Joginder Singh: The Flying Sikh of Kenya

Images: Wikipedia, Sikh Sangat

Born on 9 February 1932 in Kericho, Kenya, Sardar Joginder Singh Bhachu was a living legend who was popularly known as the ‘Flying Sikh’ of Kenya.

He had no motorsports experience until he was 26, but made up for his late start by eventually accumulating over 60 wins in the East African Rally Championships in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. His three wins of the Safari Rally in 1965, 1974 and 1976 were a first for any rally driver. He also scored three top five finishes in the Southern Cross Rally in Australia during the 1970s.

It is Singh's record of 19 finishes in 22 attempts in the Kenyan Safari Rally which is considered an unprecedented feat of consistency in what has been long regarded as the world's toughest rally, where the attrition rate could exceed 90 percent…and just completing the event was considered an unenviable feat. He was one of the so-called ‘Unsinkable Seven’—the only crews in the 1968 event who were able to reach the finish at Nairobi when the rest of the entire field of 74 were left stranded on the Mau Escarpment along the western rim of the Great Rift Valley.

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Joginder Singh known better as The Flying Sikh

His first Safari win in 1965 proved to be a triumph against expectations and a defiance of superstition. It was the 13th running of the event, and his car was given the number 1; which was at that time considered an unlucky number in the Safari. They were piloting the same Volvo PV544 which a factory driver (Tom Trana) had used in the 1964 Safari, and which had clocked up 42,000 competitive miles on its odometer. The two brothers Joginder and Jaswant, his co-driver at the time, had rebuilt it themselves and entered it privately. Despite the odds, they managed to beat all the participating works teams and were the lone Kenyan-Indian competitors amongst 44 white participants.

It was his performance in the 1971 event, however, which was truly remarkable. On the first day itself, Joginder’s Ford Escort had a gearbox problem which enabled him to only drive in reverse. Deciding to return to his service crew, he drove backwards for three miles—using a screwdriver as the gear lever!

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Joginder and Jaswant Singh celebrating their victory at the 1965 Safari Rally, in a Volvo PV544

“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 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 tailenders. We were the 100th car at one stage and we just kept overtaking them.”

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The Singh brothers and their victorious Volvo PV544 at the end of the 1965 Safari Rally

The Ford team chief had long ago written him off, but Joginder turned up at the finish line at number three on the road, having overtaken more than 100 cars. It was only the loss of time that consigned him to 16th place on points.

There are some who felt that Joginder should have been awarded the race in 1969, after he and Robin Hillyar had fought out a close finish (Hillyar just prevailing). It was then discovered that Hillyar’s Ford had larger valves than were permitted under the rules; but Ford’s explanation satisfied the judges, and their man kept the race.

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Joginder and Jaswant Singh in a VW Beetle 1200 at the 1962 Safari Rally, where they finished fifth

The Flying Sikh eventually retired in 1980. He was twice awarded Kenya’s Motor Sportsman of the Year title (1970 and 1976).

Ashok Bhalla, the manager of the East African Safari Rally, said of Joginder: “He never forgot a bend. He drove around it once and memorized its details—sharpness of angle, gradient of terrain, type of surface. Next time we went there, he took it at the maximum speed possible. He combined the roles of driver and navigator.”

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The Mitsubishi Colt Lancer with which Joginder won the 1974 Safari Rally

Even half a century later he remains a household name, with boys shouting ‘Jogida!’ at passing rally cars raising a dust storm.

Joginder achieved the legendary status of a national hero in an African country and remains unmatched as a rally driver who outclassed the best of the world during the 1970s. The late Kenyan president MzeeJomo gave him the title ‘Simbya of Kenya’. In 1995 he was inducted into the Coca-Cola Hall of Fame—a tribute given only to Kenya’s top sportsmen.

A much-loved hero of all Kenyans, he died poignantly on Sunday, the 24th of October 2013, when Kenya was celebrating Mashujaa (Heroes) Day.


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