A Veteran Race Driver And A Freestyle Skier Make An Unlikely Team At The All-Female Off-Road Rally
Off-road 'Ironwoman' and Baja 1000 team driver Emily Miller and World Extreme Skiing Champion and U.S. Ski Team Olympian Wendy Fisher have an unlikely common denominator: The 2009 19th Rallye Aicha des Gazelles, the nine-day, all women's off-road race in Morocco.
Miller, 42, a team driver for Rod Hall Racing, was trained by the off-road racing legend and has had multiple podium finishes as driver and navigator, in addition to being the only female to "ironman" the longest off-road race in North America. But why did the off-road truck racer decide to team up with an icon in the sport of big-mountain freeskiing?
The rally zips across Morocco, an enchanting French- and Arabic-speaking country in North Africa inhabited by friendly people, peculiar tree-climbing goats, and a spectacular desert landscape-a true wheeler's paradise. Highlighting the arid region are enormous sand dunes; circular 3- to 8-foot tall sand traps (which Miller described as "sand cauldrons"); and unusual, rock-like mounds that resemble harmless giant broccoli crowns. Called "cauliflower plants," these innocent-appearing obstacles are capable of seriously damaging a vehicle's undercarriage.
However, there are no race 'pace notes' to warn about upcoming hazards. And participants must plot their latitude and longitudinal waypoints using Arabic and French maps dating from the 1950s and 1960s (Miller said they looked more like drawings than maps) using mathematical formulas and "dead reckoning"-the process of deducing the next location by using the course, speed, time, and distance from the last position. GPS units were not allowed, although car-mounted compasses were; Miller and Fisher were relegated to a hand-held compass, as their vehicle didn't have an installed unit. This made for many problems with interference due to the vehicle's sheetmetal and electrical system. Fisher ended up working off of 26 maps, each with about nine quadrants per map that had to be measured.
"Navigation was key for this rally," enthused Miller, "but I wanted someone who could go and learn in the first year, be a great teammate and then understand what would be needed to go back with the intention of winning."
So, preparation requirements were clear for both participants; Fisher had to learn land navigation basics, how to measure map quadrants, what mathematical formulas were needed to plot the latitudinal/longitudinal waypoints, and dead reckoning. Miller realized she also needed to learn some dead reckoning, as well as basic French, general Moroccan geography, and how to conquer whatever type of sand dunes Mother Nature concocted in the north of Africa, whether "tight, tall, razorbacks or just plain huge."
Going around, rather than over, the undulating dunes-which can stretch for miles-would land big penalties, since checkpoints could be missed due to delays.
The Gazelles' driver also knew she had to sharpen and increase her mechanical skills. If the team's Isuzu D-Max truck had mechanical troubles, repairs would have to wait until nighttime at the bivouac (sometimes even finding the bivouac was impossible). Otherwise, a steep penalty would result. Plus, race mechanics would assist teams only if the team could diagnose the specific problem.
It may seem odd, but it was actually an easy decision. For this complicated rally, where pace, perseverance, navigational expertise, and strategy were vital to even finishing, Miller took advice from mentor Hall, who was also one of the Miller/Fisher Team Gazelles sponsors. "Rod said anyone can learn how to do a job, but you can't learn to like someone you don't get along with," shared Miller. "Wendy was a person I could depend on in the long run."
Besides preparing individually, the women trained together for 10 to 12 days. Fisher joined Miller in Chula Vista, California, where they worked on their navigational skills with Coast Guard Auxiliary instructors. Next, it was off to Rod Hall's facility near Reno, Nevada, so Fisher could experience riding in a race truck. "Many people don't fare well," admitted Miller. "But it turned out that Wendy spent hours upon hours as a kid traveling to ski races and would read in the car. So, she can sit and examine maps in the bumpiest terrain and not get sick."
Finding 50 checkpoints for the nine competition days and six bivouacs proved to be a mental and physical challenge. Additionally, four days of competition were considered marathon legs, where participants had to camp in the desert for two nights alone and not return to the bivouac. If a race day had eight checkpoints, you had to reach each one before proceeding further. And missing them -especially if a team had no prior experience with the Moroccan landscape-was common. Plus, the distance between checkpoints is measured by a straight line, and each kilometer over this distance is a penalty. Also, if inadvertently running over a "cauliflower" bends an axle and technical assistance is needed, that's another penalty. This approach was different than the one Miller used for stock-truck desert racing, which was to always seek the smoothest line.
Winning the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles means driving the shortest distance to all 50 checkpoints with the fewest penalty points. Not easy, as the old maps make it difficult to determine which geographical features such as oueds (river beds), mountains, or cliffs can be navigated or must be bypassed.
"The days that were most difficult were when we were driving with absolutely no features at all," said Fisher. "To keep on the proper heading without a car compass was impossible. Sometimes, gut instinct had to come into play and that is what I would have to work off of until we got into an area with more definition, but our pace was slowed by having to get out and check our bearing with a handheld compass."
Team Miller/Fisher experienced a setback on Day 2. A trip around a sand trap, and helping dig out another team, led to a navigational error that caused them to incur kilometer penalty points and miss a checkpoint too late in the day to recover before nightfall. For the remainder of the race, the decision was made: Stick with the plan and forget daily rankings, because the team now knew their error would cost them a spot on the podium. "We agreed that our job was to get through the event and process each lesson in a way that would ultimately make us a winning team," enthused Miller. "We focused on the whole experience and became students. Experience is what counts the most, combined with great flow and judgment."
