From navigating steep sand dunes to twisting mountain trails and canyon floors, driving the 2,275 kilometer off-road course at the annual Rebelle Rally is no joke. Doing it in a plug-in electric vehicle is an even bigger feat. But at this year’s Rebelle Rally, two teams competing in the 2022 Kia Sorento PHEV showed it wasn’t just possible — it could be triumphant.
The eight-day rally, which crosses the vast Mojave and Sonoran deserts through Nevada and California, is a rugged proving ground that pushes drivers, navigators, and vehicles to their limit. Temperatures can fluctuate by more than 100 degrees between night and day. Terrain is varied and unforgiving. And inclement weather can create treacherous conditions in an instant.
On top of the physical hurdles, contestants are strictly banned from using cellphones and GPS devices, relying only on analog tools — topographic maps, rulers, and compasses — to navigate the course.
Kia teammates Alyssa Roenigk and Sabrina Howells were psyched for the challenge. After narrowly missing out on a first place finish last year, the duo was determined to outdo their previous performance. This year, the chances of a Kia win were higher: They were joined on the course by Verena Mei and Tana White, another team in a 2022 Sorento PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle).
On October 7, 2021, Roenigk, Howells, Mei, and White gathered at the Hoover Dam alongside 100 other women — each part of a team comprising a driver and a navigator — to drive into the heart of America’s most barren backcountry.
The winners would be determined not by speed, but by the total number of points they earned at the end of the race, a tally accumulated by reaching checkpoints throughout the course. Green checkpoints were mandatory — and the easiest to find. Blue checkpoints, marked by smaller flags, were harder to obtain. And black diamond checkpoints were entirely invisible, taking the most navigational prowess to locate.
Preparing for the rally has a huge impact on how you perform, Roenigk told G/O Media Studios. The teams spoke at length with Kia engineers to learn about driving the Sorento PHEV and attended a four-day dune driving and navigation course, an opportunity that not only refreshed the contestants’ skills, but also allowed them to better understand their teammate’s perspective.
Howells and White, Roenigk and Mei’s respective navigators, closely studied their maps and plotting from last year. White, a four-time Rebelle veteran, Mei, a rookie, practiced plotting in the weeks ahead of the rally. Each day would require hours of math to calculate and find checkpoints; the rest would have to be learned on the job.
From the outset, Roenigk and Howells set out with a plan to win the highest point totals each day — a goal that was quickly thwarted. “The biggest challenge we faced was learning this car and what it took to operate it off-road,” Roenigk said. “Both teams struggled in the first couple of days as we figured out how much electric charge the car required to keep the computer functioning.”
On day one, Roenigk and Howells were stuck in a tricky wash for two hours with six other crossover teams, timing out of most of the day’s final checkpoints. “We knew we were going to be out of contention for first place,” Howells said.
On day two, Mei and White faced a similar setback. Stuck in the sand, they were forced to concede to a tow back to basecamp — incurring a 20-point penalty.
All four women quickly recalibrated. Mei and White realized that they would need a full charge while using the car in snow mode to drive through the sand. “I was glad we experienced the issue when we did because we learned from it and were successful going forward into sand,” White told G/O Media Studios.
Roenigk and Howells, on the other hand, would stay true to their ethos of going big or going home, aiming to counter their point deficit by going after the most difficult checkpoints for the rest of the course. “Why else are we here?,” they asked themselves.
“We didn’t play it safe. Sometimes we were rewarded for it, and other times it cost us time, but we were better for having gone for it,” Roenigk said.
The teams faced additional challenges they hadn’t encountered previously, fighting through a wind storm, a snow storm, and extreme temperatures on both ends of the spectrum. For both Roenigk and Howells, the most memorable moment took place at Titus Canyon, a narrow gorge deep in Death Valley that looks straight out of a dystopian sci-fi movie.
The team blew a tire during the timed enduro portion of Titus Canyon — right as it began to blizzard, winds blowing at 50 mph. “We changed our tire in a snow storm in 15 minutes!,” Howells exclaimed.
By the time the women descended the canyon, the sky had cleared, revealing a stunning vista ahead. “That entire day is a highlight,” Roenigk said. “We started in sand dunes and finished in a snow storm in a gorgeous national park. And I will never forget that tire change.”
The demanding course forced both teams to pick up new skills. After mastering the vehicle’s electric charge learning curve, Roenigk told G/O Media Studios that “it was a blast to drive the Sorento.” Extra power is needed to navigate steep climbs and sand dunes, and the Sorento PHEV delivered. “With a charge, it was incredibly capable and powerful,” Roenigk said.
Thanks to the Sorento PHEV, Roenigk’s driving improved. “Because of our clearance, entrance angle and lack of four-wheel drive, I became such a better technical driver. My tire placement and throttle control were so much better by the end of the rally,” she said.
Mei, a professional rally driver, gained confidence in off-roading. “I learned so much about driving off-road, through steeper inclines, tire placement in rougher terrain, how to drive in washes, silt and dunes — something that I never did before,” she told G/O Media Studios.
Navigators Howells and White, meanwhile, refined their navigation techniques. Howells gained a deeper understanding of terratrip sensors, and White finessed her accuracy and efficiency in plotting and triangulating. “This made me a better teammate,” White said.
As the rally neared its finish, both teams picked up enough points to put the podium in striking distance. Mei and White focused on green and blue checkpoints in Glamis, a strategy that paid off and secured them second place. “We both put our complete trust in each other’s abilities to do what we set out to do,” Mei said.
But on the final day in the dunes, Roenigk and Howells got stuck a quarter kilometer from base camp. Overcoming the hurdle took strong teamwork and mutual support. “There was a moment when I was certain the car was not breaking loose in time,” Roenigk said. “Sabrina had such belief. She was right.” Howells, meanwhile, told G/O Media Studios she was in awe of Roenigk’s driving abilities.
The two won third place, right behind Mei and White. “We clawed our way back to secure a spot on that podium,” Howells said.
All four women described being incredibly proud of their strong finish and amazed by their fellow competitors. “This year’s rally was so difficult,” Roenigk said. “ It was fun to be on the podium together.”
It was more than just winning a trophy.
“It is the person [Rebelle] refines me into that brings me back,” White said.
“Rebelle has taught me to challenge myself, to be vulnerable and believe I have what it takes in rally or life.”
Angela Wang is a freelance writer living in Queens.