Is the East African Safari Rally really the world's toughest?

Photography by Actiongraphers

Story by Mitch McCullough

The black-and-white video was burned into my brain, in-car footage taken from a Mercury Comet barreling down a dirt road in Africa in 1964. It was on network TV, I was 8, and it changed my life. 

As soon as I was old enough, I was subscribing to car magazines. Cars became my hobby and my career.

Everything that followed confirmed my initial impressions: Rallying was the ultimate test of car and driver, and the East African Safari was the ultimate rally. I dreamed, nay, I fantasized about running the Safari Classic. But I never imagined it would actually happen.

Many years passed. Then, one morning in 2019, I was outlining plans for a long-hood 911 for vintage racing, excited because I’d never owned a Porsche. “Just wait till they get a load of this thing!”

Kim, my wife, shrugged, having heard all this Porsche talk before. She motioned for me to stop pacing and sit down. “Let’s think a little bigger,” she said with an expansive wave. “If you could do anything you wanted, what would you want to do the most?”

Well, the East African Safari Classic,” I chuckled, “but….”

Well, then we should put all of our focus on that,” she said.

But….”

The next day, I emailed Richard Tuthill. Some 15 years earlier, we’d visited his facility in the U.K. as part of a Steve Austin tour of Goodwood. 

While there, I nudged Kim and said, “If we ever go vintage rallying, we are coming to these guys.” Vintage rallying doesn’t really exist in the U.S.–not the kind that involves racing on unpaved roads–so I hadn’t imagined this happening.

Journey to the Starting Line

Today’s East African Safari Classic is an accurate reenactment of rallying in the 1970s and early 1980s. Entry is restricted to pre-1986 FIA historic cars–just before Group B. Turbos and four-wheel drive are not allowed. 


Legendary rally driver Stig Blomqvist said it’s as demanding as the original but with the opportunity for a little more sleep. The Classic allows eight days for what the original covered in four.

Tuthill Porsche is the only practical way for an American to run the Safari. The logistics are overwhelming, and you need an experienced, crack crew of rally mechanics who can repair the car quickly and know where to be at what time. Fortunately, Tuthill excels at it.

Tuthill fielded 13 Porsche 911s in the 2022 East African Safari Classic. The cars, spares, and tires–40 allocated per car–filled six shipping containers. 

All epic trips start with a dream, right? For Mitch McCullough, that seed was planted by the sight of a Mercury Comet back in 1964. Along with his wife, Kim, he eventually made it to the Safari Classic in No. 30.

The rally cars were supported with 70 crewmembers from Tuthill Porsche and 21 support vehicles, mostly Land Cruisers rented locally. Kenyan talent was used for catering, shuttle drivers and some of the logistics.

Half the Tuthill drivers were running the Safari as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Most were vintage racers or club racers who, like us, had purchased a Tuthill Porsche to run the rally. One driver had no competition experience whatsoever and rented a car. At the same time, all the pro-level drivers in the rally who were not Kenyan were in Tuthill Porsches, among them America’s Ken Block, Sweden’s Patrik Sandell and Austria’s Kris Rosenberger.

Tuthill prepares its Porsches as FIA Appendix K rally cars, with a few modifications allowed for the Safari Classic that can be undone in a day. 

Each car usually starts with a 1973-’77 tub that is stripped to bare metal, repaired and reinforced throughout. Most are fitted with 3.0-liter engines, which the rules allow. 

Up front are 100-liter fuel tanks, two spare tires and a tow rope. Tuthill and EXE-TC jointly developed the suspension for the Safari using five-way adjustable WRC dampers with remote reservoirs. 

Torsion bars are used in the rear, with Tuthill’s strengthened steel rear arms. Special forged uprights are used for the front struts. Stock-size 195/65R15 Dunlop Direzza rally tires are fitted to 15x6.5-inch Braid Acropolis wheels, both unbelievably strong and durable.

Our car was a Bahia Red 1972 Porsche 911T coupe found in Colorado, tired and unkempt. We specified a narrow body, no ducktail, and a 911T front bumper. The oil filler on the right-rear fender is unique to ’72 models and remains functional.

