2015 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles: Sprinting The Sahara
"It's funny to be in a rally and all of the sudden you get up to speed and then there will be a camel in your way. We got going pretty fast yesterday, and then we were like 'are those rocks moving' and four camels stood up. I think it will be a long time before someone tells me to turn left at the camel again." - Alyssa Roenigk, Crossover Class Winner
"There's the flag!" shouted Shennen, my co-driver/navigator on the Gazelle Rally. I followed the direction of her pointed finger and saw a small, triangle-shaped patch of red waving across the top of a rolling series of small sand dunes in the distance. "How much time do we have?" I yelled, as I turned the Sprinter on a direct course and mashed the throttle. "Four minutes," she answered and added, "we can do it!"
It was eighth day of the 2015 Rallye des Aicha Gazelles and the second day of a two-day-long marathon stage for Shennen Marschner, a Sprinter sales rep for Mercedes-Benz, and I. It had been 20 hours since we clocked in at Check Point 4 the previous day, and we began to search for Check Point 5, which was a short distance of 11 kilometers from our position. We planned to meet the three other Mercedes-Benz teams there and spend the night under the stars, along with Daimler's Thomas Konzelmann, who was the overseer of the rally teams and had flown into the Sahara to tent out with the teams and offer support. Instead, Marschner and I camped for the night locked in our van somewhere in the vicinity of the Algeria border, sleeping on a plywood makeshift bed atop of our tools and gear, after motoring for a number of hours trying to find the checkpoint and getting lost in the inky black of night in the largely unpopulated remote desert.
Now, after spending hours of the morning still trying to locate this elusive checkpoint, it was within sight but due to close at 13:30 on the military time. This was my highlight of the rally, not simply because we made it by 30 seconds but because of the Sprinter van's prowess motoring over sand dunes that no FedEx driver would even consider, no matter how precious their cargo. The eyes-wide look on the faces of the four rally support personnel preparing to close the check point said it all, as we came to a halt on the final dune but within the 20 meters required to hit the mark! It was clear they couldn't believe we had made it, but after motoring this multiple-use van during training in Southern California's deserts and over a wide array of terrain on the rally, I knew its incredible prowess.
If driving 11 kilometers seems short and finding a flag-marked checkpoint in the midst of varied and difficult desert topography seems easy, I challenge you to take on this off-road rally called the toughest all-women's sporting event in the world. I know off-roading and I know and love tough, but having just completed the 25th-annual run across southern Morocco's landscape using only a compass, plotter and ruler, and black and white maps that date from the '40s to '60s to find a series of checkpoints each day for nine days that averaged 14 hours of non-stop driving and navigating, I agree!
I was honored to be asked by Mercedes-Benz to drive their new four-wheel-drive Sprinter van. We took on the challenge as a two-person team along with 158 other groups representing 33 countries. The goal: To achieve the shortest distance between the checkpoints, which are designated as either latitude/longitude or distance and heading, rather than speed. The contest measures precise navigation and driving skills, as well as vehicle competence, with no outside assistance or support teams during the competition. This year's event marked the first time that the rally included an "expert" division in the four-wheel-drive class.
I've motored the world's longest and hardest off-road races, driven sections of numerous around-the-world slogs for automakers showing their vehicle's prowess, as well as been on a number of driving teams that have completed record-setting events. However, I have never encountered a rally the likes of the Gazelles, nor participated in a competitive motoring event that is "women only." My rides have included a Hummer; Porsche-powered, open-wheel buggies; a diesel-powered Ford Excursion; and a motley collection of off-road-prepared rigs. But a stock four-wheel-drive high-roof Sprinter van was never a model in my wheelhouse. However, its charms and talents wowed the four teams (two from the U.S. and two from Germany) that competed in the Crossover Class—two in the Sprinter and two in the European midsized Vito van—and placed First, Second, Third, and Fifth in this class after approximately 1,500 miles of rugged motoring!
The U.S. fielded 10 teams—the greatest number ever. The female competitors representing the red, white, and blue not only drove away with a class win but also two first-time-participation prizes, four teams that ranked in the Top 25 of the 4x4 class, and the first team to participate in the Quad/Moto/SSV class. Chrissie Beavis, of San Diego, and Alyssa Roenigk, of Los Angeles, took top honors in the Crossover category, one of the four classes. Teams included women with backgrounds that ranged from a Hollywood stuntwoman to a Dakar class winner, former Wall Street trader, Los Angeles producer, and stay-at-home moms.