KAMPALA. Nearly two decades have passed since Charles Muhangi, 65, won the Africa Rally Championship (ARC). He had no right to compete at that level at the time.
Uganda had ‘better’ drivers than him. At least Karim Hirji, Emma Katto, Moses Lumala, Gerald Kiddu and Chipper Adams were more renowned than he was.
In addition, Charlie Lubega was the rising star of motorsport and Africa was ‘owned’ by Zambia’s Satwant Singh.
Across the border in Kenya, illuminated by the legendary Ian Duncan, rallying was at its peak helped by hosting a round of the World Rally Championship (WRC).
The world’s biggest speedsters, including Britons Richard Burns and Colin McRae (RIP), Finn Tomi Makinen’s and Spain’s Carlos Sainz, were regulars at the Kenya Safari Rally.
During the 1996 Safari won by Makkinen, every fan was spell-bound by McRae’s Subari Impreza 555. It was a gem despite the Scot finishing fourth.
He would make for that by winning the 1997 edition on the dusty and bumpy roads of Kenya, which were later deemed too damaging to cars as the WRC dropped the event from its calendar.
A few Ugandan drivers, led by Katto, dared to race against the best in the world. Many fellow countrymen made the journey across the border to cheer them.
In that crowd was a driver no one paid attention to. Muhangi, often a regular at the smaller rally events, raced in an inferior Mitsubishi Evo. II.
There was no reason to turn your neck when it raced past!
Safari rallies were a shopping mall for many a Ugandan rally driver and fan. It is there that Lubega first noticed Hakkinne’s Mitsubishi Evo. IV.
That love at first sight propelled him to acquire one that eventually won him four National Rally Championship (NRC) titles.
Muhangi, who was found dead yesterday morning, saw something better and more beautiful enticing, McRae’s Subaru Impreza 555.
The sound was unmistakable but little did anyone know that it was to change the destiny of motorsport in Africa.
The continent’s best drivers went on a mad purchase of Subarus because of what he had done with it and that legacy lives on today.
The cars of preference had been the Datsun, Peugeot, Nissan PA10 and the Toyota Celicas used by Hirji, Katto and Kiddu. They were simply unbeatable. Few dared.
Bang, Muhangi won the 1998 NRC crown in that Subaru Impreza 555. He had no business upstaging more seasoned and richer drivers.
The demand for respect was obvious. It was not forthcoming. Motorsport here was still defined by Hirji v Katto v Chipper Adams and later on Moses Lumala.
This gave Muhangi an opportunity to create a new path. With fans’ loyalty defined, he was a footnote. The headlines, noise and attention were hoarded by Katto and the Dembe Rally Team of Hirji.
As a lone ranger, and often seen as arrogant by colleagues, Muhangi was the odd man out. He had to force his way onto motorsport’s high table.
His first converts beat the rest of the competition by localising his monster. The Subaru Impreza 555 was fondly renamed Ekitaguriro.
Many started falling in love as Muhangi painted the word ‘Ekitaguriro’ across the chest of the blue in bright yellow. You were forced to pay attention.
That Ekitaguriro is a harvest celebration dance of the Banyankore became common knowledge.
It is occasionally performed to demonstrate the Banyankore’s love for cattle. The singing in this dance is similar to the sounds of the cow.
That is the melody Muhangi went out to create. The 1999 rally season set the stage for him to take this sound to the continent. He had conquered the kings of this land.
Still no one gave him a chance as many deemed him not as fast and as daring as the other more famous drivers in Uganda and the region.
Meticulous at preparation, Muhangi sent the Ekitaguriro to Scotland upon the completion of the 1998 season for rebuilding as he pondered a splash in the 1999 ARC.
“We had to rebuild the car so Dom Buckley did so and sent back just in time for the ARC,” Mr Steven Byaruhanga, his former navigator, said.
“We had a good service crew and very supportive fans,” he added.
That set the tone for a dominant 1999 ARC season in which Muhangi completed all seven events, clinching the title with one event to spare.
Fittingly, the crowning moment came at the 1999 Pearl of Uganda Rally, the sixth event of the NRC calendar.
“He was the perfect driver. He was a true legend; as a driver he was very competitive but fair,” Mr Byaruhanga added.
In his eulogy, some of which is shared by another former co-driver Kisitu Mayanja, Muhangi was self-made in the cockpit yet a perfectionist. “He was a very careful driver; no rolls, no funny accidents. The only two incidents involved one at control point in Nyenga, Nkonkonjeru where a rally official, Felix Ondongkara (then Umospoc president) had packed his car at the control,” Mr Byaruhanga explained.
“He knocked the car head on. The other one was in Mityana where the fans had crowded the road. He wanted to save the fans but ended up knocking a kid. Muhangi never went to rally school; he was a natural born driver who mastered all his powerful cars without help,” he added.
In the years that followed that 1999 triumph that culminated in attending the annual WRC dinner in Monte Carlo, he struggled to replicate that form, rather shock success.
The change of rules at the end of the 2002 season by the FIA World Council resolution prohibiting World Rally Cars and turbo-charged four-wheel drive Group A cars from FIA Regional Championship rallies from January 1, 2003 left him helpless.
None of his three cars were eligible. He meandered into retirement and kept coming back to race from time to time even if the edge was gone. After nearly 10 years, he made a shock return in 2013 and then threatened to race again in January this year.
“I still have what it takes to get back to competitive rallying. I want to as well report that next year I will be right back,” a visibly serious Muhangi stated then.
He has not lived to race in 2019. No one saw it coming, just like no one saw him winning when he started altering the status quo in 1998.
1998. Muhangi won the 1998 NRC crown in a Subaru Impreza 555 that was fondly renamed Ekitaguriro.
1999. Muhangi completed all seven NRC events, clinching the title with one event to spare. Fittingly, the crowning moment came at the 1999 Pearl of Uganda Rally, the sixth event of the NRC calendar.
2002. The FIA World Council resolution prohibiting World Rally Cars and turbo-charged four-wheel drive Group A cars from FIA Regional Championship rallies from January 1, 2003, leaving Muhangi unable to compete.
2013. After nearly 10 years, he made a shock return in 2013 and then threatened to race again in January this year.