Alex Kihurani is one of America’s most successful co-drivers. Currently competing with 2019 European Rally champion Chris Ingram, he’s started over 20 World Rally Championship events – nearly all of them with Sean Johnston.
But Kihurani’s career, and indeed life, could have been so much different had he not made the gamble to leave everything he knew behind and move to London from the US with a dream of competing internationally.
It was an inspired decision, as proven by Kihurani standing on a podium with none other than Sébastien Loeb a decade to the day after he flipped his life upside-down. But there have been many unexpected challenges away from the stages for him to deal with.
In this candid column, Alex reflects on that move 10 years after he made it:
I moved to the UK when I was 26 years old. I had already been working for four years, paid off my car and student loans, and had my own apartment. A lot of my friends were buying their first house, maybe even getting married.
I increasingly felt the pressure to either embrace those traditional markers of success in life or disregard them and make a massive change. Rallying has always been my passion, so I still had a major itch to scratch – one that was worth holding off on some of the grown-up stuff and relocating my life by over 4000 miles for.
The rally bug for me came from my father who grew up in Kenya with the Safari Rally. I’d say my love of rallying actually predates my memories. Instead of watching kid’s shows with my dad as a toddler, I was religiously watching the annual WRC reviews – and I was just absolutely obsessed and entranced by it. You couldn’t peel me away.
From as early I could remember that was what I always wanted to do, but what I always struggled with in the US was how inaccessible rallying was. My dad would take me to our closest rally, the Susquehannock Trail Pro Rally, but it was still a four-hour drive and only happened once per year. I was trying to find any way I could be able to be more connected to the sport and it took until the internet came out for public consumption in the mid-90s. I must have been about nine or 10 years old, and the first thing I did was go onto AltaVista and start searching for rally content and communities.
In all the early rally communities, no-one realized how young I was at first, but once they took note they were really, really enthusiastic about integrating me and helping me. The US rally culture is exceptionally welcoming – people help their competitors even if helping them means losing out on a win. There are no restrictions on outside assistance given from other competitors, and everyone is adamant about keeping it that way.
When I was 12 I started doing road rallies with my dad and when I was 13 my parents let me hitch rides with some of these people I had met online, so I feel lucky I had a network of babysitters in a way to help me out! My childhood escapades and online prescence lead to my nickname as the “RallyBrat” which I wisely owned.
When I turned 16 I started co-driving, using some money from my local paper route to run in small club events. Over the next five years I worked my way to up to the Subaru Rally Team in the US riding alongside Dave Mirra in 2008, culminating with an X Games medal at the end of the season.
Since the season finished so early in the year, I decided to do an exchange program at University of Manchester in the UK for a semester. Maybe then I could finally experience the World Rally Championship and European rallying that I always dreamed about from videos, but always felt so out-of-reach. I had never been to Europe before, but my time with Dave and Subaru gave me enough exposure to get a small column in Motorsport News and get picked up for some BTRDA events (which are national events in the UK, one step below the British championship).
However, in January 2009, two weeks before the start of that season, I received a short email from the Subaru Rally Team USA management saying ‘we won’t be needing your services anymore for this year. Maybe come back to us when you have some more experience.’ While honestly quite devastated and frustrated, as I had just gone to the UK to build my experience, I still really took it to heart and looked at what my options were to build my career and improve. Subaru has long been, and still is, the dominant team in the USA, and if I couldn’t be on the team, where could I go?
I managed to get valuable experiences in the US that would help me as I plotted a move to Europe. The Icelandic volcano that grounded all the European co-drivers from Olympus 2010 meant I got the opportunity to prove myself as a worthy replacement. And through some insane, last minute crowdfunding, I was able to finally make my WRC debut at none other than Rally Finland with Chris Duplessis in 2012.
Competing in my first WRC event was just such an eye-opening experience. I could see how professional every aspect of the M-Sport WRC Academy team and the event itself was down to the even the marshals, how talented and hard-working all the drivers were, and how much more I could really improve. From then on, I knew the WRC wasn’t just a pipedream, and I needed to do everything in my power to make it back there.
