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Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 – Final Leg (Days 7-8) Update

© by Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

It’s all come down to this. The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 would end with a roar not a whimper. Teams set out on Wednesday March 30th knowing that two more days of racing would end with a final chequered flag. They’ve been pushed to their limits and beyond.  It all comes down to this. Teams battled dunes, dunes and more dunes on the first day. After one more night on their own in the desert before they crossed Iriki Lake’s dry bed and then onwards to the cliffs of M’daouer.

All Gazelles are courageous, clever, determined and tough. However the Expert class’ ladies tackle this race on a different level. One such pair is Team 407: Sylvie Freches and Carole Montillet.  They took command of the class and never looked back.  However they wouldn’t have made it to the finish line without help from other Gazelles. Their Toyota HDJ 80’s broken fuel gauge left them stuck at CP9 until they received a top-up from other competitors.

Another expert class that made a strong showing in the rally was Team 410 but fate wasn’t on Syndiely Wade and Claudine Amat’s side.  They completely missed a checkpoint and then their Isuzu DMax had radiator damage.  Between the error and vehicle repairs, their hope for a podium vanished. However Wade remains hopeful saying, “I know we can do it. It just wasn’t meant to be this time.”  Since this is her eleventh rally, it’s a safe bet she knows what she’s talking about.

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Emme Hall checks in at a checkpoint during the final marathon leg. The wind was particularly intense during the 2016 rally, which made driving more difficult and more exhausting for competitors. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

All hail the queen! Long may she reign! You might have guessed it. Team 27 took first place in the Quad/Bike class. “Queen” Betty (Elisabeth) Kraft can shine her crown with Sonia Baudoin-Guerard by her side.  This may have only been their second Gazelle rally but Viola Hermann and Vanessa Wagner of Team 318 raced like veterans.  They took top honours in the Crossover class with their Mercedes Benz Vito.

The 4×4/Camions class not only had the most entries but was also incredibly competitive.  This may have started out as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some but eventually the drive to win took over and as the saying goes, “Stuff got real.”  Swiss Team 179 never relinquished the top spot after they got it no matter how hard the 100+ teams chased after their Jeep Wrangler Sport 2.8 CRD. Régine Zbinden and Ela Steiner have been best friends for twenty-one years, competed in this rally three times and are now class winners.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles - Final
During the first marathon leg teams took on the Erg Chebbi dunes. The dunes are the only place where teams are allowed to work together, and they must frequently stop to dig themselves out of loose sand. Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis, both motorsport competitors in the U.S.A., are no exception. Here they carry their MATRAX back to their car. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

Team 180 intended to make history as the first Americans ever to win the class, they had to settle for a different kind of record. Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis are the first Americans to finish on the podium since 2011 with their hard fought second place.  The pair (in their mighty Toyota “Taco”) led the charge of outstanding performances by American teams in this year’s Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles.  Third place went to Team 107. Jo Hannah Hoehn and Susanah Hoehn got a big assist from their mother, Karen, who was a competitor herself with Maureen Gibbons as Team 181. When the sisters’ air suspension couldn’t be repaired, their mother volunteered parts from their Land Rover LR4 to make the repairs.  So that’s not one but two American teams sharing that class podium for the first time in Gazelles history. Way to go, Mama Hoehn!  Here’s official word on the other teams:

Strong showing for Americans at Rallye Aicha des Gazelles
Provisional results show best-ever finish by U.S. teams

FOUM-ZGUID, Morocco (March 31, 2016) — Early results show an impressive four U.S. teams in the Top 10 of the 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles — a record performance for Americans in an event typically dominated by French entries.

After eight scored competition days wrapped up on Thursday, provisional rankings showed the team of Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis in second, making them the first all-American team to earn a podium in the 4×4 division in the rally’s 26-year history. There were 162 starters in the event this year.

“Going into the final leg we knew it was tight and we went all-in,” said Pitell-Vaughan, driver of the #180 Toyota Tacoma. “We doubled-down. There were times when the map said we could navigate straight and then we couldn’t go straight at all. It happened twice, and we burned kilometers. The dealer took our cards.”

