Juha Kankkunen (pronounced YOU-haw KANK-i-nin) is not a name that’s remotely familiar to most people. If you were to play “man-on-the-street” and ask people what they knew about him, you wouldn’t even need to carry a notebook and pencil with you. Unless, of course, you were asking people in Finland.
In Finland, the name “Juha Kankkunen” is revered. You see, Finns love rallying (which we discussed a couple months back) way more than most people do. And over the years, there have been a pile of great rally drivers to come out of Finland. And Juha Kankkunen is, without question, one of the elite “Flying Finns”.
Born in Laukaa on April 2, 1959, he grew up near Jyvaskyla (pronounced ya-VASK-il-a) which, for years, has been the hub of rallying in Finland. His first success came in the most unlikely of places, when he won the Safari Rally in 1985 in a two-wheel-drive Toyota Celica. Winning this ultimate test of speed and endurance on his first attempt thrust the young driver into the limelight.
He was immediately signed by Peugeot for 1986, where he drove the awesomely powerful 205 T16 to his first world title. But several fatal accidents during the 1986 season ended the run of Group B cars (of which the 205 was one). So Juha moved on…to Lancia where, driving a Group A Delta Integrale, he won another world title.
A couple of quiet years at Toyota were followed by a return to Lancia and a 3rd world title in 1991. Toyota would then re-sign Kankkunen, and he would win his 4th and final WRC title under their moniker in 1993. And then the wins stopped after 1994’s Rally Portugal, and it would be five years before the Flying Finn would taste victory again. But this was the sport at that time. Competition was stiff, as manufacturers built better and better cars, and a new series of talented drivers came on the scene with names like Sainz, and McRae, and Makinen, and Auriol.
But Juha Kankkunen remained consistently competitive. In the 161 rallies he began, the podium was his landing place an astounding 75 times. And then came 1999 and his move to Subaru. The car struggled early in the season, but Kankkunen sat out two tarmac rallies to test the car for a series of upcoming gravel rallies. The development work paid off in spades and, for the remainder of the year, the Impreza was almost untouchable on loose surfaces, winning 6 of the final 8 gravel rallies (and finishing 2nd in the other two).
The Flying Finn would collect the last two of his 23 total victories during this run. The first, in Argentina, was in controversial fashion, as he disobeyed team orders calling for teammate Richard Burns to win. The win prompted Burns’ co-driver Robert Reid to quip, “Where there’s a shark, there’s a Finn.” The second win was in more traditional fashion and in front of the “home crowd” on the undulating, high-speed gravel tracks of Finland.
Juha Kankkunen still dusts off his collection of rally cars (and it’s a fabulous collection, to be sure) from time to time, closes down sections of road in Finland, dons the helmet, and lets fly…fame has its privileges. But he also runs his own rally driving school (with long-time co-driver Juha Repo). And in 2006, he set a new world speed record on ice, driving a largely stock Bentley Continental GT (his own personal car) over the flying kilometer at 199.86 mph.
A list of the top 5 rally drivers of all time would be a joke if it didn’t include Juha Kankkunen.
Happy Birthday, Juha Kankkunen!!
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