Need for speed

When one walks into the famous Jikoni’s on Kiambu Road, not too far from that ‘rounder’ that leads to Runda, two senses (out of the five we are supposed to possess as humans) are straightaway confused.

Your nose (sense of smell) twists you to the right, where the main kitchen of Jikoni’s is located – and a delicious whiff of something spicy carries in the wind.

But your eyes (sense of sight) turn to the left, where a small but powerful rally car sits inside the Jikoni yard, on the gravel – not outside on the parking lot like the other ‘normal’ cars.

The rally car belongs to one Wayne ‘Wonder’ Fernandez, a little kindly Napoleon, and one of the directors of ‘Jikoni’s’, who soon shows up to show you to a table.

‘We are waiting for my main man (rally car driver and business partner) Daren Miranda,’ Wayne explains in his quick voice, ‘then we can begin with the interview. What will you take as we wait?’

It is heading to 4pm on a sultry, sunny Sunday afternoon.

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The family crowd of early afternoon at Jikoni’s, including those pass-by-after-churchers, has slowly been replaced by the ‘last of the EPL’ crowd.

By May’s end, the main local story in sports will be all about the KCB in Eldoret, the most scenic of local safari rallies with picturesque routes that transverse three counties (Eldoret, Uasin Gishu and Elgeyo Marakwet) and in which both Wayne Fernandez and Daren Miranda are dedicated, decade-long participants.

But flip back the calendar a fortnight, and we are back in Jikoni’s.

‘I will have vodka and a soda,’ I tell Wayne.

‘Which soda?’ he asks.

I let the moment hang for a second, then shrug and say: ‘Miranda!’

Wayne takes off.

Five minutes later, he is back with a bottle of vodka and two Mirandas.

One is a soda, and the other is a lean, dark-haired man called Daren, the rally car driver.

The two old friends have been driver and co-driver in many rallies for the last 12 years – and two months ago, they finished smack bang in the middle (at 14th) in the Kitengela road rally that featured 27 cars.

Wayne ‘Rooney’ Fernandez and Daren Miranda will not be taking their feet off the accelerator – as they race at the great KCB Eldoret safari rally, that was to take place in its traditional month of April ( but got moved to May to make way for rain to bring about more ‘muddy, rally-like conditions,’ rain that hadn’t quite come at the writing time of this article).

The tracks found them

Wayne’s late father, Tony Fernandez, was a renowned Kenyan rally organiser when the Malboro Safari Rally was a national event every April – and featured legendary figures like Joginder Singh and Shakkar Mehta, racing legendary cars like Audi Quatro and Lancer Martini all across East Africa’s roads in the cut-throat Easter showcase, the great Malboro Safari Rally.

‘When the demonisation of smoking started in the early 1990s,’ Wayne says, ‘cigarette companies sponsoring any event was like Satan endorsing your product, so, poof …’

He exhales with a puff, and you can just see how the old Safari Rally went up in smoke without sponsors!

Indeed in the 1980s and early ‘90s, the whole of April would see children in estates and villages running around, racing cars made from tin cans or twisted wire hangers, with the wheels cut out from akalas or slippers (to incur the wrath of many an angry parent).

This was when April was the rainy season, and it wouldn’t help matters when a toi showed up in the house from ‘rallying,’ covered in mud from head to toe.

Now Wayne and Darren do the real rallying deal.

‘Imagine a Safaricom-sponsored Safari Rally!’ Darren says, almost in alliteration.

But then he is quick to appreciate the fact that, all these years, Kenya Commercial Bank has stepped up to the plate – or should we say ‘stepped up to the pedal’ – to keep the rally going.

On Darren’s side, rallying too seems to be in the blood, considering that his grandfather was a mechanic with his own workshop in Nyeri, all his life long.

‘You knew the names of motor cars before you could even name fruits,’ Darren says with a smile.

His passion for cars – fast cars – was such that by the time he was only sixteen, Daren was spending weekends practicing racing on the old Embakasi race tracks.

For a few minutes, this writer experiences their passion – as Wayne and Daren enter into a deep discussion about two wheel drive cars, grips, slides, the safety gear and fire proof socks they need to get/replace before the KCB rally.

Isn’t it all a terribly expensive hobby?

Wayne says at the top end, rally drivers like Carl Tundo spend up to Shs 20 million a car per rally, with an extra Shs 10 million in spare parts.

‘But for us smaller fast fish,’ he chuckles, ‘give us Shs 2 million for a moti, and we have our 300 K for spare parts, and we are good to race.’

Their rally car sponsors are the cement maker, Ndovu Cement.

When Wayne races on Auto X quad cars on the side, it is courtesy of the company Decko Africa.

Daren recalls his first rally car, a Toyota Levin, and how he ‘discovered’ it.

‘I was at a pal’s place, just chilling on the balcony. I look over the fence at his jirani’s bungalow, and right there under a tree, there is this Levin that is slowly sinking into the ground.’

Daren went over to the neighbour, bought the abandoned Toyota from the ‘very shocked’ jirani, took it to workshop for many months – and entered it in a race the following year (2007).

Wayne’s work as co-driver during their rallies is to make detailed organiser’s notes.

‘We do recce of the route, and I take notes of the terrain – every jump and corner.’

Eldoret, with its massive drops, countless hairpin bends, dips and leaps, ascents and descents is a dream race for any serious driver.

Darren and Wayne specialise in one and two day events all over the country – and tackling roads in places like Nyaru and Flourspar with their turbo-charged cars that shine with fluorescence paint, like metal road warriors, is the duo’s pride and joy.

‘I love the big corners, and then racing the vehicle in a perfect line of terrain,’ Daren explains.

‘You brace yourself for the big jump, hold your breath as the car flies into the air, then you hit (terra firma) with an almighty bump. You are never as alive as at that moment.’’

One mistake, and you are on the rocks?’

‘Like a drink,’ Wayne, jokes, and I sip at my vodka and Miranda.

Then Fernandez gets somber: ‘Of course, the most devastating thing in the world is when you don’t complete a rally. When the car breaks down, or you crash out.’

It’s like that Jay Z line in Izzo: ‘To try n to fail, the thing that I hate; succeed in this dope game, the thing that is great …’

‘Your maps are on your lap,’ Wayne explains, ‘and you are like go right, go left, sharp corner …’

And it hits me that every good co-driver in a safari rally must have a sixth sense out on the road.

The one that, if it were Bruce Willis in the driving seat, would make a Wayne turn to him and whisper: ‘I see dead-end bends …’

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