Only stars light up the sky as we pull over to the roadside in the middle of the desert. We are here to meet Amy Lerner, a New Jersey housewife and mother of two turned American Expedition Vehicle (AEV) rally pilot, as she trains for this year’s Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. Lerner comes trotting up with a headlamp to open the gate and guides us down a dirt road where seven of the ten US teams are camping. These 14 women include two sisters, two sisters-in-law, a sailing captain, a casting director, two mothers from Montana, a “trophy wife,” a TV host, a fabricator, an actress and two former motocross racers who are all sitting around a campfire eating key lime pie, cracking jokes and drinking margaritas. The Gazelles, as the participants are called, have been criss-crossing the Anza-Borrego Desert for the last two days and are revved up for two more.
Since reading about the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles five years ago in the Sunday sports section, Lerner has competed in the rally three times and this year will do her fourth, making her the only American to do so. She is, in her words, “hooked.” The Gazelle Rally was first organized by Dominique Serr in 1990. Only two female teams compete across the Sahara desert, driving from checkpoint to checkpoint without any electric GPS navigational tools. The winners are the teams that can navigate to each checkpoint with the least mileage for nine straight days. “The Gazelle Rally is a moving chess game,” says former Gazelle and US Team relations manager Emily Miller. “It is also this very strange ‘Wizard of Oz’ journey in that whatever your weakness is, it’s going to be completely magnified in the car. You can’t even lean down to eat a snack, because when you look back up, your eyes are going to be off the mark and then you’re going to be lost in the Sahara. You’re going to start making mistakes; and when you’re on that ragged edge of emotion, how do you act? How many times are we pushed to our limits, but we have to keep going? And how do we talk to the person next to us?”
Everyone has different skills, from a full-time mom from Carlsbad who has “not a lick” of driving experience to Jessi Combs, who holds the world record for being the fastest woman on four wheels. This dichotomy is the true nature of the race. The purpose of the training is not only to prepare teams in driving techniques and navigational exercises, but to get teammates used to each other in the vehicles. Lerner’s sister Tricia Reine has been her navigator for the past three rallies but has other commitments this year. Actress and singer/songwriter Sabrina Howells, who has competed in the rally twice, will fill in. They will be the only Americans competing in the brand new expert class. Although the two have known each other for a while, the weekend was based on their interaction. “We worked on how we share information while driving, spotting hand signals to our morning routines and sharing pet peeves,” says Lerner. “Oh, and talking Rally must-haves.”
Lerner’s most important “must-have” is her AEV Jeep Wrangler. After competing in a Hummer (which didn’t hold up so well) during her first rally, she decided she needed to have the best performing vehicle for the competition. “If there is a mistake, I want it to be me. I don’t want to worry that my vehicle is going to be the thing that is going to limit me,” says Lerner. “So I did research and came to Wrangler because it is not too complicated, not too electronic, but very capable” says Lerner. “At the time it was 2011 going into 2012, during which Jeep had a previous generation engine, which was “kinda wimpy” laughs Lerner. “But in 2012 they are putting in the Pentastar engine, so I thought maybe if I put in a suspension lift and maybe if I put a little more bite, and maybe a snorkel to help with the dust, we will be good.” After realizing that she would have to deal with “a million” different aftermarket companies, she went back to the the Jeep forums and found AEV, who pre-modifies conversion Jeeps. “AEV kept popping up,” she said. “These guys really get it right, and they respect the OEM engineering. They just make good products.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Since Lerner has teamed up with AEV, she has advanced 40 positions in the Gazelle and gone on to win the Australasian Safari Rally in the Overall Production class, the Dakar Challenge Auto class, and was the fastest female pilot in her AEV Jeep. “It has really been ridiculous,” says Lerner on AEV, “and you can buy it from the dealership just like that! It gives you the confidence to know that you can take these certain lines and cross different terrain and not worry that you’re going to get too stuck, because you’re going to get stuck sometimes.”
But Lerner didn’t get stuck once during the training. She did, however, help push and dig out many of the other teams, which is the essence of the race. “It’s called Gazelle spirit. You help because you should and you know you’re just as likely to need help sometime too. It’s so inspiring, to be surrounded by such incredible women,” says Lerner.
Images by Katharine Erwin