Simba Wa Kenya: Legendary Driver Who Raced In Reverse Gear, and Won!

Image: The legendary driver Joginder Singh pictured alongside his co-driver brother in the 1965 Safari Rally (file images)

The infectious magic in the world of motorsports began with the iconic East African Rally Championship in the 70’s and 80’s. A glorious event that pitted man and machine against extreme terrain, unpredictable weather and wild animals.

Race cars were purposely built for the rough and tumble, featured little of the safety, comfort or technology bells now basic in a modern family car. But, the tough event created hard, gritty sportsmen.

And, stories that will never die. Stories of excellence built painstakingly through experience and initiative to overcome obstacles. The era’s most endearing rally legend is Joginder Singh – The Flying Sikh – a driver so prolific that President Jomo Kenyatta would christen ‘Simba wa Kenya’.

Legendary brothers Joginder and Jaswant Singh celebrating a past win. (file image)

Joginder Singh was born in Kericho, on 9th February 1932. He dived into motorsports aged 26 years to rack up over 60 wins in the East African Rally, and three top five finishes in the Southern Cross Rally in Australia during the 1970s.

It is, however, exploits and escapades in the Safari Rally that made Joginder Singh a legend. The Flying Sikh has a record three wins under his belt: 1965, 1974 and 1976.

Joginder Singh’s record of 19 finishes in 22 attempts in the Kenyan Safari Rally is considered an unprecedented feat of consistency in what has infamously reigned as the world’s toughest rally, where the attrition rate could exceed 90%. It was a chest-thumping feat to just complete the rally.

For instance, the 1968 event had 81 crews on the starting line. Only 7 crews – Joginder’s included – completed the event to earn the moniker ‘The Unsinkable Seven’. The entire field of 74 crews were stranded on the Mau Escarpment, along the western rim of the Great Rift Valley.

Joginder’s acumen started to shine in the event’s 13th edition, in 1965. The legend’s car was branded No.1 – now, both numbers are termed as ‘unlucky’. Sports and superstition are birds of the same feather. Joginder’s co-driver was his brother Jaswant – the pair had rebuilt a retired race car, a Volvo PV544. Against incredible odds, they had won.

It is the 1971 event performance that still evokes nostalgia. Joginder’s Ford Escort became problematic on Day One. The gear box jammed, only the reverse gear working. Deciding to return to his service crew, Joginder drove in reverse gear for four and half miles against oncoming cars!

 “All this time, about 70 more Safari cars were coming flat out towards me as I was reversing,” he later recalled.

“On reaching the service point, we found the crew had gone. Only two mechanics remained. We just opened up the gearbox and stripped it to bits. The gear selector had broken. There were no spare parts. We bent the levers in the gears so as to stick them in. It took a lot of hammering.

This took a lot of precious time. As soon as we got back on the road, we let go at full speed. We started overtaking the tail-enders. We were the 100th car at one stage and we just kept overtaking them.”

Joginder would overtake more than 100 cars – to finish THIRD!

The Flying Sikh eventually retired in 1980, earned two Kenya’s Motor Sportsman of the Year title (1970 and 1976). Sadly, the Shujaa passed away on Mashujaa Day 20th October 2013 in the UK.

The 2023 FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) holds the seventh leg of the series, dubbed KCB WRC Safari Rally on June 22-25 at the lakeside town of Naivasha.

Expected to defend the Kenyan leg is the WRC series champion Kalle Rovanpera.

Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) is the official sponsor with an estimated Ksh150M fees injected as support for the 2023 WRC Safari Rally event. The annual event features highly for motorsports enthusiasts, with lots of outdoor camping and family fun activities.

About this writer:

Kibaki Muthamia

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