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The gravel challenge
Race cars at the Janmeda motorsport track

The gravel challenge

A sport that has entertained since mid-19th century in some countries is yet to take shape in Ethiopia. Though foreigners were quick to utilize the highlands of Ethiopia for cross-country racing in the past, dirt racing and other types of closed circuit racing are hard to come across these days with less and less people willing to enjoy it, writes Senit Feseha.

Over the past weekend, Addis Ababa city witnessed a car race. The action took place at the premise of the vast but strangely welcoming open space, Janmeda. The morning sky was mostly cloudy covered with mist. The coldness and the freshness of the atmosphere gave the energy to start a new day. The pathways were visibly swampy and plastered shoes with so much mud. Everything was gray except for the red, yellow and blue race cars present.

At first glance, the Gravel Challenge looked like an ideal weekend adventure, a fusion of speed, adrenalin, food, drinks and music. But on closer exploration, it proved to be an event revealing the true nature of the sport. It tested the skills of the racers, speed ability of the cars and the endurance of both machine and driver.

There were multitudes of vehicles inside the barrier. Some were Toyota Vitz, Toyota Yaris, Peugeot, VW Golf, and Toyota Corolla. Most of these vehicles were adorned with sporting decorative flairs, some with witty bumper stickers and stickers from recognized sponsors.  From a distance, they looked more like toy cars than the high-powered beasts they should be. Their resemblance to toy cars, however, ended with their appearance. They were modified specifically for racing. Although slower and less sophisticated from international racing sports-cars; they are less costly and display the passion of their owners.

According to the racers, Sunday’s gravel challenge was a tribute event to commemorate the passing of Dawit Atsbeha. Dawit was killed in an unfortunate accident around Dukem in April, 2018. He was a regular racer who participated in most racing events. He died in a practice session when another car suddenly entered the race track.

The smell of burning fuel and smoking tires filled the air as cars lined up for testing. It was part of the pre-show done in a manner to build suspense in the crowd. Crew members, usually friends or family of the racers made last minute checks while the supervisors made sure the track was free of people or obstacles. Even with the simple looking vehicle models, the race track was designed to be entertaining and drifty.

According to Mebrahetu Haile, Addis Ababa Motorsport Association’s technical director, “the race was open for members of Motorsport Association as well as interested individuals who could qualify. We had 45 competitors, but due to the harsh tracks and technical failures, some of them were not able to compete.”

Because of the budget and the difference in vehicle types, the race was classified into five based on Cylinder Capacity (CC) of the cars. “Up to 1,000 cc, up to 1,300 cc, up to 1,600 cc, up to 2,000 cc and above 2,000 cc,” Mebrahetu explained.

After the cold morning gave way to a clear sunny afternoon the show got underway. After the cars went for a test lap, the contestants drove for five laps around the track to qualify for the finals.

“The challenge: A very light shower lasted for a few hours this morning. Adding the sticky marsh, slithery mud and the rough bumps, the racers had to be on watch for patches smoothened by other racers, as it could cause them to slide. The racing track was narrow, not enabling the racers to assume a tighter racing line. These were few of the encounters that made the race difficult and for some racers to keep up with the pace,” said Solomon Dagnachew. “At that speed, even the smallest mistake can mean losing.  Stepping on minor bump or a slight thump from a rival racer is often enough to halt the vehicle’s momentum. The more one understands what goes on inside a race car, the more he/she appreciates watching the race, he added.”

The spectators spent half a day trailing through mud, dirt and other loose surfaces to watch the cars. They went as close as they can to the fence to feel the thunder and speed coming at them; they gave verbal support to their favorite contenders. The Janmeda Gravel Challenge was a bit special, for mechanics and fans alike.

“Janmeda was a simple location, perhaps a little too simple, after watching race after race, it did not have the feeling of a final progression, however it allows the gathered fans some amount of freedom, they can move back and forth the start-finish line and closely follow the race. Moving with the horde and cheering your favorite racer is where the fun is to be had,” Solomon said.

The most anticipated race was between the 2,000 cc engine car racers. Binyam Zerihun won the race which was highly competitive. Second place went to Sadat and the third place went to Robel. Robel showed great sportsmanship by finishing the race despite his scary accident. His car flipped over the muddy track. He was not injured.

Famir Girma won the 1,000-cc race, while Semir Ahmed won the 1,300-cc race. Bisrat Workneh won the 1,600-cc race.

“Safety was the main issue in the event, apart from the on-site Ambulance and Fire Truck, we took a standard safety measures from the FIA (Federation Internationale de I‘Automobile). The supervisors checked Roll Bars, Suspensions, and Safety Belts with scrutiny,” Mebrahetu said.

The excitement racing brings to some people can bring horror to others. But Mebrahetu argues “most think that racers have death wishes, if I crash driving 60-80 km per hour and another person has an accident driving 40-50 km per hour, I don’t know about the survival rate of the other person but with the safety measures we have; I know I will survive the crash. The sport is not a killer. It enhances one’s driving skillset.”  

The association had held multiple races for quite some time. Most are circuit races, where cars are divided into categories and they race around a closed circuit for multiple laps. And other race types include Rally, Drag, Gravel/Dirt and Gymkhana.

“Although it fails to stand-out as an enjoyable alternative sport in our country, the races are still enjoyable. Addis Ababa Motorsport Association is doing something the city has been lacking. These events are a very good start to what might be the next habitual leisure,” Solomon said.

Whether there is an upcoming mountain rally is something that will be considered over the next few months. What is for certain however, is the city circuit and the car show. They are planned to take place in the next three-four weeks. Due to the on-going legislations and concerns within the form of Addis Ababa Traffic Management Agency the date is not fixed. The switch from gravel to asphalt provides an additional layer of suspense, the cars will increase in number and the fans who always attend these events in flocks will increase in number.

“Motorsport is really a big thing. The growth of motorsport can really help our country as a tourist destination. It was a really big thing back in the days, racers from Europe used to come here for the Ethiopian Highland Rally,” Tamrat Assefa, a local car fanatic, said. “I think the biggest factor is the lack of a dedicated race tracks. Racers go out of the city to practice; it is difficult to find open space in the city.”