The 21st edition of the only all-women's road rally in the world takes place 19 March to 2 April. Not much time before the rookies will be tossed into the game.
"California's Imperial Sand Dunes provide the ultimate training ground, mimicking the terrain of Morocco," says Miller. And she should know. This year marks Miller's third sojourn to the northern African country for this one-of-a-kind competition.
The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is unique in that the competitors are not allowed the use of technological assistance. They must find the shortest distance between checkpoints with only the aid of traditional navigation tools--compass, outdated maps, and plotters. No cell phones, no GPS!
A grueling test of driving prowess and navigation skill across southern Morocco's enchanting and challenging landscape, the nine-day event pushes the Gazelles to their limits.
If any two women should already be prepared to handle the pressures of 14 hours a day together confined in a vehicle, it would be sisters. Recalling some of my own childhood road trips, if my sister and I didn't clobber each other back then, I'd say we could handle anything.
Such must be the attitude of the sister-team of Lerner-Reina, #107.
Asked about her thoughts after the training, Tricia Reina said, "It got me hooked. Emily's knowledge and passion of the rally shined through in the training, a force that solidified this was the right decision."
The weekend these gals spent in the southeastern desert of California was packed full of lessons from Rod Hall in traction control, four-wheel drive systems, and tire knowledge. And that was just the first afternoon.
The second day, the women plunged right into the sand dunes, starting on the flatter surfaces and working up to the bigger ones--skirting the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
"I loved every moment of being back in the sand," says Miller. "We had the place to ourselves, and the girls picked up the skills quickly."
The most valuable lesson was learning how to get the vehicles "unstuck." The Jeep Wranglers used for the training were very capable, but Hall made sure they "high-centered them." With the tires dug in, the newest Gazelles had to go to work cleaning the sand and figuring out sand ladder placement.
That was one lesson they will use more than they care to think about--for the goal of the rally competitors in Morocco is to travel the straightest line, not the smoothest.
The final day of training was an intense eight hours of navigation education from Bergeron. She shared her vast experience with the U.S. Gazelles, reviewing actual rally maps and plotting checkpoints, driving routes, and area photos.
"I definitely learned some new nav skills," says Miller. "And thought back to how tough Wendy's job was."
Wendy Fisher, Miller's navigator the past two years, has hung up her compass to devote time to her ski racing and her two energetic little boys. Miller's new teammate is Gazelle veteran and 2008 rally winner, Armelle Medard of France.
Although they may not use modern technology during the rally, Team #109 is taking full advantage of regular Skype meetings to review paperwork, work through checklists, and just get to know each other.
Miller loves to drive, Medard loves to navigate--sounds like a winning combination. Having chronicled Miller's run for the podium last year, I am hopeful Team Miller-Medard will be a winning alliance.
We are also monitoring the volatile situations making headlines in the Middle East and North Africa recently. The "peaceful demonstrations" in Morocco on 20 February were marred by a few incidents of violence. Five people were killed, 128 injured, and 120 arrested.
For this reason, rally organizers issued a statement of confidence in late February, informing participants that "the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles du Maroc will take place as planned.... The Moroccan authorities assure us of their continued support and we can once again count on their presence by our side during the event."
Glad to hear it, for, once again, I will be writing daily updates about the rally for AutomotiveTraveler.com. I'll be watching specifically the progress of racing pro Emily Miller and her champion navigator--and the inspiring team of sisters whose enthusiasm makes up for their total absence of off-roading experience.
If you read our coverage last year, you'll know this is a journey worth following. Just ask Amy Lerner of Team #107. "Your day-to-day coverage of 2010 played a big part in my decision, despite a complete lack of experience in motor sports, to be a Gazelle in 2011," she posted on AutomotiveTraveler.com recently.
These adventurous women are just weeks from the starting line, so stay tuned!
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