Juha Kankkunen’s calendar is full again
The decision to put end to his rallying career was a traumatic one, but since then the four-time WRC champion has discovered the right rhythm to his life
By Esa Lilja
You will turn 50 on Thursday the 2nd of April. How does that make you feel?
“I don’t feel sorry for myself”, replies former four-time World Rally Champion Juha Kankkunen. “We men never really grow up, do we? But surely this is some kind of a milestone.”
The sweetest victory of your career?
“The first World Rally Championship win, which was the Safari Rally in 1985. That’s when I knew what I wanted to be when I grow up.”
Spain, Monaco, Kuusamo, or Laukaa?
“Laukaa is where my home is. That is where I was born.”
How many small cigars do you consume per day?
“Maybe ten or so.”
What is the last book you read?
“My own”, Kankkunen replies, referring to his biography Juha Kankkusen tie (Juha Kankkunen’s Road) from 2008, written by Nita Korhonen.
The most important person in your life?
Liver and rice casserole [a traditional Finnish dish] - with raisins or without?
“Oh, definitely with raisins. The standard recipe is the best one.”
Milk or beer?
“I never drink milk. Water is best, but sometimes a cold beer right after sauna hits the spot.”
Do you know the size of your carbon footprint?
“Carbon footprint? No idea.”
A working day is nearing its end, and Juha Kankkunen is poring over a shopping list for the evening.
“Definitely frozen raspberries. And a leek & cabbage salad”, Kankkunen croaks with a slight head cold to his voice.
Kankkunen sits in the passenger seat of a Volkswagen Golf, lights up a small cigar and cracks the side window.
Behind the wheel is Juha Repo, Kankkunen’s old friend and former Subaru co-driver. The snowy Kuusamo scenery whisks by as Repo gives the Golf some gas on a quiet forest road.
Both men wear thick quilted outfits with the words Juha Kankkunen Driving Academy on the back.
The text refers to a car-handling school that specialises in driving in icy conditions. Repo and Kankkunen are the founders, co-partners, and teachers of the academy.
“Speed, safety, handling, controlled driving”, Kankkunen lists the objectives of his academy.
Not to mention having fun. Speeding on the ice track is a pure unadulterated high.
So, who comes to the academy?
Corporate directors, McLaren Formula One guys, one Saudi prince, the former Prime Minister Esko Aho, the 2008 Women’s Trap event Olympic gold medallist Satu Mäkelä-Nummela, and some well-off South Africans, who practice here the safe handling of Bentley luxury cars in the snow - a skill no African can survive without.
Today there were some salespeople from Volkswagen here on some kind of incentive bonus trip.
This is the fifth year the academy has been running.
This winter some 600 clients visited the academy in the space of a couple of months. Most of them came from abroad.
“We start in the morning. Usually by the afternoon everybody is already pretty tired.”
The timetables are tight, which suits Kankkunen down to the ground.
During his competitive career, Kankkunen got used to the idea of having his days minutely organised: breakfast, shower, race start, driving, meal, and the next hotel.
When Kankkunen brought his rallying career to a close at the beginning of the decade, a minute-by-minute schedule that had continued for twenty years was also abruptly made quite redundant.
Suddenly Kankkunen found himself sitting on the living room sofa without an aim in life.
This did not suit the driver, who - at least according to his biography - is an impatient and restless spirit.
“At first I though it was going to be a complete doddle. I could do just what I wanted. But when you sit for a week, and then for a month…”, Kankkunen's voice takes on something approaching a snarl.
“It was as if the ground fell away under me. And I started drinking too much.”
Even his family started feeling poorly, and Kankkunen finally sought help from Lapua’s Minnesota clinic for alcoholics.
“I realised I could not continue like that. It dawned on me I was trashing perfectly good years of my life.”
After pulling himself together, Kankkunen has managed to fill his days with just the right amount of the right kind of activities.
In addition to the academy in Kuusamo, Kankkunen races a couple or rallies per year, takes care of public relations work, and travels.
“As it happens, I almost travel too much these days. But naturally I try to spend time with my kids as well.”
The Kankkunens filed for divorce in the autumn. His wife and the boys live in Espoo, and Kankkunen has commented that the divorce process is “in the process”.
