If you want to understand the greatness of Joginder Singh, do not look at the 22 times that he entered the East African Safari Rally and failed to finish only three. Do not analyse his three wins, which were the first by any competitor. Do not even go to his retirement home in Surrey, England and marvel at the trophies, certificates, books, newspapers, magazines and documentaries that chronicle his victories in motor rallies around the world.
Instead, go back to 1971. There you’ll find his second worst placing in the Safari besides the three retirements in 1972, 1975 and 1978. He finished 16th overall in his works prepared Ford Escort Twin-Cam. But that is where to start. It is there that you’ll find the confluence between the myth and the reality which, in Joginder’s case, are one and the same thing.
By this time, he was already lionized as The Flying Sikh and Simba wa Kenya. He had attained a superhuman status in the psyche of one generation of Kenyans and they need not necessarily have been motor sport fans. Little boys curved cars out of cartons and affixed wheels of soda and beer bottle tops and trailed them around in an imaginary Safari route shouting ‘Joginder! Joginder! Joginder!’ Only the winners qualified to claim that title because Joginder could never be second best.
Maybe one of these boys was Patrick Njiru, probably Kenya’s most talented African rally driver who years later as an ace in his own right, spoke about his earliest inspiration. He said: “Joginder Singh.”
He was a rare breed whose appeal lay in a sublime neutrality so that the millions who loved him – people who lived in mental ethnic and racial cocoons - didn’t see a Sikh or an Asian; just a motoring superman. The profundity of this quality was such that it needed no words to propagate and few of the multitudes who were enamoured of The Flying Sikh have ever heard him speak.
Who, really, was Joginder Singh?
The 1971 Safari Rally was just a few hours underway when a nylon bush in the gearbox of Joginder’s Ford Escort melted at the foot of the Taita Hills, leaving only the reverse gear functioning. Joginder decided to return to where his service crew was and drove the car backwards for four and a half kilometres with a screw driver in place of the gear lever.
He explained: “At Ndi, in the very early stages of the Safari, we met the service team before the turn-off to the Taita Hills. After we took the turn four and half kilometres later, I found I had no gear in a corner. I stopped the car and tried all the gears. I discovered I had only the reverse gear left. So I reversed all the way, back to the service crew. All this time, about 70 more Safari cars were coming flat out towards me as I was reversing.
“On reaching the service point, we found the Ford 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, not even at Mombasa or Dar es Salaam. We bent the levers in the gears so as to stick them in and put it all back into place. It took a lot of hammering to bend the steel rods to make them work. 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 right at the end. I remember overtaking Car No. 115 and we carried on overtaking them in the Taita Hills and on the stretch to Mombasa. We were the 100th car at one stage and we just kept overtaking them.”
In fact, just as Joginder had linked up with his two mechanics after the epic reverse drive, Stuart Turner, the Ford Team Chief, circled overhead in his plane and Joginder frantically waved his useless gear lever at him.
But Turner had already decided that Joginder’s case was hopeless and radioed the service crew to pursue Finland’s Hanu Mikkola, the other driver upon who all Ford’s hopes now lay as far as Turner was concerned. Mikkola would, the following year, become the first overseas driver to win the East African Safari – but that is a story for another day. Turner left Joginder to his own devices.
Anyone but Joginder would have called it quits – and that is what Turner had expected him to do. But the manager was staggered when Joginder showed up at the finish line at number three on the road. He had started off as Car No. 30 and fallen right at the back of the field. He had stripped his gearbox and reassembled it and then had it replaced altogether. He had overtaken more than one hundred cars and if the rally was a few kilometres longer, he would have wound up first on the road.
But the enormous loss of time had consigned him to a 16th place finish on points.
That drive is etched in the memory of Kenya. KBC radio, the only live media available to the nation, had periodic progress reports of the Safari and Kenyans followed the broadcasts with probably as much interest as Americans had showed with their first trip to the moon.
At the ramp at KICC, commentators and ordinary fans searched for words to describe Joginder. All questions by journalists basically amounted to only one: how had he done it? One journalist reported that many people “just wanted to touch the car that had done so well.”
Joginder, of course, had a critical advantage over many other drivers and he used it to the fullest. In his 1966 book, The Shell History of the East African Safari Rally, Charles Disney had this observation to make: “The Kenya-born Sikh brothers, Joginder and Jaswant Singh...had driven together since 1960 and had never failed to finish, never being lower in the ratings than fifth in their class.
“They had gained a class win and three class seconds and, in 1963, had been one of the seven crews to complete the Safari, finishing fourth. Both are good drivers and excellent mechanics, able to assemble, tune and prepare their cars themselves as well as being able to effect any necessary repairs en route without recourse to outside assistance.”
That is what Stuart Turner had not reckoned with. In 1971, Joginder’s co-driver was Jaswant. He was another gift. Ashok Bhalla, now Manager at the East African Safari Rally Ltd, which runs the Safari Classic, navigated Joginder in a series of local rallies. He noticed something early on.
“Joginder never forgot a bend,” says Bhalla. “He drove around it once and memorized its details – sharpness of angle, gradient of terrain, type of surface and all that. Next time we went there, he took it at the maximum speed possible. He combined the roles of driver and navigator.”
NAVIGATED MANY DRIVERS
This is collaborated by a Joginder fan, John Kagagi, better known as a rugby referee and game authority than a motor sportsman. “As small boys growing up at Itiati on the slopes of Mt Kenya, we eagerly awaited the Safari cars every Easter. Ours was a place marked by a series of hairpin bends. Joginder knew them like the back of his hand. He negotiated them at a speed nobody else could to our great thrill.”