Alex Kihurani Makes a Splash in Europe
The American co-driver tells us about working in London, rallying in Europe and managing the work/life balance
Hi Alex, thank you for talking to us. First things first, where are you from in the States, and how did you find yourself moving to the UK?
I come from Reading, Pennsylvania and went to Penn State University before starting at Ernst & Young near home in Philadelphia, PA. It always felt quite evident to me that, if I wanted to progress in the sport of rallying, I needed to move to Europe where the international scene is synonymous with the European scene. During my last year of university, I studied abroad at the University of Manchester to try it out. I really liked it and got plenty of opportunities to compete in good rallies here in the UK, so I decided I’d try to move back as soon as I could.
How did you get involved in rallying, and what drew you to the co-driver position? Have you ever wanted to swap seats and take the controls?
My dad is from Kenya, growing up with the classic Safari Rally, and always had an interest in the sport. We’d watch rally videos together when I was a toddler, and I was instantly obsessed. When I was six years old and he started to take me to watch rallies, my dad used to drive to the spectator areas, and I’d always used to navigate for him. I’d try to find places on the maps with the best spectating areas, or the best roads to go driving/sliding around on. My dad was extraordinarily lazy with planning any of this, so he relied quite heavily on me to do the organisation myself despite my age.
When we started doing navigational (road) rallies together when I was twelve, he bought me a rally trip computer (a Terratrip in fact) so that he could enjoy driving around dirt roads without worrying about getting lost. To my annoyance, he didn’t bother with any of the average speeds (road rallies are based on being on time, not on being fast), so we were well down the rankings despite not getting him lost once! In addition, motorsport, particularly rallying, is extraordinarily expensive, and I didn’t have any money when the time came that I could race when I was 16, so it was pretty easy for me to start co-driving with the skills and network I had built up previously. After my second year competing, it was going pretty well and I was regularly doing national level events on the east coast, west coast and in Canada. I decided to stick with it, and quite soon when I was 21 I ended up with the Subaru Rally Team alongside the late BMX legend Dave Mirra.
I do love driving as well. My dad and I have a Mitsubishi Lancer EVO we use in hillclimbs, which are fairly inexpensive events. It’s a pretty crazy car; it makes 465bhp (at the wheels). I do fairly well at an amateur level, but I know I’m nowhere near the level of the drivers I sit next to. I also feel like, due to the demands of the co-driver position, I can take advantage of my academic side and my business experience much more than I would if I was a driver.
As you say, you've performed in rallies in both North America and Europe - are there any major differences in the sport either side of the Atlantic?
The biggest difference is that rallying in Europe is much more competitive. The operational rules are basically the same, the cars are similar (but generally smaller in Europe), but the depth of the field and the pace you must drive to be near the front is dramatically different. In North America, rallying is still a bit of an endurance sport; you can get away with going slowly at times to preserve the result. In Europe, this isn’t the case; you simply have to extend the flat-out pace throughout the duration of the event, or you will tumble down the standings immediately.
Many of our readers will know how tricky it is to move from left hand drive to the right when moving to the UK, is it even more difficult for a co-driver?
Most rally cars homologated for international competition are left hand drive, so I don’t have to deal with it much. When I do get in a right hand drive car, I barely notice!
Are British roads and stages better or worse than North American roads for rallying?
In Britain and Europe in general, the roads, from a practical sense, are worse. They’re narrower, bumpier, and twistier, but for rallying, they’re much more technical and therefore much better!
In April, you'll be competing in the Pirelli International Rally in Cumbria. How do you feel competing in such an iconic competition, and representing the Stars and Stripes while you're at it?
It’s an event I grew up watching on rally videos in the late '90s, watching some of my heroes tackle the same stages in the classic F2 cars of the period. While I’ve been over here from some time now, I still get a buzz getting to do the same events and run on the same stages as the rallying heroes that inspired me. I never thought it would be just me as far as Americans over here doing it, but I am proud of it.
You've worked with British rally driver Alex Parpottas over the years - who is your driver for this weekend, and what are you hoping to achieve?
Alex was my driver when I moved over in 2013. We made our British Rally Championship debut together 2 weeks after I moved, finishing 3rd in class, and in 2014 we moved up to the European Rally Championship and finished 2nd in the first round we entered (the Circuit of Ireland). Alex has since moved on from the sport, but for the Pirelli Rally, I’ll be running with Will Graham, whom I’ve co-driven for on occasion previously. He’s still learning/developing, so I think we’re just looking for a solid finish, maybe a podium, in the Cadet class!