Kankkunen has shared the problems that he has encountered with colleagues. He understands people like the former cross-country skier Mika Myllylä and some of the NHL stars, who have all had their share of difficulties - and run-ins with drink - after finishing their active sporting careers.
“Even Matti Nykänen last called me up only three days ago.”
Kankkunen is a native of Laukaa in Central Finland.
His family farm there includes a large country house and hundreds of hectares of land.
For a young rally enthusiast there was room to drive and the family had money. Kankkunen’s mother and father spurred him on: “Drive, son, drive!”
Kankkunen took part in his first competition in Sweden and immediately made it into the top ten. In Finland he raced three rallies and he won them all.
“That is when I thought that I might be onto something with this.”
The scariest moment of Kankkunen’s life took place not behind the wheel of a speeding rally car, but when he was driving a tractor.
As a boy, Kankkunen was ploughing a race track on the ice of a frozen lake, when the tractor suddenly fell through the ice. It was night time and pitch dark, and under the ice the water was six metres deep.
Kankkunen managed to get out of the tractor cabin and somehow pulled himself onto the surface of the ice.
Despite the sub-zero temperature, Kankkunen made it back home. His overalls froze on the way, forcing him to crawl the last metres on all fours.
“This event gave me the longest nightmares of my life.”
Between January and March of this year, Kankkunen left Kuusamo only once - to take part in a Ministry of Transport info meeting in Helsinki. Kankkunen is one of the figureheads of a national traffic safety campaign that also includes such motor sports luminaries as former F1 World Champion Mika Häkkinen, McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen, and rally colleagues Tommi Mäkinen and Marcus Grönholm, who can boast another six WRC titles between them, to go with Kankkunen's four.
“It is such a smart campaign. Even I have friends who have hurt themselves by being reckless on the road.”
During his rallying career, even Kankkunen - not particularly known as a shunt specialist - crashed out every now and again.
His back was operated on a year and a half ago, and the aftercare requires physical exercises.
“It is an old injury. I can't remember any more where I did it originally.”
Kankkunen’s stomach has been operated on twice, his knees and shoulder once each.
“That’s normal stuff.”
While up in Kuusamo, Kankkunen has done a little bit of slalom skiing (the Ruka resort is close at hand) and a lot of snowmobiling.
“I have done just enough cross-country skiing to say that I’ve done it. I always opt for ready-waxed rental skis.”
Juha Kankkunen took part in his first-ever World Rally Championship event 30 years ago in Jyväskylä - the old Rally of a 1000 Lakes, now Neste Rally Finland.
To mark the anniversary, Kankkunen is now craving to have yet another go at a race he won three times between 1991 and 1999.
“We’ve held negotiations, but the recession is making things slightly more complicated. In May we’ll see what happens.”
The present bloated WRC circuit does not receive much approval from the former driver.
Kankkunen would prune things ruthlessly. Six to eight races should be enough. And the half-a-million euro computers should be eliminated from the cars.
"There should be plenty of noise and speed, not vehicles that are too quiet”, Kankkunen says, and reminisces with warmth on the good old 1980s racers, the now-forbidden four-wheel-drive Group B cars that had practically unlimited power.
Kankkunen is one of the most successful rally drivers of all time.
In Finland he is nevertheless left alone - apart from being harassed occasionally by “the crappy tabloids”, who made a meal of his drinking problems - but for example in San Marino he cannot walk around without a police escort. There he is immediately surrounded by fans.
But now to the grocery store. Repo and Kankkunen have rented a cottage in Kuusamo and both take part in running the household. Shopping, laundry, and cooking details have been allocated between the men.
Yesterday’s dinner consisted of steak and mash. Today’s main course is sausage soup.
It has been a long day.
“Often we miss the ten o’clock news”, Repo says.
Kankkunen remembers the raspberries.
“I do like to have raspberries with my yoghurt in the mornings.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 1.4.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finnish racing drivers appeal for road safety (12.3.2009)
Rally driver Juha Kankkunen to run for EU Parliament (10.3.2004)
Bentley icecapades stir up snow and tempers in Kuusamo (20.2.2007)
Juha Kankkunen Driving Academy
Juha Kankkunen (Wikipedia)
ESA LILJA / Helsingin Sanomat