 

Its 3.0-liter engine is rated at 280 horsepower, with low-rpm tractability and an ability to run on crappy fuel. Spares and tools are packed into every nook and cranny of the Porsche. It’s a fantastic car, easy to drive well, very fast when driven brilliantly. The design of our two-tone paint scheme was inspired by the Porsches driven by Gerard Larrousse and Björn Waldegard in the 1972 Monte Carlo, but the car is intended to look like a period entry, not a tribute. 

While in Kenya, we wanted to help support the wildlife and people there, so we campaigned for donations to Tusk, which funds successful conservation programs in Africa. Our Rally for Tusk effort channeled more than $9000 to the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the Tsavo Trust and the Big Life Foundation, organizations that protect elephants and other wild animals from poaching.

“The Safari Can Bite You”

The 48-car Safari field featured Ford Escort Mk1 and Mk2 sedans; Datsun 240Z, 160J, Violet and 510 models; a Rover Vitesse; a pair of Triumph TR7s; a pair of Skodas; and a pair of Renault 4s. The Porsche 911 was the most popular choice, with 16 entries.

This year’s rally featured 1132 miles of flat-out, fast-as-you-dare special stages connected by 1025 miles of brisk transits. It covered an area the size of Arizona, with diverse topography, geography and flora. 

Just imagine driving from New Jersey to Montana as fast as possible–all on dirt roads. Perhaps a better comparison is running the Mille Miglia and to that adding all of the special stages from the American Rally Association’s nine-event national series (or the WRC, take your pick). We drove 250 to 400 miles a day, and no two days were alike.

Each day we ran three special stages connected by four transit (liaison) sections, or 24 stages over the eight days. Stages ranged from 35 to 75 miles long. That’s flat-out for more than an hour at a time on unpaved roads, some fast, some rough, some just traces, mere wisps of a two-track, all of them chock full of hazards and surprises.

Veterans said this year’s rally was the roughest Safari they’d ever experienced. Due to U.K. travel restrictions, the rally was moved to February–mid-summer. Erosion from spring runoff was substantial, and it had not been repaired. Avoiding these hazards and others was the key to finishing.

Chairman Joey Ghose, who took over just before covid hit, said he wants the Safari Classic to relive the spirit of the ’70s to mid-’80s. So he asked for long, endurance-testing stages with shorter service times to reduce the advantages of well-funded teams. To encourage more local competition, Ghose dramatically reduced entry fees, which swelled the field with Kenyan teams–all of them fast, skilled, serious rallyists, fearless and familiar with the terrain.

“The World’s Greatest Classic Rally” is the official tagline on the banners, but Raju Chaggar, clerk of the course, vowed the East African Safari Classic would be known as “the world’s toughest classic rally.” Chaggar laid out long, rough stages, promising “a true test of endurance and stamina” while predicting a significant percentage of cars would not finish.

Eight days of rallying consumed 30 tires. The wheels came from Braid, a longtime rally supplier, while the event rules limit cars to period-correct modifications. 

Each day began pre-dawn. We would stand, shivering in the cool morning air outside parc fermé, until 10 minutes before the start of the first transit leg. We would then hurry to our car to prepare for the day. Three minutes before counting us down–“Five! Four! Three!…”–an official would step over and install a GPS unit programmed with the day’s course.

When we began the transit leg, we were given an arrival time for the start of the first stage, which might be close or 160 kilometers away. Arriving late for the start of a stage brought a 1-minute penalty for every minute late. The first stage might be 80 kilometers. 

The finish of that stage marked the beginning of the transit leg to the next stage, perhaps 30 kilometers away, but we were allowed an extra 30 minutes to get there, giving us time to stop for service. Sometimes service was within a few kilometers of the finish of a stage, sometimes it was 30 kilometers away. It was up to the co-driver to ensure we didn’t spend too much time at a service stop, or we would have to “get a little wiggle on,” as Richard Tuthill would say, to get to the start of the next stage on time.

Service stops were busy. We would cool off with cold rags, drink water and eat something while a whirlwind of activity revolved around the car. Only four crewmembers were permitted to work on a rally car at one time, and they had to wear safety tabards whenever doing any work. 

Service stops are heavily regulated. Event rules allow only four crewmembers at a time, and each is required to wear a safety vest. 

Each rally car carries four officially issued tabards. At each service stop, our crack Tuthill crew grabbed the vests, removed and inspected each wheel and tire, put a wrench on every bolt, checked the oil, refueled the 100-liter tank, tended to any niggles, and stuffed the tabors back in the car. The vests, which have Safari patches on them, are hanging in our garage now, washed but stained with red dirt and grease.

Only the driver and co-driver are permitted to work on the car outside the designated service areas. Rally cars carry tools and spares on board. Ours included a cordless impact wrench mounted on the driver’s door and a spare axle secured below the co-driver’s legs. Oil lines are pre-set for quick bypassing. 

Mechanical skills and resourcefulness can be useful. South African co-driver Craig Redelinghuys once wrapped a length of barbed wire around damaged suspension members to reattach a corner well enough to limp out of a stage and into the service area. 

Anyone–spectators, competitors, crew–is allowed to roll a rally car back onto its wheels or push it out of a ditch or tow it out of fine silt called fesh-fesh without penalty. But that’s it. Once free of the hazard, the rally car must motor on. 

Towing a car out of a stage incurs massive penalties, a new rule intended to make the Safari tougher. Nor can anyone provide tools or parts or mechanical assistance outside a designated service area. Ken Block received a 2-hour penalty after suspension pieces were brought to his car after it was sidelined on a stage. (The stage was canceled, saving him from a DNF.)

“The Safari can bite you,” Event Director Natasha Tundo warned us. Countless hazards awaited the unwary. Some but not all were called out in the route book. Creek-sized ditches running across the road, lurking just past barely perceptible rises, were invisible at 90 mph until we were upon them. 

Large sections of other roads had fallen off on one or both sides. One road was obscenely rough and aggressively crowned with 4-foot ditches on each side. Concrete washes designed to channel water across the road were often shattered rubble. Dry riverbeds were full of fesh-fesh that washed out steering control in speeding cars and trapped slow-moving ones. Hundreds of jumps offered photographic opportunities but sometimes hid an ugly landing.

War of Attrition

“Go as fast as you can when you can see,” Ryan Champion, a previous Safari Classic winner, explained. “Slow down when you can’t.” 

Fresh from winning the RAC Roger Albert Clark rally in another Tuthill Porsche, Champion was driving our car during a test session near Vipingo, on the Indian Ocean, a couple of days before the rally. We were doing about 80 mph around a gravel curve, the road was busy with motorbikes and cars, and I was gripping the seat bottoms on the passenger side. 

“See those people up there?” he asked, indicating three pedestrians around the bend and hundreds of yards up the road. They were hurrying up a grassy bank. “Look! They see us now.”

The throttle went to the floor and we gained speed, throwing up a cloud of dust as we blew past them. He pointed across a field. “Over there. See that dust cloud? That’s a motorbike on our road coming our way.”

Spectators greeted teams enthusiastically and, when needed, helped extract cars from hazards. The wildlife, though, seemed less interested. 

The secret to winning the Safari Classic is to be fast in the fast sections and slow enough to avoid damaging the car in the rough or tricky spots. Our goal was to start and finish all the stages without crashing or getting time-barred.

The start of the rally took us through the Kerio Valley, a remote area in the Great Rift between Mount Kenya and the highlands along the Lake Victoria basin. The rocky roads were rougher than any I’d experienced on Arizona’s Prescott Forest Rally or California’s Rim of the World. 

Before the rally, I’d secretly hoped we wouldn’t puncture any tires, but we suffered our first flat–of four total–on the first day. We used 30 tires in eight days of rallying.

We’d started 25th, and the cars ahead of us had kicked up rocks. Some 20 kilometers before the finish of the first stage on day two, I spotted a sharp cube the size of a truck battery. 

Deposited there by one of the more than 100 volcanoes dotting the Great Rift, it lay among hundreds of others just like it strewn on an uphill slog of trail that looked more like a creek bed than a road. It was by no means the only obstacle in the area, and we were covering ground, so I quickly decided to put the right-side tires 6 inches to the left of the cube, one of countless little decisions made at speed on a stage. 