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles - Final
Over the course of nine days, the rally travels through many small villages where competitors are welcomed by small children. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

The object of the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles is to navigate an as-the-crow-flies route through a series of hidden checkpoints in the Sahara Desert of Morocco. Using only a compass, and maps printed in the 1950s, competitors must plot a straight-line course across 630 miles of hostile desert terrain, off-roading across sand dunes, mountains, rocky lakebeds, ruts and washes.

It was an incredibly close contest. In a race where success is measured in distance rather than time, the American duo finished just over a mile behind the Swiss team of Regine Zbinden and Ela Steiner. The previous best achievement for an American in the contest was in 2011 when driver Emily Miller partnered with French navigator Armelle Medard and scored a runner-up result.

Third place also went to an American team. Sisters Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn overcame suspension trouble in their #107 Land Rover LR4 to earn their first podium in three years of competition.

They nearly didn’t make it to the finish at all after the air suspension in their Land Rover went out late on Tuesday. But their mother Karen Hoehn, who was competing for the first time this year alongside navigator Maureen Gibbons in the #181 Land Rover LR4, gave up parts from her vehicle so her daughters could continue their podium charge. “Our mom has given us so much our entire life,” said an emotional Jo Hannah Hoehn. “I thought that this event would finally be about her, and the event ended up being about us.”

Also in the Top 10 in provisional results was the team of Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells, who placed fifth in the #178 Land Rover Defender. Ninth place went to Susie Saxten and rookie driver Ivy Cass in the #184 Jeep Wrangler.

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After giving up her rally so that daughters Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn could use parts from her competition vehicle in theirs, Karen “Mama” Hoehn waits at the finish line for her girls. “Wow, I knew my daughters were adventurous,” she says. “But man do they have grit. I’m in awe they have come back three times.” (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

Rally Aïcha des Gazelles
USA Teams Notes and Quotes
March 30-31, 2016 (Day 7 & 8) FINAL LEG

Location: Mhamid/Foum-Zguid
Ideal distance: 235 km (146 miles)
Estimated time: 16 hours
11 Checkpoints (marathon)

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles - Final
RANKED 2nd (PROVISIONAL) Team #180 Nicole Pitell-Vaughan (Corona, California) / Chrissie Beavis (San Diego, California): Toyota Tacoma (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis battled throughout the rally with eventual winners Regine Zbinden and Ela Steiner, only to miss the top of the 4×4 podium by 1.1 miles. “The rally is the most amazing adventure,” said Pitell-Vaughan who returned to the event for a second time in 2016. “It’s mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. You can never deviate from your game plan. You can’t lose focus, because if you let your mind wander, it’s like reeling in a 500 pound tuna.”

Three-time navigator Beavis returns to the podium for a second time in 2016 after having won the Crossover division last year with driver Alyssa Roenigk. “It was fun to shoot for the win. I’ve been really proud to be here all three years and to have done well in it.” In 2013, Beavis and professional surfer Bethany Hamilton finished ninth together.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles - Final
RANKED 3rd (PROVISIONAL) Team #107 Susanah Hoehn (Carlsbad, California) / Jo Hannah Hoehn (Carlsbad, California): Land Rover LR4 (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

The best finish for three-time competitors Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn was hard fought. The air suspension went out on the #107 Land Rover LR4 on Tuesday and mechanics were unable to repair it with the parts on hand. But their mother, fellow competitor Karen Hoehn, came to their rescue. Giving up her own race, she donated parts from her competition vehicle so that her daughters were able to continue theirs. “Leaving our mom behind was really hard,” said an emotional Jo Hannah Hoehn at the finish.

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RANKED 5th (PROVISIONAL) #178 Emme Hall (Oakland, California) / Sabrina Howells (Los Angeles, California): Land Rover Defender (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

With the most rally starts of any American at the rally, Sabrina Howells said she is happy to have completed her fourth Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. “No one at home understands what this is — how hard it is but how fulfilling it is. You want to come back to this community of women and experience it with them again. I feel so much more confident after I do it,” said Howells. “I live in Hollywood and everyone is gorgeous and successful and going to incredible parties. Something about this rally makes me love who I am, and I don’t need to be anyone else.”

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RANKED 9th (PROVISIONAL) Team #184 Susie Saxten (Encinitas, California) / Ivy Cass (Encinitas, California): Jeep Wrangler (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

Team #184 were surprise contenders in 2016. Susie Saxten returned this year for her second run on the event, joined by longtime friend Ivy Cass — a rookie driver. “I was really nervous coming here and about breaking the car. I didn’t want to let Susie down,” said Ivy Cass. “When I left California, I was waiting to hear from medical schools. Being at the rally has helped me to take my mind off it. I think I also proved to myself that I can do something that I didn’t think I could, and I can apply that to my medical school path.”

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles - Final
RANKED 20th (PROVISIONAL) Team #182 Teresa Stewart (Kauai, Hawaii) / Sara Jehn (Oahu, Hawaii): Jeep Wrangler (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

The mother-daughter team of Teresa Stewart and Sara Jehn put in a strong rookie performance in the 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles to score a provisional ranking of 20th in the 4×4 division and fifth in the first-time participation class. Stewart — who suffers from CVID, an immune deficiency — said she had concerns before the rally that she wouldn’t be able to sustain the hardships of the competition. “Before, I thought there were things that my immune system was going to limit me from doing,” said Stewart at the finish. “But now I know that’s not true. I probably have never done anything so mentally and physically exhausting.”

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles - Final
RANKED 20th (PROVISIONAL) Team #182 Teresa Stewart (Kauai, Hawaii) / Sara Jehn (Oahu, Hawaii): Jeep Wrangler (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

First-time competitors Elaine Newkirk and Keely Sellers climbed the rally’s steep learning curve this week. In the final three days, they achieved all of their checkpoints and rose through the 4×4 rankings to 57th.  “I would highly recommend this to anyone,” said Sellers. “But I think you do have to have some life experience before you take it on.”

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles - Final
RANKED 102nd (PROVISIONAL) Team #127 Catherine Chiadmi (St. Petersburg, Florida) / Cecile Vinson (Vaucluse, France): Jeep Wrangler (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

A month after her Rallye Aicha des Gazelles debut in 2013, Catherine Chiadmi (left) had a major seizure and was diagnosed with a brain tumor that was bigger than a baseball. “I worked on healing myself and becoming stronger,” she said. “This year’s Rally was a challenge to myself. I wanted to push myself to the limit and prove to myself that nothing is impossible, that all you have to do is believe.”

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles - Final
RANKED 110th (PROVISIONAL) Team #181 Karen Hoehn (Del Mar, California) / Maureen Gibbons (Del Mar, California): Land Rover LR4 (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

First time competitors Karen Hoehn and Maureen Gibbons cut their rally short Wednesday when they gave parts from their Land Rover LR4 to Hoehn’s daughters — Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn (who went on to finish third in 4×4). “It was absolutely the only decision,” said Gibbons. “Any kind of ambivalence in life is hard. Definition makes everything clearer. As soon as we saw what happened, we were like: ‘Can they take our car?'”

Hoehn, who entered the rally in 2016 as part of her 60th birthday celebrations this year, said competing in the rally left her with a new perspective on her daughters. “Wow: I knew my daughters were adventurous, but man do they have grit. I’m in awe they have come back three times.” The team was penalized for missing the final leg but drove across the line Thursday to earn a finishing result.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles - Final
The mother-daughter team of Teresa Stewart and Sara Jehn put in a strong rookie performance in the 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles to score a provisional ranking of 20th in the 4×4 division and fifth in the first-time participation class. Here, Stewart plots checkpoints. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

A Final Word

“The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is the best race you had never heard about” is a tagline we’ve used for this event before.  I sincerely hope our 2016 coverage has done something to change that for you, the way Emme Hall did for me.  She introduced me to this race and Sabrina Howells, the other half of The Indiana Joans (Best name ever, right?). Desert racing is quite a challenge. Participants must be mentally, physically, emotionally and financially prepared for such a rigorous event. It strikes a chord with me personally to see sisters, mothers and lifelong friends racing together. For some one rally is enough while others will keep coming back to the Moroccan desert year after year. Regardless they’ll always be Gazelles and we tip our hats to them.

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Written by Marsha Haneiph

Born and raised in the twin island republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Marsha aka "One Opinionated Woman" has been a race fan from childhood. Despite a soft spot for rallycross, she finds interest in all forms of motorsport and enjoys learning about exciting, new varieties. Her personal blog 'One Opinionated Woman' focuses on fitness, food and fast cars.

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