Women Power: The 2015 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles
When the dust settled, this all-women’s rally drew the greatest number of teams—and wins—ever from the U.S.
By Sue Mead
It’s the only rally for “women-only” and the toughest all-women’s sporting event in the world. I learned about it first from my dear friend Emily Miller, a true entrepreneur with talents that range the gamut from being an accomplished off-road racer to running a PR firm that provides sports marketing and helps build brands. Miller placed 21st that year and returned for two more rallies, placing 11th and 2nd consecutively.
Since, she has been the U.S. team trainer for the legendary Rallye Aicha des Gazelles, known as the Gazelle Rally in the United States. Miller is mentor and an ardent cheerleader for the off-road rally, encouraging other women from all walks of life to participate in this “life-changing” event that takes place in southern Morocco’s majestic and challenging landscape.
So, why did I wait six years to throw my helmet into the rigors of a competition designed with a goal to achieve the shortest distance between check points--which are designated as either latitude/longitude or distance and heading, rather than speed (which I love!)? And, why did I make the decision to attend the 25th edition of the rally this year, training and preparing for almost three months for a 20-day journey that would take me from Stuttgart, Germany, to Nice, France, and then across the Mediterranean Sea by boat, with my team’s race vehicle, to the official start in Rabat, Morocco and then across the Sahara from Erfoud to Foum Z’guid? Although the centerpiece of my career has been test-driving the varied collection of everyday, all-new, or upgraded vehicles, I fell in love with extreme 4WD expeditions and off-road racing back in the mid-Nineties and have completed and competed in almost all the top rallies and races in a wide variety of locations around the globe. But, to be honest, I was daunted by the Gazelle Rally’s rules that prohibit GPS and require its participants to navigate to a series of checkpoints each day for nine days using only a compass, plotter and ruler, and black and white maps that date from the 1940s to 1960s! I didn’t mind the promise of grueling days of 14-hours or more of non-stop driving and navigating -- in fact, I rather like that!
Truth is, I decided it was time to join my first all-women’s rally when I was asked by Mercedes-Benz to drive their new 4x4 Sprinter van, along with co-driver and navigator Shennen Marschner, a Sprinter sales rep for M-B. We took on the challenge as a two-person team, along with 158 teams representing 33 countries. The rally that measures precise navigation and driving skills, as well as vehicle competence, allows no outside assistance or support teams during the competition. This I have done—but, with a GPS! Marschner and I joined the ten U.S. teams--the greatest number ever for female competitors representing the red, white and blue; and the U.S. contingent not only drove away with a class win, but also two first-time participation prizes, four teams that ranked in the top 25 of the 4x4 class, and the first team to participate in the Quad/Moto/SSV class.
When the dust settled, Chrissie Beavis, of San Diego, and Alyssa Roenigk, of Los Angeles, California, took top honors in the Crossover category, one of the four classes; This year’s event marked the first time that the rally included an “expert” division in the 4WD class, one of the four competition classes. U.S. teams included women with backgrounds that ranged from a Hollywood stuntwoman to Dakar class winner, former Wall Street trader, a Los Angeles producer, and stay-at-home Moms. “I've basically been training for this rally my entire life, albeit unknowingly,” said Beavis, who is a professional rally driver and navigator, as well as a pilot and architect. “Being raised in the California desert with a lifelong love of old maps, and 18 years of rally navigating experience, our win at the Gazelle Rallye feels extremely validating. Although the Crossover class was comparatively under subscribed, the competition was still tough and challenged us every day.”
“Participating in the Gazelle Rally is an amazing experience in itself, but having the vehicle and teammate that I did made it super fun too, added Beavis. “The Sprinter was just awesome; its capabilities far surpassed what I had thought a van could do. We literally took it anywhere and everywhere we wanted. And Alyssa was perfect. She is an extremely competent person and has just the right amount of competitiveness. The icing on the cake for us was the other friendships we developed. We became super close with our toughest competitors (Germans, Andrea and Julia in the Mercedes Vito) and really enjoyed hanging out with the other American teams and hearing about all the fun and frustration that is the Gazelle Rally.”
So, what were my take-aways? The Gazelle Rally was all it was promised to be: challenging-but-rewarding and, yes, life-changing. The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4 x4 is a remarkable van that performed beyond my wildest dreams. It not only motored over terrain that was designated “expert” rather than “crossover,” but when Marschner and I were struggling to make our way, after getting lost and off of the crossover course, it performed flawlessly up and down desert mountains that would challenge a mountain goat and across rock-littered ravines, desert dunes, camel grass, and ”desert cabbage” that threaten to slice through tires no matter the tread compound. Plus, the Sprinter’s packaging allowed us to carry all our gear and spare parts, and have the space to sleep in the rear compartment--which we did on an overnight near the Algeria border!
And, as for me, despite the mix of weather conditions that included cold rains and a treacherous blizzard as we crossed the Atlas Mountains and the scorch of hot days and sting of cold nights, I find myself now dreaming of returning, as most Gazelles do. “Women go the first year for the challenge, where they literally face the unexpected head-on, and fears they didn’t even know they had,” said Kirsten Kuhn, U.S. Media/Team Liaison for the rally. “They go back the second year to conquer those fears, and also to apply the skills they learned the first year…and manage unfinished business. The third year, they go to win!”
Founded by Dominique Serra, the Gazelle Rallye espouses women’s empowerment, environmental commitment, and support of the people of Morocco, with visits by medical teams and other specialists during the rally and funding and assistance with building schools and other program initiatives. Among the rally’s awards are the United Nations’ Plant for the Planet and the only sporting event with ISO 14001 certification for its strict environmental practices. Serra was decorated as an Officer Wissam Al Alaoui in Morocco by King Mohammed VI for the positive impact the rally has on the country.
For further information in the U.S. contact Emily Miller (916-719-9949), email@example.com. Rallye photos by Nicole Dreon.
United States Teams:
Final General Standings
7 - #23 – Sara Price/Erica Sacks
1 - #317 – Alyssa Roenigk/Chrissie Beavis
5 - #316 – Sue Mead/Shennen Marschner
10 - #180 – Nicole Pitell-Vaughan/Jessie Combs
12 - #107 – Susanah Hoehn/Jo Hannah Hoehn
14 - #218 – Rachelle Croft/Rhonda Cahill
22 - #182 – Patricia Klishevich/Veronique DeSybourg-Siffert (Switzerland)
41 - #175 – Susie Saxten/Sarah Saxten
56 - #183 – Rebecca Donaghe/Barbara Fiorentino
14 - #400 – Amy Lerner/Sabrina Howells
First Participation Challenge
1 - #23 - Price/Sacks
1 - #180 - Pitell-Vaughan/Combs