Bethany Hamilton, a 23-year-old pro surfer from the small island of Kauai, Hawaii, is a pro surfer. Before the 2013 Gazelle Rally, Hamilton had never driven more than 2 hours at one time, but that all changed when she paired with pro rally star Chrissie Beavis, 32, of San Diego, California. The rally is a 9-day, 2500-kilometer-long off-road event held in southern Morocco, with a course set amid stunning scenery, across a wide assortment of arduous and treacherous terrain. When the dust had settled, the duo, who had met only shortly before the rally, placed eighth overall among the 150 teams from 20 nations. Along with Hamilton and Beavis were four other U.S. teams, and nine from Canada. This is the highest ever participation from the U.S.. (See sidebar for teams and results.)
Although Hamilton had no professional driving experience, the esteemed surfer is known for her perseverance and faith, after she overcame the loss of an arm from a shark attack at 13. The determined teen was back on her board a month later with one arm and, within a year, won her first national title. Since then, Hamilton has garnered a long list of wins and awards and competes in the ASP Qualifying/Star Series and the ASP Women's Tour.
"The Gazelle Rally was a lot harder than I thought," said the athlete, who has authored a number of books and is the subject of the book and feature film "Soul Surfer." "Plus, it was intimidating to spend two weeks with someone you don't know," she said referring to her co-driver/navigator Beavis, "but she was amazing at what she had to do."
Despite the fact that Beavis is one of the top rally navigators in the world, as well as a rally driver and instructor, the Gazelle Rally was a challenge for her, too. "It was really, really hard. It shows why so few women run at the top -- there really were only four or five running at the top, out of the 150 teams, whereas with U.S. rallying it's the same number at the top, but there are only 30 teams." The multi-talented Beavis has guided many celebrated drivers, such as Rhys Millen, Tanner Foust, Ramana Lagamann, and Seamus Burke, to numerous stage and overall wins in a variety of events. Her success as a co-driver is highlighted by a Pikes Peak win in 2005, a United States Rally Championship win in 2006, and Gold and Silver medals at the X-Games in 2007 and 2008. Beavis, who began campaigning her own Performance Stock Class car in 2005 in the California Rally Series, has also had class wins as a driver, with several podium finishes. She comes naturally to the sport, as she was "born into rally racing," with parents who founded the California Rally Series in the '70s.
"The navigation was incredibly tricky, and there were so many hours in the day to keep focus," explained Beavis, who said her background as an architect and student pilot also helped her to plot the latitude/longitude lines for the rally checkpoints because it's "similar to drawing house plans. Plus, I grew up in the high desert of San Diego and that helped me learn what you can drive over," said Beavis, who reinforced some of the brief driving training Hamilton had received from off-road expert Emily Miller prior to the rally.
"The worst days were the hazy days, where I could navigate only 200 meters ahead at a time," Beavis continued. "We both got lucky and got along really well. Bethany's inexperience actually helped as we had no preconceived notions, and worked well together."
Although the world's only all-women's motorsport rally is named for a speedy antelope, competitors are rewarded for traveling the shortest distance possible to reach checkpoints across dried-up riverbeds, suspension-busting rocky plains, and over the daunting sand dunes of the western Sahara desert. It's not about speed, but old-school weapons of navigation; GPS, binoculars, and cell phones are forbidden, as is getting help on the course from anyone other than another Gazelle. A compass, a ruler, and 1:100,000 scale maps are used to plot the dead-reckoning route between checkpoints each day, and penalties are allocated for missed checkpoints as well as needing technical assistance during rally stages.
Many say the most trying, yet bonding and beautiful, stages of the rally are the marathon legs, each lasting two days, with more than 300 km off-road in total optimum distance. These grueling stages require teams to camp in the desert alone without overnight mechanical assistance and no refueling. It also means the pressure is on for the navigator to be dead accurate for the longer distances.
The vehicle classes are 4x4, Quad/Moto, and Crossover. There is no prize money for the winners; rather, proceeds go to provide medical and other aid to Moroccans in need.
American Gazelles Grow in Numbers
The American presence has grown notably since 2009, when esteemed off-road racer Emily Miller and extreme skiing champion Wendy Fisher competed as the only U.S. team. Following their initial participation, a dedicated effort began as enthusiasm grew among women via U.S.-based training, support, and increased event awareness, led by Miller and this year's U.S. Team Liaison, Kirsten Kuhn. Miller has spearheaded the driving and navigation training events, held in southern California.
Other women from the 2013 U.S. lineup for the 23rd edition of the Gazelle Rally were the returning sister duo Amy Lerner and Tricia Reina, who competed for the third year. They placed 32th this year, after winning the coveted eco-driving Logica challenge and finishing in the top 10 in 2012. Lerner is a former trader from New Jersey and Reina heads up her own floral design firm in San Diego. Also returning was Julie Meddows, a social marketing consultant from Las Vegas, who placed 77th, joined by first-time competitor Claire Barone, an ER nurse from Las Vegas. Along with Hamilton and Beavis, other first-timers were Emme Hall, from Washington, D.C., and Sabrina Howells, from Los Angeles, who placed 70th. Hall has become known in the automotive circuit for car reviews and in the off-road industry, while also working as a costume manager at the famed Ford Theater; Howells has a successful career as a singer/songwriter and actress. This racing pair represented Team Courage Gazelles, a team dedicated to raising awareness for breast cancer. Also new was the team of Catherine Chiadmi, a working mother of three from of Saint Petersburg, Florida, who owns a successful restaurant with her husband in Treasure Island; Chiadmi and teammate Pat Klishevich placed 104th. Klishevich is a pharmacy manager and off-road enthusiast from Aston, Pennsylvania. There were nine teams from Canada, for a combined record-setting 14 teams from North America.