I landed, and then realized 's*** what did I just do!?'
It was early 2013 when I fired off a CV into the job-application abyss deep in cyberspace with few expectations, yet somehow, by October 1 2013 I was touching down in London. The interview process, the visas – it all happened so quickly, and I remember just being so inundated trying to figure out all the logistical and practical aspects of making the move – trying to get rid of my car, get rid of all my things, find a place, etc. I never really got a chance to fully comprehend it.
Then suddenly, at 6am I had landed, and then realized ‘s*** what did I just do!?’
I was greeted with a stereotypical misty/grey British morning. The hallways in my tiny London flat were so narrow I had to turn my suitcases sideways just to get them through. I realized that I knew no-one and didn’t have a clue where to start. I didn’t have any rallies lined up. I only had one or two friends in Manchester from five years ago that were sort of around, but who knew if that meant anything now? My flatmate was the result of a query on RightMove and a 10-minute Skype chat. I was seriously beginning to consider whether I had just thrown away everything I had, just to be lost in a place far from home.
(Pleasing sidenote – my flatmate became of my best friends over the past 10 years!)
However, my parents were both very open-minded, rebellious characters and that filled me with confidence about my decision. My dad left Kenya as a young adult to try and make something in America, and never labored much on the decision. My dad was also simplistically optimistic when it came to me. ‘Of course you’re going to get loads of opportunities, seats and rides’ while not really thinking about the detail going into it. He just had blind faith that it would work out for me. And my mom always wanted me to experience and try as many things as possible, so she thought it was a great idea as well. They both supported me in pursuing my passions, always, which I think is quite clear from their parenting decisions letting me travel alone as a teenager with rally teams or fly on my own at 17 years old to do National championship rallies. It’s not exactly what my friends were allowed to do in high school.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long in uncertainty before I had an opportunity. Jamie Edwards – who currently runs the FIA European Historic championship but also saved Welsh rallying – helped me a bit when I came over in 2008, so I reached out to him once I arrived.
Jamie had been running with Alex Parpottas in the British Rally Championship, but wasn’t sure if he could commit to everything Alex wanted to do with the arrival of his children, so he offered me the seat. Within two weeks of arriving in London, I was already getting to do my first British Rally Championship round, the Sunseeker Rally.
For me, growing up watching lots of BRC ’90s F2 VHS tapes this was a particularly big deal. We were competing against a depth of fantastic drivers as well, like Jon Armstrong, our team-mate Steve Rokland and coincidentally my current driver Chris Ingram. Alex and I worked well together and finished on the podium, so he took me on for the European championship in 2014. Within months, I was thrown into international rallying way sooner than I imagined.
Unfortunately, Alex ran out of funding, which meant I had to take a step back, then I had leukaemia which was another step back. But ultimately that was really the ride that consoled me into feeling like this whole move was a wise decision.
And taking those few steps back gave me the capacity to take on Sean Johnston full-time from his start in the German ADAC Opel Cup and then develop together into regulars in the WRC, giving me the chance to be the professional international co-driver that I only vaguely dreamed possible. I could then start ticking off some of the really big bucket-list items I never thought I could check – a Safari Rally start and WRC2 podium which was the shared dream of me and my dad, four Monte Carlo starts including a two-wheel drive category win, and a JWRC podium at Wales Rally GB to name a few.
I always have October 1 marked in my calendar each year as a milestone to reflect on my big move, and knowing this would be my 10-year anniversary, I felt I should do something special. What better way to celebrate it than trading times at Rallye Charlemagne with the greatest of all-time himself, Sébastien Loeb, and then spraying champagne and standing on the podium with him precisely 10 years to the day from moving across the pond?
It all sounds like a neat and tidy fairy-tale kind of story (minus the leukaemia of course). Find your passion, take a gamble, achieve your dreams, live happily ever after. While I could easily gloss over the rest, I don’t think it would be a fair representation of life, or of much value for you reading.
