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Sobieslaw Zasada took part in his first car rally in 1952 and won the European title three times.
The 91-year-old will take part in the WRC Safari Rally Kenya from Thursday – an unprecedented achievement.
“Life starts at 90 so I’ll do it!” Zasada told AFP in a phone interview and burst into a hearty and infectious laugh.
“I want to see how it looks today because it has changed a little compared to the rallies in the past,” he said a few days before departure.
Zasada said his main goal in Kenya is to reach the “end” of the four-day event in which he will face rivals nearly 70 years his junior.
He will be behind the wheel of a 250 hp Ford Fiesta Rally3 with an Ecoboost engine that was adapted by M-Sport in Poland.
In a career spanning nearly seven decades, Zasada has participated in 250 competitions and won more than 150 of them.
In 1966, 1967 and 1971 he was European champion and was runner-up three times.
For many years he was the only driver outside the Iron Curtain who competed for western teams with cars such as Porsche, Mercedes and BMW.
– ‘My love, you have to hold on!’ –
Zasada drove his first victory in a competition in 1952 in Krakow with his then fiancée as a co-driver on a BMW.
“To everyone’s surprise, we won even though we were newbies,” he said, adding, “We got married in December of this year”.
In the meantime, Zasada and his wife Ewa have won around 50 rallies as a co-driver.
Zasada and his wife took part in his last safari rally in 1997 on a Mitsubishi Lancer.
“The course was very tough … On a gravel climb in the third stage, I suddenly heard my wife shout: ‘My love, you have to hold on!’.
“I thought she was talking to me because we were both tired, but no, she was talking to the car!” Zasada remembered.
At the rally in Kenya, however, she will not accompany him; his co-driver will be Tomasz Boryslawski.
– ‘Everything has changed’ –
After the fall of communism in 1989, Zasada became a businessman and represented Mercedes and Volkswagen in Poland, among others.
He’s still on the board of his company, which does everything from selling cars to real estate development and producing sportswear.
He is also the author of numerous books and technical manuals for driving a car.
He has long been on Forbes magazine’s list of the richest people in Poland.
After cutting down on driving, he also started sailing.
In 2001 he won the race from Palma de Mallorca to Cabrera, then in 2005 the Transatlantic ARC on a catamaran between Europe and the island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean.
As he was preparing for a Kenya rally again, the ex-champion said that everything has changed since he last competed, except for the track and temperatures in Africa.
In 1997, he remembers driving in shorts and a t-shirt.
Now all drivers have to wear racing suits and there are a lot more safety regulations.
What worries Zasada most, he said, is “learning to get into the car.”
“It’s like being put in a cage. I have to train myself to do it faster,” he said.
He added, “I’ll do another rally when I turn 100!”
© 2021 AFP