Although the UK and USA speak a common language, there are many examples (as I'm sure you've noticed!) of key differences. Is the technical language of the co-driver fairly consistent across the UK and USA, and how do you and your drivers cope with US/UK language differences?
The language of pace notes in the US is mostly borrowed from the UK, so fortunately it’s all quite similar. That being said, I do say a few things funny; I call road sections as transits; I call motorways as highways; I call petrol as gas. I mostly remember the “proper” British term to use now, but I still get a giggle once in a while.
You're also co-driving with Sean Johnston, an American living in Germany. How did that come about, and how does it feel competing in an all-American team in Europe?
It came seemingly out of nowhere this year, to be honest! Sean comes from a circuit racing background and was the runner up in the original GT Academy (the competition that put the best in the world at the Gran Turismo video game into actual racing cars and the winner gets a professional drive). From that, he was able to get sponsorship to compete in the Porsche GT3 Cup in the US, which he won in his first year, and then moved to Germany the next year to progress. He had been racing Porsche SuperCup, which runs alongside F1 weekends at Silverstone, Monaco, etc for the past few years before deciding on a career switch to rallying earlier this year to compete in the Opel Cup in Germany alongside other select European events. Since I'm the only other American living over here and competing with experience in the Opel Cup and European championships, I think there were about four redundant referrals! Even though it's his first year of rallying, he's already quite competitive and is already getting through much of my 15+ years of experience in the sport fairly quickly. We've been working really well together thus far, have the same dreams and goals, and already push each other to keep progressing quite a bit, so we'll see how far we can go as an American team trying to make it in international rallying.
Is there a stage you're particularly looking forward to competing in at the Pirelli International?
Pundershaw – it was the epic, 30 mile stage in my favourite video game as a kid that recreated the 1996 Network Q RAC Rally, and despite all my years here, I still haven’t run it. However, it’s only 8 miles this year!
Is it difficult to combine a full time job in the UK with your rallying?
It’s a challenge for sure, and working in my industry (accounting/consulting) at a large firm (Ernst & Young) in London means I have a lot demanded of my time. However, my employer has been extremely accommodating with my rallying along with my teams and colleagues that manage to put up with it! For the past two years, I’ve been on a slightly reduced work schedule that gives me 50-55 days off a year so that I can go rallying and still have a personal life. Of course, there’s very little room for downtime, but I’m generally doing things that I enjoy and/or matter to me, so it’s not a problem.
What quick tips would you give to fellow Americans who have made the move to the UK in terms of getting the most out of a hobby / interest in Britain whilst on work placements?
Take advantage of the increased amount of vacation that you get compared to the US, and if you have the opportunity to take unpaid time off or buy additional vacation, do it. Oddly enough over here, you’ll see hobbies and personal accomplishments outside of work on people’s resumes, so being successful in something outside of work does seem to have a positive impact on your reputation at work. I’ll frequently get asked to write articles at work around work/life balance, flexibility, and my work arrangement/hobby, which is well received and reflects positively on me in my annual performance review, so I’d encourage anyone to go for it, then sort out the practical bits.
(Ed - Alex recently started a blog on LinkedIn about the work/life balance - check it out at https://www.linkedin.com/today/author/alex-kihurani-cisa-4276679)
Outside of work and rallying, what else do you like to get up to in the UK?
A lot of my close friends from London are in a running club, so that helps me combine my fitness training with my social life quite efficiently and has somehow greatly improved my running despite the base being a pub! I also play volleyball, enjoy non-rallying travelling throughout Europe, and during the downtime that I get (or extensive travel time), reading or writing my blog.
Is there anything you miss about the States?
My friends and family, cheap electronics, and tacos and doughnuts.
Finally, what's the best thing about being Alex Kihurani?
Hah! This seems like an awfully self-indulgent question. Being able to lead a fairly normal life, which includes living in a great city with a growing career and great friends, while still being able to indulge in my dreams and passions from childhood at a fairly high level. I also feel quite fortunate that, after over 15 years of constantly competing in the sport, with all the stress and sacrifice that comes with it, I still really enjoy every weekend I get in the car. It never gets old.
Alex will be competing in this weekend's Pirelli International Rally in Cumbria on Saturday 28 April. If you can't attend the event, you can watch the highlights of the rally, as well as other competitions from this year's British Rally Championship, on Channel 4 and BT Sport. Keep an eye on our American Sports - UK TV Guide for details.
Follow Alex on Instagram to keep up to date with his rallying exploits - @AlexKihurani - and keep an eye on his blog for tips and handy advice on conquering the work/life balance - https://www.linkedin.com/today/author/alex-kihurani-cisa-4276679.