Misfortune on the High Seas Affects Vehicles and Teams
The rigors of the 2013 Gazelle Rally started early for three American teams. As their vehicles were traveling to Morocco by trans-Atlantic shipping, onboard mechanical problems forced containers that held three U.S. team vehicles to be transferred to other ships. These teams were forced to find other options at the last minute, which came from the support and help of leasing agencies that provide rally vehicles and mechanical assistance to the annual rally. Amy Lerner and Tricia Reina, whose AEV-prepared Jeep carried them to a strong finish last year, were able to secure a 2008 FJ Cruiser with full body armor, dual reservoir suspension, and an auxiliary fuel tank. Both Julie Meddows' and Pat Klishevich's teams were originally competing in Toyota FJ Cruisers and instead drove Isuzu D-Max pickups secured from the rally preparation company Novateam. This situation tested the drivers' abilities and patience, as they had to quickly learn about the new vehicles. Their performance in the rally would depend whether they could overcome the challenges of not having the vehicles they had trained in, and were set up for their competition needs.
Rally Takes a Toll on Participants and Vehicles with a Surprise Finish
Over the course of the 9-day rally's fierce competition, the U.S. teams faced and conquered the dust tricky navigation, difficult off-road driving conditions -- especially in the Chegaga and Merzouga Dunes -- as well as a number of vehicle problems. It was the same for top two world-class teams in the rally that were bumped out of their winning positions painstakingly close to the finish, due to mechanical issues with their vehicles.
Teammates Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells struggled with a flat tire, navigational logistics, and their Isuzu D-Max suffered from a broken chassis from descending a dune and hitting a severe rock face during the rally that forcing them to have to baby the vehicle, while Hamilton and Beavis high-centered on a "Moroccan cauliflower" -- a compressed sand moss that's rock-hard if driven over -- got stuck in deep sand, and also broke a tie rod 1 km from the bivouac.
While these issues were difficult, two top Gazelles teams with professional drivers and seasoned navigators faced devastating problems after running in first and second position throughout the rally. Noted driver and Dakar Rally veteran Elisabete Jacinto and her navigator Valerie Dot had a commanding first place lead for the entire rally driving a factory-prepared VW Amarok pickup. On their heels was Olympic gold medalist skier and two-time Gazelle Rally champion Carole Montillet and her co-driver Julie Verdageur. Although these teams seemed basically guaranteed to win, in the final hours of the rally, both suffer major vehicle failures that removed them from the podium, after receiving they took penalty points for mechanical support.
As a result, it was contenders Syndiely Wade of Senegal and Florence Pham of Vietnam, who had held strong in third place throughout, that placed first. Wade is an experienced racer who has competed four times in the Dakar and won the Gazelle Rally in 2011. The duo took three categories: first place General Ranking 4x4 class, first place Isuzu Media Challenge, and first Place Africa Top Sports Challenge.
"There are lots of lessons learned. I think I will stop only when the lessons do...and that could be a very long time. The Rallye Aicha des Gazelles is an amazing community of passionate women -- and men -- which make this truly a special event," said Tricia Reina. Emme Hall added, "This competition is the hardest thing I have ever done. I won't go back [to the U.S.] the same person who started this rally. It's given me challenge and ultimate satisfaction at the same time -- knowing I can go anywhere, any place, and in any circumstance, and find my way."
For the Kirsten Kuhn, U.S. team liaison, the Gazelles is "life-changing. It blows my mind that these women, from all backgrounds from the U.S. to the Congo, Portugal, and Slovakia, sign up for one of the toughest all-female events on the planet without a monetary prize for first place. It's the perfect example where the journey is the destination. It takes guts to become a Gazelle, and it's obviously a very special event if it continually draws international women, most of whom are not professional drivers, to Morocco year after year. I'm proud to be involved!" Registration is currently underway for the 2014 rally, with dates set for March 14-29, 2014.
Rallye Aicha des Gazelles du Maroc: This 2500-kilometer-long rally that is a held in the deserted parts of southern Morocco is the world's only motorsports event restricted to women only. The three categories include Quad/Motorbike, 4WD/Truck, and Crossover. Participants compete for the shortest distance traveled over one prologue and competitive legs -- all off-road -- two of which are marathon legs, during which there is no mechanical support; the marathons last two days. The teams are constantly monitored by a satellite tracking system for safety.
History of the Ralleye Aicha des Gazelles: Dominique Serra organized the first women's rally in 1990. Head of the operating agency Maienga, she originally planned the rally to be an image campaign and to dispel prejudice, it is now one of the world's top motorsport events. In 2009, the rally gained the patronage of His Majesty, the Moroccan King Mohammed VI and, as a result, the coat of arms of the Moroccan Royal Guard is attributed to the event, which draws women from all corners of the globe.
Environmental responsibility: The RALLYE AICHA DES GAZELLES and its operating agency Maienga are officially certified ISO 14001:2004 since 2010; it is the only rally that has obtained this Environmental Management Certification. This international standard guarantees that MAIENGA has introduced an Environmental Management System (EMS) to integrate environmental policy into all actions and its global management strategy.
Coeur de Gazelles (Heart of Gazelles): The true "heart" of the Gazelles isn't about money; in fact, there is no prize money. "The rally isn't just any other race -- it's a commitment and dedication," says Dominique Serra, who started the rally. Proceeds generated support teams of doctors providing medical care for the people in the remote regions of Morocco. Annually, the infrastructure of the Rally is used to send out a medical caravan that includes a mobile clinic with 8 doctors; this year, 4582 people received free medical care. Aid for children's education has been set up as well as aid for an orphanage for children under six years of age.