UGsports series: Top five drivers in the history of motorsport in Uganda

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By Alex Bossa

With the return of the WRC safari in Kenya this week, a number of top drivers have registered to take part in the event that runs from 24th June, to 27th June 2021 and it is upon this that UGsports decided to bring you the top fie rally drivers the country has ever seen.

With the country blessed with a number of skilled rally drivers, the likes of Chipper Adams, Moses Lumala, Ponsiano Lwakataka, Jas Mangat and Jimmy Dean can only make a list of the honorable mentions.

5th position: Karim Hirji

Along with his Dembe rally team, Karim is seen as one of the greatest game changers in the history of rally driving in the Pearl of Africa. From stopping and giving assistance to fellow competitors to racing to three NRC titles, Karim still ranks among the creme de la creme in the rallying circles of Uganda.

Karim made his debut in a motorsport related event organized by Speke Hotel in 1985 where he raced in a Hyundai pony pickup. He would go on in that same year to acquire a Datsun 710 and later a Nissan PA 10, a move which made his doubters to begin taking him as a serious rally driver.

Tagged the “toughest rally” on the WRC calendar, Karim seized the opportunity in the 1994 Safari rally where he helped team Toyota finish seventh overall and second among private teams, raking four WRC driver’s championship points in the process. He was one of the leading Toyota drivers at the 1994 event after Toyota team mates Yoshio Fujimoto and former world champion Juha Kankunnen had dropped out in the first section.

Karim followed up the 1994 heroics with three more finishes in the Safari rally where he ranked 10th (1996), 14th (1997) and 10th (1998).

The 1999 accident he suffered during the Pearl of Africa rally in the sugar plantations is believed to be the reason that brought an end to Karim’s rally career which had seen him win three consecutive National Rally championships between 1993 and 1995.

4th Position: Emmanuel Katto

As a new kid on the block, Emmanuel Katto surprised and won the hearts of many rally fans in Uganda in 1995 when he started from the tail only to finish fourth  in the Nile Special Jinja Rally. Actually, he entered the race as a late entrant where he showed up in a powerful Toyota Celica ST165.

At one point during the race, his navigator Raymond Matovu requested to come out of the car due to the pace Emma was driving at but a more determined Emma pleaded with his co-driver to stay. Fans and fellow drivers were left amused when the Toyota Celica ST165 hit a railway track in Iganga overturning in the process but to everyone’s surprise Katto continued to race and finish fourth in the process.

His 1995, 1996, and 1997 NRC titles ranks him along with three other drivers who have won the NRC title in three consecutive years. The other three to have enjoyed that achievement include; Sam Ssali (1989,1990 and 1991), Karim Hirji (1993, 1994 and 1995) and Charlie Lubega (2000,2001 and 2002).

3rd Position: Charlie Lubega

Forget about Mambo number 5, this is not “a little bit of Jesca in my life” but rather a bit of Lubega on the wheel. Just like Lou Bega sang 1,2,3,4,5…., Charlie Lubega would go on to change the gears 1,2,3,4,5 to the excitement of his fans.

Tied at four NRC titles with legendary driver Sam Ssali, Lubega who owns most of the pre-eminent entertainment centers around Kampala was a longtime rally fan long before he could even hit the stage. His Ange Noir club was always the center stage for viewers who wanted to watch WRC events on big television screens.

He made his debut in rallying when he acquired a Toyota Levin Super Charger where he was navigated by Denis Okori (RIP). His debut campaign saw him finishing third position.

Nicknamed “Tamale” as a result of not completing races due to mechanical failures, Lubega acquired a Mitsubishi Lancer EVO IV in 2000 where he would go on and win three consecutive NRC titles. “Tamale” now changed to  “Mambo number 5”, after the 1999 hit song by German musician Lou Bega.

After losing the 2003 championship to Moses Lumala, Lubega returned in 2004 with a bang to lift that year’s NRC title, a title which tied him with Sam Ssali on the number of NRC titles. He retired shortly after the 2004 success and to date many rally fans long for one last appearance from him.

2nd Position: Sam Ssali.

It was not until 2004 that Sam Ssali’s record of the most NRC titles was finally attained when Charlie Lubega won his fourth and final NRC title.

After acquiring a Nissan PA10s from the estimated $20,000 sponsorship package obtained from Peacock Paints in 1988, Ssali under the navigational guidance Ed-Clays Kayiwa (RIP) instantly became a nightmare to their competitors where they swept four consecutive NRC titles from 1989 to 1991.

Ssali would in the process become the first Ugandan driver to retain the NRC title for three consecutive years. He would go on to set up another milestone in 1993, which upto date still stands as the only Ugandan driver to have won four consecutive NRC titles (1989-1992).

His dominance of the NRC was finally brought to a halt by Karim Hirji in 1993, who went on to win three consecutive NRC titles.

1st Position: Charles Muhangi (RIP).

Charles Muhangi meant business when it came to driving race cars despite being a reputable business man.

The fact that he is the only Ugandan rally driver to ever win the African Rally championship (ARC) ranks him in the first position. He always believed in himself as the best in the sport.

Muhangi took the game of rally by storm in 1998 when he won the National Rally Championship (NRC) ahead of the 1996 and 1997 champion Emmanuel Katto against all odds .  His Subaru Impreza N4 won him a lot of admirers who nicknamed it “Ekitaguriro”.

Muhangi managed to conquer the African continent in 1999 where he became the only Ugandan driver to have won the ARC to date. He was loved by many and he left his haters in the dust quite literally.

Although he retired in 2003, Muhangi made some surprise returns in 2012 and 2014. He was found dead in his bed at home in Muyenga on 6th December 2018 leaving a legacy most rally drivers in Uganda only dream of attaining.

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