To my disappointment, a rut grabbed our right-side tires, yanking the car over, and our right rear slammed over the cube. We made it to the next service but with a broken right-rear suspension arm and damper, a bent wheel and a split tire. That evening we decided to reduce our pace to ensure we finished all the stages.

It takes an army. Tuthill Porsche sent 70 crewmembers in 21 vehicles to support its 13 teams. Among its entrants was Ken Block, a star of rally, gymkhana and YouTube. 

Temperatures rose to the mid-90s as we zigzagged across the equator in mid-summer. Though quite tolerable at higher altitudes, humidity rose as we moved out of the mountains and into the lowlands toward the ocean. 

Naturally, we ran with all the windows up to keep the dust out and, unlike one of the 240Zs, our car is not equipped with a/c. Ventilation is via a roof vent, which pressurizes the cabin to keep dust out. 

Several competitors wore driving suits, but most signed a waiver permitting cooler apparel. For me, that meant a T-shirt, shorts and high-top racing shoes, a fashionable getup. Kim wore hiking sneakers in case she needed to push the car. (She didn’t.) The car is loud inside, especially on unpaved roads, so we wore headsets on transits and open-faced helmets on stages, all connected via intercom.

Transits and special stages were open to the public. We had to watch out for boda boda–slow motorbikes traveling singly or in herds, often with a wide load or three people on board. We came face to face with a broken garbage truck smack in the middle of a narrow gravel road just after cresting a brow. 

Domestic animals were a concern: dogs, donkeys and donkey carts, herds of goats, herds of sheep, herds of cows, occasionally herders. Similar to the Mille Miglia, there were large numbers of spectators, but pedestrians were aware of the rally and stayed out of the way.

We saw a lot of wildlife from the rally car, both in quantity and diversity, especially in Amboseli National Park. Some of the stages were dotted with elephant droppings that looked like small boulders. We had no close calls, though stopping to change a tire brought jokes about becoming some creature’s meal. 

The following day we saw a lioness on the move, looking hungry. We slowed and stopped for a pair of giraffes grazing on our rally route, a wisp of grassy trail through golden hills dotted with acacia reminiscent of California’s wine country. After looking at us, they turned and, as if in slow motion, sprinted across the road, moving both legs on the same side at the same time in their unusual pacing gate. Then, almost immediately, they stopped and turned to watch us drive away.

Auxiliary lights mounted at the foot of one or both A-pillars warned Kenyans of an approaching rally car with a unique light signature they understood. Most motorists made room and, if necessary, stopped for rally cars, often waving and giving thumbs-up. On the open highway, an oncoming boda boda or car would move onto its respective shoulder (on our right) to make room for us to use its lane. 

Slithering through the Kenyan cities presented its own challenge. Motorists were aware of the rally, and police held traffic at intersections to let rally cars through. Lane splitting down the middle of a hubbub was a common tactic. It was even more insane than it sounds.

Stages ran right through the middle of villages in remote areas, with crowds standing alongside the road, the only road, cheering as the rally cars blasted through. The rally organizers imposed speed zones in the larger, busier villages, but smaller villages were flat-out. Otherwise, speed enforcement in Kenya is accomplished via speed bumps–some easy, some aggressive. Sacked suspensions, not citations, are the penalty for speeding.

Goodwill was heaped on us nearly everywhere we went. Schools full of young, uniformed children waved and cheered at us along the route, their teachers taking a break from teaching English to watch us go by. They went nuts when we tooted the horn and waved. After finishing the last stage of the rally, we went by a school on a lonely dirt road where children were throwing dried leaves down on the cars, a Kenyan ticker-tape parade.

Navigation Nightmares

If driving was challenging, pity the poor navigator. The Safari is an old-fashioned blind rally, so no pace notes. Recce–scouting the route ahead of time–is cause for expulsion. 

Instead, each evening, navigators are issued route books. A pair of Brantz electronic odometers mounted on the dash helped Kim track mileages provided in the route book, resetting a trip odo between each instruction. 

And each evening, she went over the following day’s 90-page route book, translating the rallymaster’s shorthand and highlighting tricky spots. Most mornings, we were issued corrections to the route book or alterations to the route that had to be factored in.

