Erfoud, Morocco
— It was a long day for Gazelles who covered almost 190 kilometers during Friday’s second leg. Competitors left the bivouac in Mech Irdane at 6 a.m. and cars were still pouring into the bivouac, which moved just southeast of Erfoud, well after dark.

Terrain: Competitors encountered one of the classic challenges of the Rally: the “cauliflower field”, a strange desert plant that looks like a giant grey-green cauliflower and which, in addition to being inedible, is as hard as rock. There were few clear features along the route, and even the best features were often so far away that they were easily lost in the heat haze. Points of reference were uncertain at best and frequently nonexistent.

After posting an impressive 16th place finish after the first leg—the highest finish for the American teams–the Hoehn sisters of Team #107, Jo Hannah and Susanah of San Diego, carried their momentum into Friday’s leg. They were the first American team back to the bivouac after completing all eight checkpoints. That didn’t mean their day didn’t come without some ups and downs.
“We went up this difficult pass, which was not a real trail, but more like a rocky, terrifying, mule nomad path,” said Jo Hannah about the day’s terrain. “It took years off my life. Susanah had to put her confidence face on and told me that the car could do it, and I could do it. When you have to place your tires so specifically in one place and you can’t see below the hood, you trust that person 100-percent.”

There are five American teams competing for the first time in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles. Leading the way for the first time competitors was Team #180–Jessi Combs, a TV personality with a strong car racing background, and her driver Nicole Pitell-Vaughan, owner of Total Chaos. The team finished second in the Prologue behind former Gazelle winner Armelle Medard, and then put up a solid performance during the first leg where they finished 24th. During Friday’s competition, the team made some mistakes—including mapping the wrong checkpoint, which cost them eight kilometers–but they ultimately made all eight checkpoints and were back to the bivouac as the sun was setting.

The best surprise performance of the day went to Team #175 Sarah and Susie Saxten from Encinitas and San Diego, California. (Sarah is married to Susie’s brother.) The Saxten’s took their time on the course, but kept moving. “I got out of the car a lot more today,” said Susie, the team’s navigator, “and the terrain started to make a lot more sense.” The team just squeaked into the final checkpoint at the cut-off time of 7 p.m., but they were dead on for most of the day—an impressive feat for their first Rally. A graduated of Stanford University, Susie said, “Nothing I’ve done could prepare us for this.”

Yes, the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is a race, but often it’s the team with the best adventure that gets the biggest props. Winner of the best adventure so far in 2015 is Team #23: Sarah Price and Erica Sacks. The first American team to compete in a Side-by-Side, Price is a former X Games medalist in motocross, while Sacks is an accomplished gymnast with desert racing experience.
Their adventure began before the race even started. Their vehicle didn’t arrive in time for the Prologue because of a snowstorm in the Atlas Mountains. Then when the team took the line for Thursday’s leg 1, they made a navigation error and went to the wrong checkpoint. Because of this, they missed one of their potential fuel spots and eventually ran out of gas. The women had to spend the night in the desert, until rally officials were able to deliver fuel. They didn’t return to the bivouac until 3:30 a.m.—just 30 minutes before Friday’s wake up call.

Expert Class–Sabrina Howells and Amy Lerner
The only American team competing in the “Expert” class, Team #400, Sabrina Howells and Amy Lerner also had a good second leg. “The checkpoints were really spread apart and there are more of them, so you really had to be strategic with your time,” said Howells. After a rough start to their competition, Howells, who is competing in her third Rally, said she finally felt like she “belonged” on Friday. The team made all of their checkpoints, while some of the more experienced teams didn’t. 2014 Rally winners Jeanette James and Anne Marie Borg led the expert class after the first leg, but said they struggled during Friday’s leg and that the day was “really long and hard.”

Crossover Class–Beavis and Roenigk
Chrissie Beavis and Alyssa Roenigk, Team #317, had a solid day in the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and made all eight checkpoints. When Crossover class leader Andrea Spielvogel made a mistake before the finish, the American team likely moved into the top position. (Final results from Friday aren’t available until noon on Saturday.) No American teams have entered the class before, although Beavis competed in the Rally in 2013 with professional surfer Bethany Hamilton and finished 8th in the 4 x 4 class. Roenigk is a journalist for ESPN, and 2015 is her first Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

Spirit of the Gazelles–Cahill and Croft
After breaking their shock mount at 11 a.m., Rhonda Cahill of Team #218, along with Rachelle Croft, said, “We hit rock bottom when we thought we were going to have to call for assistance.” The team relied on a ratchet strap for a solution.  “We had to drive really slowly so we could get all of our checkpoints, and we tried to not loose courage,” said Cahill. “We had several women that stopped to try and help us, though. People kept stopping and offering assistance.”  The team, who finished 29th on Thursday’s first leg, went on to make all of their checkpoints on Friday despite the mechanical failure.


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