Emily Miller doesn’t need to raise her voice; she strikes a commanding presence in a package of sinewy lean muscle. As she speaks to the large tent filled with more than 100 Rebelle Rally competitors—plus staff, media, and guests—no one is looking down at phones or talking with their neighbors. They are rapt. This is Miller’s realm and the community she built from scratch.
I was invited to join the Rebelle Rally mid-competition for the last two of eight long, off-roading days as a visiting member of the media last week. Over the past six years, this 1500-mile competition has grown and the goal remains the same: to give women an opportunity for an incredible adventure and work hard for it. What I saw in two and a half days can't be captured in one word, but I can tell you what first comes to mind is awe. From Miller to her staff to every single competitor, each person is motivated and their will is stronger than the steel-encased vehicles in which they're riding.
The Rebelle Rally is Miller's brainchild. She got her start when legendary racer Rod Hall asked her to drive for him after a chance meeting at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada when she was a sports marketer. Hall became a mentor to Miller and taught her everything he could, including the critical art of double-pedal driving.
“He told me that I had to learn how to drive with both feet because he didn’t have time to deal with the mistakes and damage I would incur otherwise as a driver,” she said.
She raced her debut with Rod Hall Racing at the 2006 Baja 1000 rally and later went on to compete around the world. Racking up championships, Miller started teaching her skills to others and realized that she wanted to focus on showing women how to confidently off-road.
When building the Rebelle Rally, she brought in friends she trusted to help, including Chrissy Beavis. As a rally driver, Beavis medaled in the X Games and also competed in the grueling Gazelle Rally in Africa. To the Rebelles, she's Emily's right-hand person, the director of scoring, and head rally judge. On Miller's left side is Jimmy Lewis, the first American to podium at the 9,000-mile Dakar Rally in Africa. All of Miller's on-site staff are funny, friendly, and unfailingly helpful. That attitude rubs off on the teams, and an overwhelming feeling of camaraderie is apparent in every space.
Together, this group of people puts together the Rebelle, which traditionally starts at Lake Las Vegas, Nevada with the tech inspection and finishes in a blaze of sand and hot sun in the Imperial Sand Dunes in California.
While riding along with Miller, I can't help but notice that she is an artist on the sand, painting a trail with soft brushstrokes as she pilots her new Lexus GX 460 through the course with me as her co-pilot. In truth, I’m not so much a co-pilot as I am a passenger, watching her masterfully weave across the dunes.
“Driving is like a dance in the sand. You want it to be smooth, so it flows,” Miller said.
Later, when I ride with Total Chaos' Nicole Pittel in a Toyota Tacoma modified with one of her own handcrafted suspension systems at high speed I get the chance to see the contrast of delicate technique to raw power.
Even as she’s driving and talking to me, Miller adeptly fields calls and questions via radio. She knows the answer to each one and she is calm and measured, the Yoda of women’s off-roading. Do or do not; there is no try. In fact, a DNF (did not finish) is reserved only for cheaters and quitters, and in six years of Rebelle Rallies, there have only been two instances of those. As long as you finish, you are officially a Rebelle.
This year was the largest rally yet for Miller and her staff: 52 teams of two versus the typical 30 or so. They welcome the competition but also keep it from getting out of control, and that’s important to Miller, who personally shakes the hand of each competitor before they head out every morning and greets each one as they come back. She doesn’t miss a single person and she knows their bios by heart. As I follow her down the line on the morning of the last day of the rally, she shares some of the stories with me and I try to keep up with her decisive stride.
In these two vehicles are a mother and daughter competing in the rally against each other and cheering for each other's teams at the same time. Over here is a set of two sisters from the Pacific Northwest who are driving their father’s old 1969 Ford Bronco in his honor for the second year in a row (ask them about the aluminum souffle pans from the camp kitchen the Rebelle head mechanic used as a heat shield). In this truck are two veterans and a PTSD service dog, the first time a dog was allowed in the competition. Every single Rebelle has a story; as it turns out, the trucks and SUVs are the vehicles for these women to prove to themselves that they can do it.
Miller’s rally is not for the faint of heart. Each day starts with the sharp clang of a cowbell before dawn at 5 a.m., administered by the rally founder herself. She doesn’t sleep much in these eight days anyway, she said. By the time the sun is up, the competitors have plotted out their course for the day, including the chess game of figuring out how to collect as many points as possible.
Green checkpoints (CPs) are mandatory, and blue and black CPs are optional but necessary if you want to win. On top of that, competitors must hit the checkpoints in order. Skipping one means you can’t go back and each has an expiration time, so each team must decide which points they can reach and still meet the mandatory flags. Some of them are 10 feet tall or so and some of them are small poles set in the terrain.
Each year is different, says competitor Alyssa Roenigk, who works for ESPN (and competed on a team at the Land Rover Trek against me last month). Last year, she and her teammate Sabrina Howells were sponsored by Kia and took the new Telluride through its paces. This year, Kia gave Roegnik and Howells (Team Watt Girl Summer) a 2022 Sorento PHEV to drive, challenging them with a brand-new crossover variant barely available in the U.S.
In the middle of Glamis Dunes in southern California is the finish line for 52 teams vying for the top three spots on the podium. After eight days and 1,500-plus miles of grueling technical driving and navigating with compasses and paper maps, 104 women are tired and dusty from the last few days in the sand. They miss their families, and they are physically and mentally spent. And they are unquestionably elated because they did it.
At the end of the competition, two teams piloting Kia’s twin 2022 Sorento PHEVs took the podium in spots two and three just behind the team in a 2021 Bronco Sport Badlands Edition in the X-Cross class.
In the 4x4 class, three Jeep Wranglers swept the top three places, with Nena Barlow and Teralin Petereit driving a new 4xe (Bone Stock) at the top of the pack. Having off-roaded with the 4xe recently at the Texas Truck Rodeo, it didn't surprise me at all that the winning team was driving this highly capable vehicle. Seriously, it barely blinks a headlamp at a tough rock crawl that would make lesser vehicles crumple.
In the pre-dawn light of the morning of the last day, faces are tight, tired. Don't ask anyone if they're planning to compete again—or do, because then you should ask them again when they finish the day, jacked up on adrenaline and accomplishment.
As the last vehicle rolls across the finish line, the mood shifts and a sense of relief is palpable. Several of the women have never done anything like this before, and they're awed into wonder. Others have been there before and marvel over the changes in the course from the year before. They unwind, lie down on the floor, and start thinking about a days-overdue shower. Who cares about showering when you're having the adventure of a lifetime?
It's incredibly compelling, this feeling of wanting to be part of a tribe of women who have laid their vulnerabilities bare and defeated fear and doubt to complete this journey. The whisper of "Now you're Rebelles" drifts over the undulating dunes and across the desert, and I can't resist the siren call.
Next year, it will be my turn. I'm coming to join you, Rebelles.
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