Nine American teams will be on the start grid in Morocco at the 2016 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles when the 26th running of the world’s toughest all-female navigational rally gets underway later this month.
“No matter what you’ve done before, the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles changes you,” said driver Nicole Pitell, an off-road racer and business owner who is returning to the event for a second year.
The unique competition is an off-road test of dead reckoning navigation across 1,500 miles of rugged terrain. Teams of two, a driver and navigator, must pilot their vehicles to a series of hidden checkpoints using only maps and compasses, before meeting each night in desert encampments. The challenge is strictly analog; GPS and other electronic aids are prohibited and participants are off the grid for the duration. The team that achieves the most direct route, chalking up the fewest miles over the course of nine competition days, is the winner.
“You’re out there in the Sahara for nine days. You can go hours at a time without seeing another car. The heat crushes you and you’re focusing so hard on keeping your heading that your eyes start to play tricks on you. Just getting to the end is an incredible achievement,” she said.
Last year, Pitell and her teammate, TV personality and racer Jessi Combs, were the top American finishers in their class. This year she and co-driver Chrissie Beavis, a professional rally competitor and X Games gold medalist who is returning to the competition for a third time, are gunning to bring the U.S. its first-ever outright win in a Toyota Tacoma.
Some 330 women will compete in this year’s 26th running of the event, with the nine American teams battling it out against an international field of entries from across Europe, Asia, South America, and Canada.
“It’s very different from the type of racing I normally do because it isn’t speed based,” said Beavis, who co-drives action sport superstar Travis Pastrana on the U.S. rally circuit. “I love the challenges that come from the navigation and being in the middle of nowhere and having to get yourself from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ with very few tools. It’s being able to do a lot with a little – a kind of MacGyver feeling – and I love that.”
The U.S. competitors run the gamut from experienced racers, like Pitell and Beavis, to novices who have never before competed in organized motorsport. In the latter category is a stay-at-home mom who was inspired to compete this year to celebrate a milestone 60th birthday.
Karen Hoehn and longtime friend Maureen Gibbons will start the race as rookies together in Morocco later this month. Hoehn says she is lucky to enjoy the support of daughters Susanah and Jo Hannah Hoehn, who are returning to the competition for the third time following a personal best 12th place result in 2015. Both teams will showcase the off-roading abilities of Land Rover LR4 vehicles supplied by the family Land Rover dealership in Carlsbad, California.
“I went to Morocco to support my daughters as a spectator last year and when I got out onto the course and saw the whole wide spectrum of women competing, I knew there was a place for me,” said Hoehn. “It’s older women, younger women, fit women, not-so-fit women. That’s the beauty of the rally: they are welcoming at every level.”
Hoehn says her expectations are in line with her experience. “I don’t expect to win. I want to give it my best but I don’t think for a moment about winning it. I want to do well enough each day to continue the next day in the competition until we cross the finish line.”
The event begins with a Prologue day March 23 in Erfoud, Morocco, and officially concludes 10 days later in Essaouira. The event is comprised of one prologue and six legs, all entirely off-road, two of which are marathon legs lasting two days. All nine of the U.S. teams are competing in the 4×4 category.
Founded in 1990 by Dominique Serra and headquartered in France, the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles provides an empowering challenge to women. In addition to competition, the organization is also committed to humanitarian efforts in the region through its charity, Coeur des Gazelles (Heart of Gazelles). The charity has provided funding for a number of projects including educational facilities, wells for clean water, and job training. In 2016, the event will again travel with the Volkswagen Medical Caravan, which has provided medical care to more than 70,000 people in remote regions of Morocco since 2005. The rally is held under the patronage of the Moroccan King Mohammed VI and carries the official coat of arms of the Moroccan Royal Guard. The event conforms to strict environmental standards and is ISO 14001 certified.