Meet Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani: the all-American rally team with designs on becoming the next big thing in an illustrious list of World Rally Championship greats.
This month was meant to be something of a watershed moment for Johnston as Rally Portugal was to be his world championship debut in a four-wheel-drive car, piloting a Citroën C3 R5 in the WRC 3 class. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic has put those plans on ice for now.
But aside from progressing from R2 to R5 in 2020, Johnston and Kihurani have also entered an exciting new partnership with DirtFish this year, so we’ve taken this opportunity to get to know them a little bit better.
“I started watching racing on TV with my brother probably when I was about three. It was Champ Car and Alex Zanardi was my hero,” Johnston tells DirtFish.
“I’m an absolutely huge fan still to this day and my brother took me to my first Champ Car race when I was seven up in Portland, Oregon and Alex Zanardi won the race and did donuts right in front of us. And that’s when I realized this is clearly what I’m doing with my life, there is no doubt. Motorsport is what I need to do.”
Circuit racing was Johnston’s first love, and he got his chance for real in 2012, despite narrowly missing out on winning the North American GT Academy the previous year; a competition which put the fastest sim racers in real cars. He came back, managed to raise his own sponsorship to go racing, and jumped straight in at the deep end, driving a Porsche 911 GT3 in the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge.
“That was a crazy year that went from having never driven a proper race car in my life apart from the little bit of stuff we did at GT Academy to clinching the championship one week early and having Porsche send me to Germany. So that was a pretty huge season but ultimately a season that also, I think, gave me a little bit too high expectations for what was to come,” he admits.
“I moved to Germany in 2013 with this idea that I knew what I was doing, and to do Porsche Carrera Cup Germany and Supercup simultaneously [which] ended up being too big of a jump.
“I went from eight race weekends [in] total in 2012 to five race weekends in a row in the month of May, where the car got damaged in four of them, so that was a hard and disastrous transition. My confidence was pretty much destroyed at that point.”
Things gradually recovered but Johnston was smacked right back to rock bottom when his team-mate, friend and mentor Sean Edwards was killed in a coaching accident in Australia. A total mental reset was needed, and Johnston found comfort in Codemasters’ latest computer game: DiRT Rally.
“I started playing that as like a reconnect with the fun, the joy of driving and so after spending a lot of time on DiRT Rally and absolutely loving it I said to my girlfriend at the time ‘hey let’s go spectate Rally Germany’.”
Sébastien Ogier probably didn’t realize that by finally breaking Volkswagen’s winless spell at Rally Germany in 2015, he was also busy inspiring America’s hottest rallying talent in a generation.
It’s a very different dream to the Le Mans 24 Hours participation Johnston first mapped out for himself – and still wants to tick off at some point in his career – but immediately from that first spectating experience Johnston knew what he wanted to do next.
“It just totally blew me away, motorsport out in nature,” he says. “I come from a small town in northern California, 3500 people at the base of a 4500m volcano so I’m definitely a nature kid.
“So to have this mixture of motorsport, nature and also humanity [was incredible]. I remember at one spectating point we counted seven different languages being spoken in the radius of 15m or something of where we were standing, I was just blown away by this sport and so it was clear then at the end of 2015 that I definitely wanted to start looking at seriously making that transition into rallying.
“Unfortunately at the beginning of 2016 when I was having the conversation with my sponsor about maybe trying to change, his wife passed away, and my integrity prevented me from continuing to accept money. So then I took two years off, brought my feet back down to the ground, and then in 2018 we came up with a new set of expectations of what it would look like to work together again.”
But to go rallying, Johnston needed a right-hand man to help guide him through the stages. Enter Alex Kihurani, who has been obsessed with rallying ever since he could walk.
“My dad’s from Kenya so he grew up with the Safari Rally [and] he’d order rally videos from the UK. I was pretty obsessed by the time I was two or three so much so I’d watch Ari Vatanen tackle Pikes Peak in the Peugeot 405 every single day after my nap, or I’d have a temper tantrum,” Kihurani recounts to DirtFish.
“My dad would take me to the STPR [Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally], one of the rounds of the US National Championship, each year. I’d go to that and by the time I was a teenager I wanted to go and see a lot more.
“That was when the internet started [widespread use] and I guess there was no [online] social etiquette yet, so I just messaged top rally drivers as an 11 year old,” he continues.
“I had a website and figured out ways to capture video and then I started hitching rides with different rally teams to different rallies across the country, so I could see a lot more [events]. A bunch of [the teams] started helping me and thinking of ways to get me involved. They thought the co-driving would be a really good way for me to start and I agreed.”
Kihurani therefore quickly started doing navigational rallies before making his stage rally debut in 2003, three weeks after his 16th birthday. At 21, he was sitting alongside the late Dave Mirra in a Subaru works line-up consisting of Mirra, Travis Pastrana and Ken Block. But that came to an end in a rather surreal scenario.
“At the end of the  season there was a bit of a shuffle,” Kihurani recalls. “Travis Pastrana’s co-driver had retired but instead decided to come back the next year anyway. But Derek Ringer had already signed a contract so Subaru brought Travis’ co-driver back with Travis and Derek with Dave.
“It was a bit of an awkward thing being replaced by my childhood idol, [but it was] the most flattering way to be fired. Who’s better to develop this driver, someone who’s 21 years old or the 1995 World Rally champion? It made sense to me anyway.”
Kihurani’s career continued to follow an upward trajectory though as he reached the WRC in 2012, competing in the WRC Academy series alongside Christopher Duplessis on Rally Finland.
But drivers with diminishing wallets would become an agonizing theme. Soon Duplessis was out of budget and Kihurani realized he needed to move to Europe if he was to make it as a professional. After relocating to London with work, he was co-driver for Alex Parpottas in the UK and Europe before he too ran out of funds.
Another couple of years were spent in a variety of seats, and when Kihurani was contacted by Johnston it was an offer he couldn’t turn down. Now, they’re on a joint venture to the top of the sport.
“Alex couldn’t make the very first rally because he had prior commitments which he wanted to honour which I totally respected and appreciated, but from rally number two on Alex has been in the car and it’s been huge and I really can’t imagine doing it with anyone else at this point,” Johnston says.
“It’s just part of the deal so I’m very, very grateful to have somebody of Alex’s experience and also just humour and personality in the car next to me, it works on a lot of different levels.”
This year is Johnston’s third behind the wheel of a rally car, with a 2018 Opel Rally Cup campaign preceding a JWRC and ERC program last year.
Head back to DirtFish over the coming days to learn more about Johnston and Kihurani’s journey so far and how they created a slice of history earlier this year.