Not only are the roads sinuous, but their surfaces feature a mix of loose stones and larger rocks. Remember that part about burning through 30 tires in eight days?

That’s all the usual stuff, but technology has arrived at the Safari Classic. Immediately before starting the rally, officials added two more devices to our car: a GPS unit and a little box we called the screamer. The GPS allowed officials to track every car’s exact location–and speed. It was programmed with the route and at times was of benefit to the co-driver. Skillful juggling of route book and GPS unit was part of the navigational challenge.

The screamer had three buttons and performed several functions. First, it screamed whenever we approached a triple-caution situation. (We learned in this rally that meant first gear, prepare to stop.) 

Second, it featured an emergency button that, when pressed, would alert officials to the location of the car and alert oncoming rally cars when they approached. Third, and most annoying, it screamed when a competitor was behind us and wanted to pass. The first time it screamed was for a speed zone. In the several seconds it took for us to understand the scream, we sped into the speed zone and were assessed a 44-minute penalty.

Succumb or Survive?

The Safari Classic originally traveled through Kenya, Uganda and what is today Tanzania, but this year it ran exclusively in Kenya. It traces its origins to 1953, when it was called the East African Coronation Safari and celebrated the crowning of Elizabeth II, who happened to be in Kenya when her father, King George VI, died and she became the queen. 

It was renamed the East African Safari Rally in 1960 following the independence of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. It joined the World Rally Championship as the Safari Rally from 1974 to 2000. The WRC Safari Rally is back this year but works within the FIA framework, with 114 miles of special stages. This year’s Safari Classic featured 1025 miles of special stages.

From the beginning, Kenyans dominated the standings, such was their driving skill and knowledge of the terrain. In wasn’t until 1972 that a European, Hannu Mikkola from Finland, won the Safari Rally, with massive support from Ford Motor. Finishing second that year was Sobieslaw Zasada from Poland, who drove a 1972 Porsche 911, not unlike ours.

Kenyans remain the drivers and co-drivers to beat, taking three of the top five finishes in this year’s Safari Classic. A Safari veteran, Kenyan Baldev Chager, didn’t win a single stage but drove steadily without mistakes to win the rally in his Porsche 911. Ian Duncan took third in his Rover and Lee Rose fourth in his Escort Mk2.

Tuthill Porsches took six of the top 10 positions. Winning nine stages and taking second place in his first Safari was Patrik Sandell, a successful rally WRC driver from Sweden. He said he started out too fast, puncturing tires, then slowed down too much before he found the right pace. 

“I’d thought I’d done some rallying,” he said during the second day. “It turns out I’ve never done a rally.” He was closing in on the lead and could be the driver to beat in the next Safari.

We were among five Americans in the event. David Danglard, who founded the K1 Speed indoor kart racing organization, took ninth, a very impressive finish for his first Safari. Danglard had run Peking-Paris and other long-distance rallies in his Tuthill Porsche with his wife, but he took on the Safari with veteran co-driver Gavin Laurence from Kenya. 

Ken Block turned in the most impressive performance among the Americans, winning eight stages in his first Safari but finished 19th after damaging his suspension. Iain Dobson, who runs Automotive Events in Cleveland, rolled his Skoda on the second day.

Forty-five cars started and just 26, including Mitch and Kim McCullough’s No. 30 Porsche, finished every stage. 

We finished 23rd. Of the 45 starters, ours was one of 26 cars that started and finished all 24 stages–and it was still in great condition at the end of the rally. 

A half-dozen rookie mistakes and four punctures cost us a couple of positions, but I’d have had to drive harder to improve, and that would have brought risks. Several cars rolled or crashed out of the rally, but far more suffered major suspension damage from overdriving at the wrong moment. One driver destroyed a steering rack. And, of course, some cars suffered mechanical failure. Most damaged cars returned to the rally to finish physically and join the post-event party but were not officially classified as finishers.

Kim and I were elated to reach the finish ramp, where we were each handed a super-cold bottle of Canti Pinot Grigio. After spraying Kim in the eyes, I took a swig. It was the best champagne I’d ever tasted. The Safari was everything I’d dreamed and more. It was the best, most satisfying automotive event of my lifetime.

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