In his prime, Shekhar Mehta was one of the best rally drivers in the world and was the most famous Kenyan sportsman of the early to mid 80s. A five time winner of the Safari Rally.
As of 2011, Rally driving is no longer a big event in Kenya. But during the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the Safari rally was the largest annual sporting event in Kenya. To begin with it was part of the world rally championships which means the best rally drivers from all over the world came to Kenya to compete in the Safari rally. Not only that but the Safari rally was televised all over the world, not just in Kenya. As a result, the entire country was consumed with watching the rally cars criss-cross the dirt roads all over the country. Virtually every Kenyan followed the cars on radio, on television and in the newspapers. Many kept score-cards and followed the rally closely as they watched and hoped that Kenyan drivers could compete against the big time drivers from Europe.
It was against this backdrop of global competition that Shekhar Mehta arose. Mehta went on to win the Safari rally 5 times, each time leaving the mighty European drivers in his wake.
Chandrashekhar ‘Shekhar’ Mehta was born in Uganda on 20th June 1945. He spent his early years on his family’s tea and sugar plantations, then was shipped off to Europe for schooling. He returned to Uganda to work in the family business in 1965. He started rallying at age 21. His first rally was the Nile rally in which he drove a BMW 1800. His first big win came in 1971 when he won the East African rally while driving a Datsun 240Z. Indeed Mehta drove Datsun’s throughout his career. In 1972 , Mehta immigrated into Kenya from Uganda as part of the great Asian immigration when Iddi Amin ejected all Asians. Uganda’s loss was Kenya’s gain.
Mehta first won the Safari rally in 1973 driving a Datsun 240Z along with co driver Lofty Drews. He finished only 1 minute ahead of Swede Harry Kallstrom. It was the closest margin of victory in Safari rally history. In 1976, Mehta won the Cyprus Rally. And in 1981, he won the inaugural Africa rally.
The Shekhar Mehta dynasty of the Safari rally started in 1979 when he won by a massive 48 minutes while driving a Datsun Violet. In 1980 he won, finishing 30 minutes ahead of team-mate Rauno Altonen from Finland. Mehta then completed a hat-trick by controversially winning the 1981 Safari rally amid bad blood between he and team-mate Rauno Altonen. Altonen had appealed and was originally awarded the win, only for the decision to be reversed. In 1982, Altonen had left the Nissan team to join Opel. A fierce rivalry developed between him and Mehta. However mechanical problems spoiled Altonen’s chances leaving Mehta an easy path to victory. It was Mehta’s last win in the event. Nissan/Datsun had dominated the rally for years. But in 1983 they were left behind technology wise by manufacturers like Audi and Toyota. Mehta could not match the firepower of drivers like Hannu Mikkola and Bjorn Waldeegard.
In addition to winning the Safari Rally 5 times, Mehta also won the Greek Acropolis rally once, The Argentine Codasur Rally once and the Rally’d Coted Ivoire 3 times.In 1987 Mehta was competing in the Pharaoh’s rally and was involved in a serious accident that forced him out of rallying for good.
It is fair to say that in the early 1980s, Shekhar Mehta was the most renowned sportsman in Kenya. This is quite an achievement considering that this was the era of Abbas, Masiga, Henry Rono and other legends. Back then the Safari rally was a huge event that captured the imagination of every Kenyan. And Mehta was beloved by all Kenyans. During Mehta’s heyday, little boys all over from poor neighbourhoods like Kibera made toy cars made of hanger wire and “drove” around calling themselves “Shekhar”. The scenario was not much diffent in wealthy neighbourhoods like Lavington except that the kids had real toys or in rural areas where kids raced to school each day.
Upon retirement, Mehta held various administrative positions in the Safari Rally and the world rally organizing body (FIA). He passed away in April of 2006 in London.