The 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles: American Women Drive to Record Results in the Sahara Desert
by Sue Mead
It’s not uncommon for a family member or friend to donate a kidney or give medical support to loved ones in a time of need, but a different matter entirely to donate your vehicle’s air compressor in the middle of a competition!
The world’s toughest all-female sporting event requires competitors to travel over varied landscape using only a compass, plotter and ruler, and black and white maps that date from the 1940s to 1960s to find a series of checkpoints each day--days that typically range from 14 to 21 hours of non-stop driving and navigating.
Southern California off-road racers Chrissie Beavis (Rally America) and Nicole Pitell-Vaughan (Best in the Desert) battled for the lead throughout the prestigious four-wheel-drive competition, in their Toyota Tacoma. The duo qualified for a first-place starting position, and then stayed in first place until Day Four, when a strut mount broke and they had to limp through the remaining checkpoints. In an incredibly close contest over the course of 1,060 kilometers, the pair finished an estimated 1.76 kilometers behind their rivals, Swiss teammates Regine Zbinden and Ela Steiner.
Sisters Susanah and Jo Hannah Hoehn, of Carlsbad, California, finished third, after struggles with a damaged air suspension in their LR4 nearly knocked them out; they finished 25 kilometers off of second place. And, Emme Hall, from Oakland, California, and Sabrina Howells, from Los Angeles, seceded fourth to a fifth-place finish -- by a separation of only .55 kilometers, after battery problems with their Land Rover Defender 110 cost them time and driving distance, in a race where advantage is measured in distance rather than time. However, the clock is ticking at all times and motoring in daylight has a critical impact on making checkpoints within the allotted time, and also greatly improves a competitor’s ability to traverse across rigorous and dangerous terrain with good sight lines.
A remarkable backstory from the U.S. teams came from the Hoehn family. As Susanah and Jo Hannah set out on their third rally, they were joined by their Mom, Karen Hoehn, of Del Mar, California, who paired with Maureen Gibbons, of La Jolla, California; these first-timers also chose a Land Rover LR4 for their team vehicle. The daughters took the adventure thinking they would share something remarkable with their mom, little did they know that Karen and Maureen would save them.
“The suspension's air compressor faulted as we were coming out of a giant crater on Day Six. As terrible as it was, it was really the only place during the rally when we could continue and not bleed significant kilometers because, shortly after the crater, everyone had to be funneled onto paved roads, and the final two checkpoints of the day were along those roads and were opened later than normal,” explained Jo Hannah, who along with her sister is a fourth-generation member of the family’s car business (Jo Hannah is the General Manager of Jaguar Land Rover dealership and Susanah is the Service Director of the Honda dealership).
It took us about 2.5 hours to get out of the crater with the broken suspension -- which should have taken 20 minutes -- but we had to take the two highest lines we could find so we could clear the ground. During that time, our mom came along the trail and was able to follow us back, which was a comfort in the pitch black. That night, the mechanics were able to put my mom's compressor in ours; the process was completed only five minutes before our starting line the next day. Our mom has given us so much our entire life; I thought that this event would finally be about her, and the event ended up being about us.”
“Another magical component of the story is that when our compressor was placed in my mom’s car, it lifted it enough so that she could drive it on paved roads and travel to the next bivouac,” Jo Hannah enthused. “A new compressor for her car, sourced in Marrakech, arrived the next day in the town near the bivouac -- a 10-hour drive away from Marrakech! Friends of our mechanics in Marrakech stuck it on a public bus -- it was an unbelievable story.”
Another great tale came from the incredibly close contest of third-year Gazelle’s veteran and X-Games Rally Gold Medalist Chrissie Beavis, who along with second-time competitor Nicole Pitell-Vaughan, Director of Operations at TOTAL CHAOS Fabrication Inc., planned and trained for a year to go to the rally and effect a win. “You work all year to go and execute an objective,” said Pitell-Vaughan. “It was a mental and physical challenge to run for the podium the entire time and the competition was tight. While in a oued [river valley] during Day Three, we were locked in a canyon and had to drive in and out of the wash and, during this leg, we took a hit from the tire to the shock while the truck was flexed as it slid into a hole… the hit caused the shock mount to fail two days later,” described the off-roader who said “second is the first loser,” but was happy with the pair’s solid finish. “The mechanics welded the shock tab back up and did a great job every night maintaining the CRC / TOTAL CHAOS Tacoma. It was only my second time participating and we ran with the experts and UTV’s during all the dune days. The Tacoma excelled in the dunes and is a blast to drive.”
“There were several factors that attributed to the slight kilometer variance that caused us to take second place. We lost a lot of time at the crater when we made a Team USA decision to burn daylight and stay with the Hohens and try and help them fix their suspension. That cost us two hours of daylight and it was the same day we broke the shock mount. So, Team USA took some heavy hits mentally to both the drivers. Knowing you’re barely halfway through the rally and experiencing vehicle issues that can cost you the entire race really adds to the stress. Plus, sand storms were an added challenge this year for the navigators; it was hard to keep a long-distance heading with white-out conditions. It also added to the physical fatigue because it was hard to sleep at night. Also, we had a much longer wheelbase than the winners and it made some obstacles a real challenge. We moved mountains literally on Day Eight to try and drive as straight as possible.”
It was a third start for driver Emme Hall, who reviews cars and trucks for Roadshow and is the driver and trophy winner of her own off-road team; Hall campaigns a two-seat 1600cc air-cooled VW in desert races in California, Nevada, and Mexico, and also autocrosses her 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata. It was Howell’s fourth rally and the pair, who stayed at the top of the rankings, entered the final two-day marathon looking for a fourth-place finish. Mechanical issues with their Defender’s battery threw them off their game. “I think it affected us mentally,” said Howells. “We started later then we wanted, and then we got off-track in the dunes.” The team ended up less than one-third of a mile behind the Swiss team of Veronique de Sybourg-Siffert and Emilie Kuhni.
Also in the top ten were Susie Saxten and Ivy Cass, both of Encinitas, California, who placed ninth in a specially equipped Jeep Wrangler. Teresa Stewart, of Kauai, Hawaii, and Sara Jehn, Oahu, Hawaii, achieved a 20th place finish in the 4 x 4 class and fifth in the Novice Class in a Jeep Wrangler. Also in Wranglers were Elaine Newkirk, of Rancho Santa Fe, California, and Keely Sellers, Kihei, Hawaii, who placed 57th and Catherine Chadmi, of St. Petersburg, Florida, and Cecile Vinson, hailing from Vaucluse, France. Karen Hoehn and Maureen Gibbons placed 102nd. Read the complete finish list for American teams here.
For further information in the U.S. contact Emily Miller (916-719-9949), firstname.lastname@example.org. Rallye photos by Nicole Dreon.