The best success stories are not usually those of giants enriching their trophy cabinets. Rather, it is those stories of minnows triumphing against giant odds—like Charles Muhangi’s conquest of the 1999 African Rally Championship.
“It was very exciting, and every single victory meant a lot to us,” says Steven Byaruhanga, Muhangi’s longtime friend and co-driver in that historic season.
Just winning the 1998 National Championship, which encouraged Muhangi to gun for the continental gong, had come as a surprise, an upset against Emma Katto, Karim Hirji, and Chipper Adams, among the giants of motorsport.
And on the continent, despite Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s triumph over apartheid, politically, disdain towards people of colour was still a norm in the South. Driving three of their four races in the region Muhangi and Byaruhanga faced the novel challenge of racial denigration.
“We were raking the route in northern Namibia, and white South African driver referred to us the Ovambo, who could not compete,” Byaruhanga recalls. The Ovambo are a Bantu tribe, the largest in Namibia, but whites deemed them primitive.
But the ‘Ovambo’ hit the gravel with determination, leaped over the hurdles to become the first Black Africans to win the ARC.
And rubbing shoulders with then record World Rally Champion Tommi Mäkinen of Finland at the coronation in Monte Carlo, France was another victory on its own.
Muhangi’s debut was the Tara Namibia Rally March 26-28, 1999. Byaruhanga says the event started past 2pm, and the first car returned around midnight.
Muhangi-Byaruhanga’s Subaru Impreza 555, revered as ‘Ekitagururo’ came second in 3:44:58, behind Namibian Richard Himmel who finished in 3:35:38 but Himmel’s Toyota Conquest was not homologated for the ARC, hence Muhangi taking maximum points.
“You really pushed me to the limits,” Byaruhanga recalls Himmel saying.
Next was the Zambia International Rally, July 2-4 in Lusaka. 25 entered the race, but only 12 finished.
Zimbabwe’s Hannes Cruger came first, in 3:00:00 but like Himmel’s his Toyota Conquest did not score for the ARC and Muhangi extended his lead.
At the Zimbabwe Dunlop Challenge July 30-August 1, in Harare, Muhangi claimed top spot in 3:41:53, ahead of two South African drivers Theuns Joubert and Kassie Coetzee in a field of 17.
“This was the most exciting race. The South Africans were no joke,” Byaruhanga recalls. “It was an insult to the whites. They couldn’t imagine a black man beating them at their own sport.”
Then came the final moment: the Total Pearl of Africa Uganda Rally September 3-5 in Kampala.
Muhangi and Byaruhanga led after Day One. The cars were delayed for about two hours at Namboole, Byaruhanga recalls. And just before the cars were set off, the competition marshal gave him a wrong time card.
“I realised it when we were already in Mukono. I thought I would sort it with the next marshal, but he refused. So we were penalised two minutes but we let it go because our focus was on the bigger prize, not the local championship.”
Chipper Adams won in 4:04:04 but his Toyota Supra was not into the continental contention. Advantage Muhangi-Byaruhanga, who came second in 4:18:44.
Now even if Zimbabwe’s Abe Smit, second on ARC standings won the Equator Kenya Rally, he could not catch Muhangi.
“It was very exciting… many did not believe us both home and away. Some whites called us derogatory names, others called us Britons because our service crew was from Scotland,” Byaruhanga remembers.
“A mayor in Namibia told us that our victory was also a victory for indigenous people, and promised us a lot if we visited again.”
Byaruhanga admits every victory comes with luck. But that does not mean they did not prepare.
After conquering the 1997 Kenya Safari Rally, Scot driver Colin McRae sold his Subaru to Muhangi. It immediately paid off by winning Muhangi the 1998 NRC title.
Byaruhanga says Muhangi sent the machine to Scotland to rebuild it for a tougher challenge—the ARC. Engineer Dom Buckley did a great job and sent it back in time for the ARC.
Buckley would head a very good service crew that flew from Scotland to Africa ahead of every ARC event.
Most Ugandan rally drivers operate in basically amateur settings, incurring very heavy costs, with fun being the biggest return on investment. Muhangi, the proprietor of Horizon Coaches, footed the travel and accommodation bills for his team and his service crew but Byaruhanga acknowledges that fans like Hajj Aziz Kyabaaba, a Ugandan businessman in Namibia, played a key role in this success story.
“That man helped us a lot. He hosted us in Namibia, transported our car from Windhoek to Tsumeb, a distance of 400km, even from Zambia and to Zimbabwe.”
Prior, the best drivers preferred Datsun, Peugeot, Nissan PA10 and Toyota Celicas. But Muhangi’s inferior Impreza continued Subaru’s dominance of the continental honours that spanned 21 years. It was Uganda-born Zambian and record winner Satwant Singh who first won the ARC title in a Subaru, in 1996. Between then and 2016, Mitsubishi drivers won it only four times, before Kenya’s Manvir Baryan did a hat-trick in a Skoda.
Subaru invited Muhangi to Japan but Byaruhanga does not remember the details of the deal.
From the Monte Carlo coronation, in January 2000, the State hosted the African kings to dinner.
“We were received by Hon Mike Mukula and Deputy Prime Minister Moses Ali represented the State.”
Muhangi-Byaruhanga won the Uspa Sports Personality of the Year award. Byaruhanga retired, after almost 15 years in the cockpit.
When FIA, the International Automobile Federation, prohibited World Rally Cars and turbo-charged four-wheel drive Group A cars from regional championships by 2003, Muhangi retired. He would bounce back in 2013, with minor impact. Even in January 2018, 11 months before he died, he had threatened to compete again. He did not. But his legacy will live on, eternally.
Muhangi was a man who fought for his rights, often confronting marshals and federation officials when felt cheated. But inside the cockpit, Byaruhanga says, he was “the perfect driver. And very competitive.”