Situated next to the Hoover Dam, about 50 off-road vehicles in various states of modification and decoration slowly looped their way through a parking lot on the border of Arizona and the Lake Mead overflow trenches. It was tech inspection for the Rebelle Rally, and a walk through the pits quickly revealed that it’s not exactly the average RAID challenge.
For one, there were some completely stock vehicles there. Instead of the lifted behemoth diesel semis or tube-chassis race trucks of the Baja or Dakar, all of the trucks entered in the Rebelle Rally are required to be street-legal and registered, with only two classes for entrants: 4x4 and X-Cross (either equipped with a low-range transfer case, or not). Those are the only distinctions made by the event organizers for scoring. There are a few honorary special designations for smaller awards: for example, for vehicles with absolutely no modifications, or for EVs and PHEVs (of which there are numerous entries this year). A brute-force money-pit competition this is not.
The other fact that immediately struck me as I walked the pit is that it was populated mostly with women. I have worked in the industry a fairly short time — the first “official” story of my career is on this very blog, from a mere seven months ago — but as a longtime motorsports enthusiast and general car nut, I can count on one hand the number of automotive gatherings I have been part of where women outnumbered men. Before yesterday, it was zero; now, it is one.
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And this scene at tech inspection makes sense for this specific event, which prides itself on two main points: allowing competitors to enter the vehicles parked in their driveways, and being the first women’s off-road navigational rally in the United States. Beginning in 2016 and patterned off of the long-running Moroccan Gazelle Rally, entrants are all two-woman teams — a navigator and a driver — and rather than a Dakar-like competition based on pure speed through unforgiving terrain, the emphasis at the Rebelle is on careful driving and precise navigational abilities.
Competitors are given a 1:100,000 scale topographical map of Nevada, allowed a compass and rulers, and have their phones and nav screens disabled or sealed with tamper-proof tape. Other than the starting point and the locations of certain base camps and checkpoints, they are given absolutely no other course navigation help, including any road locations or the ability to refuel in between stages. The goal over the course of the rally’s eight days is to score the highest overall point total by piloting your truck to checkpoints scattered throughout the vast expanses of the Mojave. The only way to do this is with old-school navigating, identifying landmarks on the horizon and matching them to mountains on the map, and attempting to forge a path through the unforgiving terrain of the high desert.
The emphasis on precision versus pure performance, not to mention the all-female demographic of the competitors, makes the atmosphere of the Rebelle tech day vastly different than any other pre-race inspection I have ever witnessed. The stakes are still high — the number of OEM entries is in the double-digits, and there are women competing who have already notched multiple wins over the short history of the event — but there was a palpable upbeat feeling in the air, without any of the tension that usually accompanies such a long and intense event like Rebelle.
For me, personally, despite not knowing anyone walking in, I felt welcomed with open arms. I saw rivals chatting and catching up over the hoods of their trucks as they all excitedly discussed the event, their vehicles, and their excitement to hit the desert. That friendliness was a feeling that carried over into today, as drivers departing from the start line waved to me as I shot pictures of their trucks pulling away from Lake Las Vegas.
And there’s a variety of reasons for that friendliness, I suspect. The relatively low barriers to entry because stock vehicles are welcomed certainly helps. The blend of novice first-timers learning the ropes and veteran off-road racers enjoying their second or third (or fourth, fifth, sixth...) time back is certainly another factor. And, of course, the excitement over spending a week rallying through some of the most remote and uninhabited stretches of the contiguous 48 states for the next week probably helped every team feel a bit giddy with anticipation.
But for me, I felt relaxed because it was the easiest and most comfortable way to be a woman reporting on motorsports. There was no pre-emptive defense or justification or qualifications I needed to give to explain why I, specifically as a girl writing about cars, was there, and I am confident that feeling extended to the Rebelle teams, as well. At no point did any of us worry about appeasing The Car Man’s sensibilities about women in motorsports. Every team here could be competitors first, without inherent (or explicit) questions about their devotion or abilities because those dudes weren’t here. It was an island of pure automotive enthusiasm for women, made by women, and it was enjoyable in a way I never would have expected as someone who has now participated in both sides motorsport — in the driving and the reporting.
So today, as the competitors finally departed to the desert for a week of navigating and challenging terrain, I was excited to wave back and wish them luck, and honored to have the ability to cover such a unique event.
From here, I won’t be able to follow the competitors until the final day, when I’ll be able to tag along with some of the Rebelle media team to shoot photos of the drivers ripping through sand dunes in the grueling last stage of the event. The course outline is so well-guarded a secret that even if I wanted to drive out into BLM lands with my van to go shoot more photos (and I do, trust me), I wouldn’t be able to find the actual course. If you’d like to keep up with the event, though, live tracking is available on the Rebelle website, and total scores of each team will be updated at the end of every stage.