What It Takes To Launch One Of The Toughest Off-Road Races In America

What It Takes To Launch One Of The Toughest Off-Road Races In America

Women’s participation in motorsports is growing for sure, but it definitely doesn’t represent the ratio between men and women in the general population — yet. This has not escaped the notice of professional off-roader and bona fide badass Emily Miller, whose women-only Rebelle Rally has become one of the most gruelling races you can find anywhere.

Two years ago, we reported on an all-women’s off-road rally in the U.S. that Emily had a huge hand in founding called Rebelle Rally. This rally focuses on giving women an opportunity to explore off-roading and to practice their navigation skills over roughly 1,900km of terrain spanning Nevada and Southern California.

No GPS. Just old-fashioned maps. And with largely stock vehicles.

Emily, a veteran of the Baja 1000 and the Rallye des Gazelle in Morocco chatted with me about her extensive experience with coaching male and female drivers, why she started the Rebelle Rally and what she wants women to get out of the sport.

(Note: this conversation has been edited for grammar, brevity and flow purposes.)

Kristen: Why did you start the Rebelle Rally?

Emily: To start, the Rebelle Rally is definitely not a race. It’s a competition not focused on speed but about efficiency and smart and precise driving and navigating.

Image credit: Emily Miller

Image credit: Emily Miller

In my time as a professional driver and coach, I’ve found that there’s a lack of women coming to really cool training or learning programs that were driving-based offered by their companies. The men jumped at the chance and the women were, so to speak, taking a backseat. Because they were intimidated, I think.

I really didn’t feel like there was a venue or a platform here in the U.S. just for women. Something that was challenging and a badge of honour. Our mission is whether you’re a beginner or a professional driver and navigator, you can be out there in the same competition and be challenged.

Now, that’s changing some: more women are signing up for driving events, but participation levels definitely don’t reflect the population split between men and women. Participants are still largely all-male and that isn’t our goal.

We want women to have a platform to shine and to really develop and hone these skills, and also, have a competition that is really geared toward a lot of their strengths, which is endurance, strategy and the thought process — the whole picture — as opposed to just dropping the flag and seeing who gets to the finish line first.

Image credit: Rebelle Rally

Image credit: Rebelle Rally

Kristen: And you said these are experiences you picked up from being a driving coach?

Emily: Yes! I actually was a driving coach for a program with BFGoodrich and Michelin for a long time where we would run almost 50 people a week. There are two courses, 24 people every two days, to train them on the Michelin BFGoodrich tire products.

We really took them through seat-of-the-pants driving experiences and, in coaching, what I found in the process was usually no women would show up to class. As the years went by, a class that had a lot of women would be, let’s say, maybe three out of 24; but that was the exception.

I also noticed that they would stand in the back and listen really well. But you could feel the nervousness.

A lot of men have this, “Hey, let’s jump in. Try it, push the limits, see if we can break it, fix it, and make it better” attitude. Women tend to be like, “Hey, I want to know the rules. I don’t want to break something, I want to do it right the first time.” It’d be great if there’s a blending in the middle, and with the Rebelle Rally, we found that.

Women are great drivers and great navigators and they’re great at being coached. They want to be coached. They want a platform where they can step into it, start to get better and better and practice. Whether they’re doing the Rebelle or just want to go on an adventure or develop their skills, it’s the same thing.

It’s an environment that is both comfortable but also pushes — not at a scary pace, but one that makes you truly fall in love with driving and knowing your car and navigating. People should have confidence, but confidence comes from being competent at what you do.

Kristen: Is that your background? Have you always been a driving instructor?

Emily: No. I came from a skiing, cycling and outdoor sport background. I was given the opportunity by Rod Hall, who’s raced for General Motors. I raced for his factory team.

I come from a love — an absolute love — of cars. Grew up reading car magazines as a kid next to the fire with my dad, who really loved cars, too. My father’s very much into design — just the beauty, the functionality and the engineering of the vehicle.

Currently, the vehicle I am driving for the rally is a Lexus GX 470. However, it is equipped with Total Chaos suspension components and a great off-road tire. So it looks refined, but it drives incredibly well off-road.

My dream car is one that works both off-road and on-road really well. Honestly, I’m a huge fan of the Mercedes G550. I think it is a bit misunderstood by people who haven’t driven it, but for those who have off-road, it’s an incredible, durable machine. If I’m more budget driven, then I am a big fan of the new Chevy [Colorado] ZR2, and am looking forward to seeing the new Ford Bronco.

I was in a meeting at the National Automobile Museum for my client and I met Rod, who was part of the Museum through the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame. We got to know each other and he taught me how to drive. He has 23 class wins, he was the first American to finish the Paris-Dakar. He has won the Baja 500, he has 18 wins at the Baja 500.

Literally, he’s a legend. He really taught me how to pilot a stock manufacturer vehicle, so I raced for their Hummer team until GM went bankrupt. I got to learn from the best. It was just incredible experience. We’re still really close and I just credit him with so much of teaching and, also, believing in me.

Kristen: Could you tell me a little bit more about the Rebelle Rally competition itself? How long does it last?

Emily: Ten days. It’s eight days of driving, but seven days of scored competition, so, the first day, day zero, is basically a practice day to get to the first base camp. Half of the rally is in Nevada, half of it is in California. It gets harder each day. We’re on legal open terrain that is primarily Bureau of Land Management land, some national parks and U.S. Forest service land.

It is a combination of nice, smooth, dirt roads to rough dirt roads, double-track trails, washes, dry lakes and sand dunes. One of my goals is that people walk out of the Rebelle Rally with a number of new skills and tools in their quiver.

The competition is primarily made up of map and compass checkpoint challenges. Any item that is GPS-enabled or connects to the internet is sealed for the week. Participants are given approximately 15 to 18 maps of varying scales, from one to 50,000 up to one to 200,000.

They have to use a plotter (something that measures degrees), an actual compass and a scale. They are given a list of checkpoints for the day, which tells them how each is rated, the points value and their latitude and longitude to the checkpoint. They have to plot that information on their map accurately, plan the rout and then they drive.

Image credit: Emily Miller

Image credit: Emily Miller

I created a system that works for varying degrees of experience and skill. It’s rated like a ski run, so they’re rated as green, blue or black checkpoints.

The green, blue or black is actually designed to be an indicator of the navigation challenge or difficulty. Green checkpoints are the easiest and mandatory. You also have to get all your checkpoints in order because you can’t backtrack. We would never make it to San Diego if we didn’t go in order, so the green checkpoints are marked with a prominent green flag and a checkpoint course official.

The blue checkpoint is marked with a blue small blue blag. A black checkpoint has no mark, so that means they have to use accurate map planning distance and triangulation.

You are equipped with two trackers. The one attached to the vehicle lets people follow online and see where you are and what’s going on. You signal with your handheld tracker when you get to a checkpoint.

Our second challenge is the Rebelle Enduro, kind of like a TSD: time, speed distance challenge. The primary tool to get to the checkpoint is a traditional road book, like you would see in the Dakar Rally.

It’s really about being on time, so you’re not supposed to drive fast. It’s a good skill because TSD is the way a lot of people get into rallying. It’s how a lot of people start, especially more like a road rally or car rally.

Image credit: Emily Miller

Image credit: Emily Miller

If you want to win the rally, you better be a really good driver and a great navigator.

Kristen: How do you win the rally, exactly?

Emily: For us, the highest score wins, so you see a lot of changes in the scoreboard each day, especially if you get down to Day Five, Six and Seven. But, you don’t have to do all of the checkpoints. It’s a punishing pace, but, the thing is, you don’t have to do all of it. If you can’t find a blue or a black checkpoint, you need to let it go and move on.

We wanted people to say, “I didn’t make that checkpoint; so what? This is not over.” Or, “I’m running out of daylight and I have to get my final green checkpoint, I’m gonna give up that black because the black’s worth fewer points. I have to get the green.” I’m not an “everybody gets a trophy” kind of person.

But I’m also not convinced that someone who’s newer to the game should feel devastated in the points or like they can’t get there. That’s why the greens are mandatory and worth the most points.

The green checkpoints are worth about half the score. The other half is made up of blue and black checkpoints. So the win really comes from how good you are navigating to the blue and black checkpoints.

Image credit: Rebelle Rally

Image credit: Rebelle Rally

The nuances of the competition don’t come from your skill. They come from how much you ate, staying hydrated, getting a good night’s sleep, how you sounded to your teammate when you were hangry and grumpy and fatigued, how well you work together as a team. Those are the subtleties that make a big difference in the rally.

Kristen: What other races have you raced in?

Emily: Oh, I’ve done the Baja 1000, Vegas to Reno, the Best of the Desert races, the Rallye des Gazelle in Morocco. I’ve been to Australia.

Kristen: So, do you scout and test the entire course yourself?

Emily: Yeah. I drive it, I set the checkpoints, I think about every checkpoint. I have an incredible course director, a guy named Jimmy Lewis. He was the first American to podium the Dakar. Did it on a motorcycle, actually, on a limited motorcycle of the privateer. He’s incredible, a very well-known motorcycle racer and a great navigator.

Kristen: Why do you think we don’t see as many women who are into cars? Do you have any advice for women looking to get into this industry?

Emily: Well, I think one thing is it’s an intimidating culture, but it’s changing.

I’ve been in cars and around 4,500 people to drive off-road and probably 600 of those have been women. I think part of the issue is what we talked about earlier. Men jump in and women will tend to take the backseat like, “They know more than me,” or, “They have been doing this longer,” or, “I don’t want to fail.”

The risk of failures is higher, at least in their minds. I think that comes into play a little bit. If you go to a motorsport event, it’s certainly not designed with the woman in mind. I went to a race not long ago and there were topless models body painted and you could pose with them in front of a banner.

I have noticed that a lot of women I have worked with or coached are very hard on themselves. They see failure differently than the men. The men may look and go, “Well, I hit that bump pretty hard. Whoa, I broke a shock mount or whatever.”

They don’t see that as failure, whereas a woman might see that as failure and they feel terrible. One thing I tell people is, “You can only train so hard for the Rebelle, but you need to show up because you can’t know how to win until you learn how to finish it.”

That was a lesson Rod gave me. You can’t know how to win until you learn how to finish and then you can start chipping away at winning. I think that it’s really easy to talk about something on Facebook and Instagram and sound really cool. It’s another thing to just get out of the chair and do it.

Image credit: Emily Miller

Image credit: Emily Miller

With the Rebelle, we wanted something appealing for women who aren’t just bystanders. Here, you will not see any pink, you will not see any caricatures of women. It is black and white and blue. Our look is designed to be gender nonspecific. I just hope that we set an example that other events may employ to really be appealing to anyone.

I’ve seen a lot change in automotive, but this is something I tell a lot of women in the industry: women should also not expect a promotion just because we work hard and are smart and show up.

Do you want to be a professional? You better know your stuff, you better have experience and do not ever assume that you’re gonna get it because you’re a woman.

You better be good, you better be smart, you better work hard and you better know how to drive a car better. If you don’t, learn. Never stop learning, understand your vehicle, understand the systems of your vehicle, know how to pilot. You don’t have to be a fast driver, nobody’s gonna be impressed by your speed.

They’re gonna be impressed by how well you take care of your car and how competent you are and your passion. I think that’s my advice to people. If you want it, don’t be afraid. Put it out there, go and learn. But find great coaches, great mentors and learn that way. You really want to learn from the best because that’s gonna help set your course of being a successful professional.

If you want to help women — if you want to make a big dent for women in automotive — man, be good. Be respectful, respectable and be good.

You just gotta want it. You gotta work hard.

The Rebelle Rally will take place between Oct. 12 and Oct. 21.