A few weeks before Rallye Charlemagne, I was competing with Chris Ingram at Barum Rally Zlín, a round of the European Rally Championship. In the middle of the night, I was woken by a call from my sister. She couldn’t finish a sentence. My mom had to take over the phone. Dad had been competing in our local hillclimb, as we had often done together for many years, when he crashed into a tree, dying instantly.
I went into a state of shock while still half-asleep. Did I really hear this? Did I dream this? What do I do? And before I knew it, Chris was driving me through the night to get a flight home as soon as possible. The immediate aftermath was the relentless administration of a death that no-one planned for – police reports, lawyer consultations, court dates, funeral arrangements, business dissolution, life insurance, possessions, land, family matters, and when there’s a few minutes left for you at the end of the day, grief.
I was at least consoled by my phenomenal friends and family and knowing that he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He was competing in his dream car with his racing friends that had known him since he moved from Kenya to America in 1977. He really lived his life fully, and the racing kept him young – so young that it felt like the death of a young man rather than a 66-year-old man passing away early in his senior years.
But before I was done with all of the above (to be honest, I’m still not done with all of it), I was asked to hop into the car, to compete against Loeb on my 10 year anniversary of leaving my old life behind to chase this passion that has somehow been able to give me everything in life whilst also taking so much away.
And 10 years into my move, life is much different now. I do have a fiancé, a mortgage, and a beautiful one-year old daughter, who unfortunately was born three months premature and needed a neurosurgery. I ended up doing all those grown-up things I initially disregarded, just a little later, but now the burden of responsibility for my own decisions goes well beyond myself.
I’m not sure I was fully ready to strap myself back into the car, but opportunity doesn’t always wait for everything to be perfect in life, and given the challenges of the past year, I’d otherwise be waiting forever. Fortunately, after more than 20 years, co-driving is a bit of a habit. I know what I’m doing. My body, my voice… it will do what it needs to do regardless of my internal emotional state, regardless of how vulnerable I feel.
On the first day, the stages were good but the road sections were difficult, when the weight of what I was doing could slip back into my mind and bear down on me before I could move past it again to do one more stage. As the rally progressed, I relaxed more. I appreciated Chris’s spectacular driving and incredible pace more. And by the end, I was fully enjoying what I was doing again and could appreciate why I’ve reoriented my life to do this.
Even if the context is much more serious now, I can still draw back to the feelings and takeaways from when I arrived 10 years ago. If you’re following your passion, you’ll be taking a gamble. Be prepared to be scared, be prepared to feel anxious and uncertain, be prepared to feel stressed, be prepared to feel lost and overwhelmed many times. But if you are truly following your passion, you’ll conjure up all the strength available to you to work through all of the above, and that exercise will serve you well beyond what you ever set out to achieve in the first place.
The human story is a story of facing adversity, and overcoming struggle. For most of human history the loss of a child was typical, the untimely death of a parent was almost the norm, and yet for people that have experienced so much loss, we still oftentimes risk everything just to see what’s on the other side, just to see what is possible. And while we all, myself included, muse about a pleasant life, as human beings, we tend to find this ultimately unsatisfying. So in the inevitable event of struggle, make sure it’s in service to what you really love and what truly matters to you.
And while, in the context of where I started and where I ended in the past 10 years: from knowing no-one, having zero prospects for my rallying career, to where I’ve ended up – a regular in the WRC, competing with a European Rally champion, standing on the podium with Loeb, it seems like happily ever after. However, the challenges 10 years on are just as, if not more difficult, uncertain, and stressful than they ever were as I deal with the death of my father behind the wheel of a racing car, being a father to a child with a brain injury, and needing to support a family whilst I juggle the responsibilities of a day job, an intense role in rallying, and most importantly, fatherhood.
I’m sure in 10 more years I’ll have myself a whole new set of challenges, but hopefully in 10 years’ time I can again look back on now and appreciate how meaningful and worthwhile all the challenges of today could be in the broader context of life.