American teams score record results in 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles
Grueling off-road race concluded Saturday with official awards presentation
After nine days of grueling off-road competition in Morocco, American teams claimed two podium spots in the hotly contested 4×4 division of the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. Final results saw four American teams placed in the top 10 and all eight U.S. entries awarded finish positions.
Southern California off-road racers Chrissie Beavis (Rally America) and Nicole Pitell-Vaughan (Best in the Desert) fought for the lead throughout the contest in their #180 Toyota Tacoma. They qualified for a first-place starting position and held the lead until Day 4 of the endurance event, when a strut mount broke and they had to limp through the remaining checkpoints of the day. The vehicle was repaired overnight, but they weren’t able to make up the distance.
It was an incredibly close contest. In a race where advantage is measured in distance, rather than time, the pair finished an estimated 1.1 miles behind their closest rivals, the Swiss duo of Regine Zbinden and Ela Steiner. It was an historic finish for an all-U.S. team in the contest. The previous best finish for an American in the 4×4 division was in 2011 when U.S. driver Emily Miller partnered with French navigator Armelle Medard and scored a runner-up result. Beavis won the Crossover category in 2015 alongside driver Alyssa Roenigk.
“It was fun to shoot for the win,” said Beavis. “I’ve been really proud to be here for three years and to have done well in it.” Her debut year in the event was 2013 when Beavis, who is an X Games gold medalist for rally, competed alongside professional surfer Bethany Hamilton and finished 9th.
Considered the most prestigious all-women’s motorsport event in the world, eight American teams took the line in 2016 — all of them in the hotly contested 4×4 division. The unique competition is an off-road test of analog, dead reckoning navigation that this year covered more than 650 miles of hostile Moroccan desert terrain. A total of 162 international entries took the start March 23 for the 26th annual running of the event — 135 of them in the 4×4 division.
Joining Beavis and Pitell-Vaughan on the podium, in third, were sisters Susanah and Jo Hannah Hoehn, of Carlsbad, California. The pair held a podium position throughout the rally but had a tense night on Thursday after the air suspension on their #107 Land Rover LR4 went out and mechanics at the overnight camp did not have the parts to repair it. But their mother, Karen Hoen, who had put a solid run on the event as a rookie alongside Maureen Gibbons in the #181 Land Rover LR4, gave up parts from her vehicle and abandoned their effort so that the sisters could continue their podium charge.
‘Mama’ Hoehn and teammate Gibbons took penalties for missing the final marathon leg of the rally but crossed the line on Friday to score a finishing position of 110th. “Our mom has given us so much our entire life,” said Jo Hannah Hoehn. “I thought that this event would finally be about her, and the event ended up being about us. The good part is that she doesn’t seem to mind. She was so excited the car got fixed, and we got out on the course.”
Also in the top 10 were returning competitors Emme Hall, from Oakland, California, and Sabrina Howells, from Los Angeles. In a third start for Hall, and a fourth for Howells, the pair were consistently at the top of the rankings and entered the final two-day marathon leg of the rally prepared to battle into fourth place. But mechanical trouble with their Land Rover Defender saw them open the final day of the contest frantically trying to diagnose a battery problem and Howells said it threw them off their game for the day. “I think it affected us mentally,” said Howells. “We started later then we wanted, and we got off-track in the dunes.” The team ended up finishing fifth — just one-third of a mile behind the Swiss team of Veronique de Sybourg-Siffert and Emilie Kuhni.
Susie Saxten and Ivy Cass, both from Encinitas, California, scored a ninth place result after finding their groove together early in the week. It was a first-time pairing for Saxten, who ran her first Rallye Aicha des Gazelles with her sister-in-law in 2015 but recruited rookie driver Cass to her team this year for their first top 10 result. “I wanted to come back and try out all of those things I learned last year right from the beginning,” said Saxten.
In the rookie category, the mother-daughter team of Teresa Stewart, from Kauai, Hawaii, and Sara Jehn, from Oahu, Hawaii, earned a 20th place result in 4×4 and placed fifth of 96 teams in the novice category. They put forward a consistent performance throughout the contest and were never far from the lead group. Stewart, who suffers from an immune deficiency known as CVID, said she had concerns before the rally that she might not be able to complete it. “Before, I thought there were things that my immune system was going to limit me from doing. Now I know that’s not true. I probably have never done anything so mentally and physically exhausting,” she said.
In 29th position was the #188 Jeep Wrangler of Elaine Newkirk, from Rancho Santa Fe, California, and Keely Sellers, from Kihei, Hawaii. The novice pair struggled to find a rhythm early in the contest and got off to a poor start on Day 6 when they became stuck in the mud. But by the final, two-day marathon leg they found their pace together to score a final position in the top quarter of the rankings. Sellers said she was inspired by her children to take on the event. “I want to be a great example to my children to pursue adventure and to try their hardest at whatever task they try, never quit or give up, be a person of great integrity, thoughtful, and to love every minute of life.”
And in a triumph of perseverance, the #127 U.S.-French entry of Catherine Chiadmi (St. Petersburg, Florida) and Cecile Vinson (Vaucluse, France) finished the rally ranked 102nd in their Jeep Wrangler. A month after her event debut in 2013, Chiadmi was diagnosed with a brain tumor bigger than a baseball. She vowed during recovery that she would return to the contest. “This year’s rally was a challenge to myself,” she said. “I wanted to push myself to the limit and prove to myself that nothing is impossible. That all you have to do is believe.”
The 2016 event began with a prologue day March 23 in Erfoud, Morocco, and officially concluded April 2 with a prize-giving ceremony in the costal city of Essaouira. The event was comprised of six scored legs of off-road competition, including two marathon legs that sent teams out on their own for two days at a time and overnight alone in the desert in improvised camps.
Founded in 1990 by Dominique Serra and headquartered in France, the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles provides an empowering challenge to women. In addition to competition, the organization is also committed to humanitarian efforts in the region through its charity, Coeur des Gazelles (Heart of Gazelles). The charity has provided funding for a number of projects including educational facilities, wells for clean water, and job training.
In 2016, the event again traveled with the Volkswagen Medical Caravan, which has provided medical care to more than 70,000 people in remote regions of Morocco since 2005. The rally is held under the patronage of the Moroccan King Mohammed VI and carries the official coat of arms of the Moroccan Royal Guard. The event conforms to strict environmental standards and is ISO 14001 certified.
American Teams Official Ranking (4×4)
Rally Aicha des Gazelles, Morocco
March 23 – April 2, 2016
2nd — Nicole Pitell-Vaughan (Corona, California) / Chrissie Beavis (San Diego, California): #180 Toyota Tacoma
3rd — Susanah Hoehn (Del Mar, California) / Jo Hannah Hoehn (Del Mar, California): #107 Land Rover LR4
9th — Susie Saxten (Encinitas, California) / Ivy Cass (Encinitas, California): #184 Jeep Wrangler
5th — Emme Hall (Oakland, California) / Sabrina Howells (Los Angeles, California): #178 Land Rover Defender
20th (5th Novice) — Teresa Stewart (Kauai, Hawaii) / Sara Jehn (Oahu, Hawaii): #182 Jeep Wrangler
57th — Elaine Newkirk (Rancho Santa Fe, California) / Keely Sellers (Kihei, Hawaii): #188 Jeep Wrangler
102nd — Catherine Chadmi (St. Petersburg, Florida) / Cecile Vinson (Vaucluse, France): #127 Jeep Wrangler
110th — Karen Hoehn (Del Mar, California) / Maureen Gibbons (La Jolla, California): #181 Land Rover LR4
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