwick Paddy Cliff Patrick Njiru