Since the race to the finish line was not about the fastest speed, but a strong, even pace, forging friendships among the competitors was important, too, explained Miller. Opponents never know when they may need to trade fuel for a push out of a steep-sided sand dune, where the Miller/Fisher Team excelled, thanks to Miller's desert racing experience. The teammates considered themselves goodwill ambassadors for the U.S., believing it important to represent their sponsors and country well to the other nations participating. And, they were especially heartened to be treated so well and to hear people around them talk longingly about "The American Dream."
Miller believes some people discount this Rally because it is "women only," and that plenty of guys think that women aren't tough enough-especially off road, which she says is "ridiculous." The sport may not be suited for everyone, but the women in it are plenty tough and have the patience and endurance to tackle off-road events.
Wendy Fisher, 37, is Miller's long-time friend who was picked by Powder Magazine in 2006 as one of the "Most influential people of the last 35 years" in skiing. Even though she had no prior navigational or off-road racing experience, Miller knew she was quick-thinking, talented, hard-working, and internationally savvy, as she has also traveled the globe filming for Matchstick Productions and Warren Miller. Emily Miller mulled over selecting a French navigator, but knew she could get along with Fisher for the 15 to 16 hours a day in the stock Isuzu D-Max race truck, and that she was physically fit.
As for the Rallye's 20th anniversary run in 2010, Miller and Fisher are already making plans. Miller expects to bring a modified truck best suited for rally-racing conditions, one with high ground clearance, great suspension, a good lighting system, two Terratrips, two perfectly-calibrated digital compasses mounted on the dash, and an auxiliary fuel tank. She hopes to return on BFGoodrich Mud Terrain KM2s, which proved to be "an incredible-performing all-around tire for the demands of the terrain-even the toughest sand dunes." Plus, she plans a return to Morocco to reconnoiter the more technical areas, and learn landscape and geographical French so she can understand when other teams are talking about the terrain and strategy.
Fisher will train with navigation instructor and former Gazelles champion Louise Bergeron in Canada. "In the first few days of the rally I thought that there was no way I could do this event ever again, but after it was all over and Emily asked me if I would do it again, I said 'definitely!' " Fisher said. "The learning experience and mental growth I went through in order to finish the rally was interesting and very rewarding. To know I was completely out of my comfort zone the first few days, but then to keep pushing forward and be able to move beyond the mental frustrations was exhilarating."
"Now we are fully aware that the Gazelle Ralleye is a unique experience and have learned that it draws tough and talented competitors. Next year, we will compete to win, but try at least to make the top 10," concluded Miller.
About the Rallye
The Rallye Aicha des Gazelles is a 19- year-old rally for women competitors only, which takes place in the North African nation of Morocco. The event is open to competitors between 18 and 65 years of age. Three components have coalesced to bring the rally international fame: Its unique style of competition and its humanitarian and environmental efforts. The competition is unique because no GPS or pace notes are permitted. A compass and maps dating to the 1950s are the only navigational tools.
Its humanitarian work, overseen by the Heart of Gazelles association which was established in 2001, is comprised of several elements: A medical caravan of approximately 5,000 members; the Picala Project, which helps individuals reach jobs and schools by giving them bicycles; and an orphanage. Team Miller/Fisher was dedicated to raising funds for the Picala Project.
To minimize environment impact, the Gazelles is organized in cooperation with standards established by Action Carbone (a French nonprofit which consults for private companies on energy-efficiency projects) to ensure it is carbon-neutral. Vehicles must pass the highest emissions standards, and an "environmental charter" is imposed on all competitors. An environmental impact report is produced for each rally.
The Gazelles has no exact route. Teams select their own. The goal is to plot the shortest way to each checkpoint. Each rally day there are five different groups of checkpoints, so not all vehicles are motoring to the same checkpoint. The event takes place almost completely off-road, and new checkpoints are handed out each day. Participants never know in advance where they will be going.
"Never did I see my life taking a turn into rally racing-and, in Morocco, of all places," said Fisher. "But as one not to pass up an adventurous opportunity, I jumped on board when Emily asked me to be a part of a once-in-a-lifetime event and challenge," said Fisher.
The rally puts women from 33 different countries behind the wheel of 4x4 crossover vehicles, quads, trucks, or motorbikes, in a competition not based on speed, but determination and old- fashioned navigation.
When Miller learned about "The Gazelles" two years ago, the event went to the top of her must-run list, having been inspired by the Halls, who had raced internationally as the first all-American team in the Dakar, the East African Safari, and in Australia. Now, Rod Hall's protégé was ready to turn her mentor's lessons into a race strategy. The technical and mechanical knowledge Miller garnered would also be especially helpful in understanding what parts were likely to break during off-road racing. Mental attitude would also be a key to success, and Hall helped Miller set some vital pragmatic goals.
"Rod told me that the key to an event like this (especially in another language) is to set a three-year plan," explained Miller. The plan goes like this. Year 1: Learn the nuances of the race and what skills to develop over the next two years. Drive to finish the race. Year 2: Put together a true winning program that's funded so that all the areas are covered, prepped and ready. Drive for the win knowing that a win is tough, but a Top 10 is do-able. And Year 3: Win.
Final standings for the Ralleye are divided into two standings: The Premier, for those who have never driven the course before, and an Overall finish. The U.S. duo, who were the second U.S. team to compete in the rally, came in fifth out of 183 first-timers in the Premier segment and 21st overall out of 219 teams. However, Team Miller/Fisher - the U.S. Gazelles, as they were called - was the first non-French team ever to finish in this year's rally. No small feat, as the organizers speak little English and nearly all of the competition information is in French.
Both women knew that preparing for The Gazelles, held last March, would present special challenges.