9-day rally race Sahara Desert

Motorsports

May 17, 2016

Driving through Morocco's Erg Chebbi and Chegaga Dunes is a Gazelle Rally highlight. Even seeing them in the distance is intimidating. They are so big and so distinct. They are such a symbol of the rally, competitor Susanah Hoehn says of the dunes.

Nicole Dreon

Driving through Morocco’s Erg Chebbi and Chegaga Dunes is a Gazelle Rally highlight. “Even seeing them in the distance is intimidating. They are so big and so distinct. They are such a symbol of the rally,” competitor Susanah Hoehn says of the dunes.

Considered the most prestigious off-road all-women’s motorsport event in the world, the 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles attracted more than 300 women from 13 countries for its 26th edition, held March 18-April 2 in Morocco. While most rally races focus on speed, the goal of the Gazelle is to reach a series of checkpoints while totaling the shortest distance. Described as a scavenger hunt in the middle of the Sahara Desert, competitors must trade their cell phones and GPS devices for old-fashioned maps and compasses.

This year, eight American teams took the line for nine days of competition, and they traversed more than 650 miles of hostile Moroccan desert terrain. The event was comprised of six scored legs of off-road competition, including two marathon legs that sent teams out on their own for two days at a time and overnight alone in the desert in improvised camps.

In the end, two American teams landed on the podium and four cracked the top 10. In second place overall and first for the American teams, California off-road racers Chrissie Beavis (Rally America) and Nicole Pitell-Vaughan (Best in the Desert), fought for the lead throughout the contest. In a race where advantage is measured in distance, rather than time, the pair finished an estimated 1.1 miles behind their closest rivals, the Swiss duo of Regine Zbinden and Ela Steiner.

“The rally is the most amazing adventure that lasts nine days,” Pitell-Vaughan says. “It’s mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. You can never deviate from your game plan. You can’t lose focus, because if you let your mind wander, it’s like reeling back in a 500-pound tuna.”

Nicole Dreon

A total of 162 international teams took the start on March 23 for the 26th annual Rallye Aicha des Gazelles in Erfoud, Morocco. Teams came from Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Morocco, Niger, Portugal, Senegal, Slovakia, Switzerland, United Kingdom and eight teams from the United States.

Nicole Dreon

Considered the most prestigious all-women’s motorsport event in the world, the competition is an off-road test of analog, dead reckoning navigation. At the beginning of the rally, competitors turned in their cell phones and any kind of GPS device and were handed maps and a compass.

Nicole Dreon

Every morning teams left the line at 6 a.m. sharp, and they typically had 14 hours to return to the bivouac — an improvised campsite that moved every two days. Over the course of nine competition days, they covered more than 650 miles of desert terrain.

Nicole Dreon

A local man, curious about the rally, checks out competitors in the Erg Chebbi Dunes from his motorcycle. Teams are rarely alone during the rally. “People just materialize out of nowhere,” competitor Susie Saxten says. “A little face will pop up in your window and then you look out and there will be all these little kids. And you wonder where they came from, because there is nothing around at all.”

Nicole Dreon

Southern California off-road racers Chrissie Beavis (Rally America) and Nicole Pitell-Vaughan (Best in the Desert) fought for the lead throughout the contest in their No. 180 Toyota Tacoma. They qualified for a first-place starting position and held the lead until Day 4 of the endurance event, when a strut mount broke. Their vehicle was repaired overnight, but they weren’t able to make up the distance, and they finished second.

Nicole Dreon

American competitors Sabrina Howells, Susie Saxten and Susanah Hoehn check notes at one of the checkpoints. The dunes are the only place where teams are allowed to work together. With the most starts of any American at the rally (four) Howells says, “No one at home understands what this is — how hard it is, but how fulfilling it is. You want to come back to this community of women and experience it with them again. I feel so much more confident after I do it. I live in Hollywood and everyone is gorgeous and successful and going to incredible parties. Something about this rally makes me love who I am, and I don’t need to be anyone else.”

Nicole Dreon

The rally is well received in southern Morocco. Residents cheer on the teams as they pass through a small town.

Nicole Dreon

Using the logistics of the rally, a medical caravan called “The Heart of the Gazelles” sets up a traveling health clinic every year. The caravan travels through the remote regions of southern Morocco, more than 62 miles from the nearest hospital or clinic. Since 2005, some 70,525 people have received medical care.

Nicole Dreon

Sisters Susanah and Jo Hannah Hoehn, of Carlsbad, California, held a podium position throughout the rally but had a tense day halfway through after the air suspension on their No. 107 Land Rover LR4 went out and mechanics at the overnight camp did not have the parts to repair it. Their mother, Karen Hoehn, who had put a solid run on the event as a rookie alongside Maureen Gibbons in the No. 181 Land Rover LR4, gave up parts from her vehicle and abandoned their effort so that the sisters could continue their podium charge. The team went on to finish third.

Nicole Dreon

Throughout the rally competitors would come and go from the campsite, which included a mess tent, press tent, medical clinic, lounge area and three shower/toilet trailers. It took 90 people six hours to set up every time it moved. On average, 700 people a day stayed at the campsite, including 45 mechanics, and 13,500 meals were served over the course of the rally.

Nicole Dreon

American competitors getting ready for the closing parade in Essaouira — a beach town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast.