This rally culture lifts up its competitors – by design.
Ashley Lee, a three-time Rebelle Rally veteran, picked me up from the airport on Thursday morning to take me out to the final stage of the competition. The night before, she called me to offer her advice and answer any questions I might have about the trip to the punishing California desert. Ten minutes after we hung up, I got a notification that my connecting flight on American to DFW had been cancelled, and I called her back to brainstorm a solution. We checked the map and found that Ontario airport was on the way for her between Las Vegas and the Glamis sand dunes, so I bought a new one-way ticket on Southwest and we retooled our plan.
It occurred to me once I got home that this problem-solving process is the essence of the Rebelle Rally, the first women’s off-road navigation rally raid in the United States. Competitors sign on for eight days of raw, challenging, difficult driving armed with only a paper map and compass across 2500 kilometers. That’s right: no phones and no GPS. Decisions are made on the fly and a wrong turn could result in the loss of points and time. By the end of the rally, there is no question these women are changed. They can hold their head high knowing they accomplished something impressive.
You’re Going to Get Lost, and That’s OK; You’re Building Invaluable Skills that Lead to the Finish Line
Founder Emily Miller launched the first Rebelle Rally in 2016 armed with years of experience in rallies around the world. She was trained by expert off-roader Rod Hall, and she knew the field of women in the sport was not as robust as she wanted to see. Competitors learn that the Rebelle is designed to break you down and build you back up to realize just how strong and capable you are. You’re going to get stuck, you’re going to get lost, and you’re going to get frustrated. But in the end, you’ll have developed invaluable life skills that will serve you well.
“You have to be prepared to navigate on the road, at sea, and in air,” Miller tells a group of visitors during a navigation workshop at the end of the competition. “Heading and distance don’t lie. North doesn’t lie. There are principles that keep you from danger if you use the map, so get out and use your compass and find your way.”
The Beauty of the Toughness Factor
As I followed Miller down the line to each vehicle at the start on the last day of competition, I can tell the women are wrung out. It has been a wild rally with 60-mile-per-hour sandstorms, unexpected snow, and other challenges to add to the toughness factor.
“You can see on the women’s faces at the end of the day that they’ve been through some stuff,” Lee said to me on the drive to the course. “It’s really beautiful.”
Lee also likened it to a traumatic experience, in a way. It’s certainly cathartic: women who cross the finish line (only two were disqualified over the last six years for subverting the rules and a couple have quit before finishing) deal with a plethora of emotions over the course of eight days. By the time they’re finished, it’s not uncommon to see tears; often, they’re streams of relief, joy, and triumph.
Related: Women Who Compete in Rebelle Rally are Not the Only Stars: These SUVs Rocked the Off-Road Race in 2020
There’s No Time for Cattiness
“My experience with women’s events was that it was so competitive with not enough camaraderie,” Lee told me. “I was shocked that Rebelle is so supportive and loving.”
She’s right. I witnessed teams pulling over to help others dig out of the soft sand, which cost them energy and time. I saw Total Chaos fabrication owner (and sponsor) Nicole Pitell break out a whole picnic of cucumbers, homemade chicken salad, and cold sodas for her photography and video crew. When I approached the perimeter of a scrum of navigators plotting out points at base camp, they invited me in to learn.
This is not a cutthroat event. It’s more of an “all ships rise together” kind of place and time. That’s not to say the competitors aren’t serious about winning, either. Teams come back year after year and many plunk down their own money (which is far more than pocket cash) to come back and try again. Winners for this year are repeat Rebelles; at the top of the 4×4 class was Team 4xeventures Nena Barlow and Teralin Petereit in a 2021 Jeep 4xe and the X-Cross segment was led by Melissa Fischer and Cora Jokinen in a 2021 Ford Bronco Badlands Edition. Fischer is a 100% Rebelle, which means she has competed in every single Rebelle Rally since 2016.
Want to Be a Rebelle?
One question that hangs in the air at the end of the rally for each team: are you going to compete again? For many, the answer will be yes. When I mentioned that I’m considering making a run for it myself, the overwhelming response is “DO IT!” Just know that if you’re thinking about it too that you won’t sleep much, you’ll be sleeping on the ground in a tent that you have to erect and disassemble yourself, and you probably won’t get to shower for days.
But what you will have is the surge of pride in proving yourself to yourself. You’ll test your limits and no matter where you finish in the final standings, you’re going to feel powerful.
“If people call you a badass, do you mind?” I asked Miller while I was riding shotgun on the course with her.
“I wanted to create a world class rally, and it happens to be for women. We don’t represent a large population in motorsport, and I want women to know they can do this.”
See, what non-competitors don’t know is that the Rebelle is not really about the competition itself. It’s about building up women in a sport in which they don’t represent a large population.
“I want people to take the lessons they learned and apply them to having a better life,” Miller says. “It focuses your mind and teaches you a lot about preparation. To do well, you have to prepare your gear and everything else, and I think these skills are extremely important.
“You learn what you’re like when the chips are down and when you’re under pressure; it’s really humbling. What it did for me is take a mirror and stuck it right in my face. When you experience that during the Rebelle, you have enough time to actually work on yourself and improve.”