And it seems that everyone is a little more tired and angry than usual.
What is usually a festive atmosphere around the highly competitive (and usually ripe with camaraderie) finish of the annual Rallye de Aicha Gazelles is a little bit lower this year after the winning team (and this is where it gets ironic), Team Toyota, was disqualified the final day for cheating the entire 9-day race.
It seems that a Toyota team claiming that there is a mechanical malfunction at fault is just about as ironic as it gets in light of the recent technical malfunctions Toyota has been battling through, but after 40 hours of analysis, race officials have allegedly determined that driver Corentine Quinou and navigator Florence Migraine Bourgnon were manually manipulating the iritrack (satellite tracking device) and odometer of their Toyota Land Cruiser. Reports from Morocco said that the women have a highly unique way of “racing” and hung back most legs but would enter the daily end of leg locations (biovacs) with atypically high scores for catching every check point flag in the shortest distances and in the quickest times.
The Gazelles rally was a lot more difficult this year: road books that are normally full of the 1950′s maps of the landscape (in French, mind you) were basically reduced to pieces of paper that required the navigators to use their compasses, rulers, calculators and pencils in ways more similar to Pythagoras than to athletes out to prove themselves in the desert. In the end, navigators who are usually on top of their game were missing checkpoints, drivers were pushed to their limits and mechanics on site said that they saw damage to trucks that broken in places where trucks never break.
The new road books are controversial, not because of their attempt to raise the bar of the competition, but because the organizers had apparently decided to change the game because they suspected cheating in previous years. Team #138, the disqualified team, had won the rally 3 times and placed 2nd once since 2005. Changing the books was fine but this year’s race saw a whole new level of how it will change again. All of the top placed team were not, in fact in stock trucks but in full on, Dakar-style racing trucks. That is like taking a stock category truck in Baja and telling the team to beat Robby Gordon in a trophy truck. The women raced hard and as much as they say this rally isn’t about speed, this year they went fast.
Team Miller Fisher, the only US team competing in the rally, was in a stock H3. When I say stock, I mean STOCK. Their truck came off of a Parisian Hummer dealer’s lot and had the basic stock for Baja 1000 adjustments made, which is to say, very little. They came in 12th at the end, raising their rank daily from the bottom of the pack. Driver Emily Miller and navigator Wendy Fisher drove a race that they are very proud of after the 1st leg of mishaps. Emily called from Morocco to say that this was the hardest race that she has ever done and min you, this is the 1st woman to win an Iron Man in the Vegas to Reno off road race. In her typical way, however, she quickly summarized the race, spoke briefly about the controversy around Team Toyota and jumped into her plans for next year’s race and wondered out loud how we could get more United States women to want to achieve a rally that will be like one never held before.
It is sad that all of these people came together after so many months of preparation (world class athletes, humanitarians, doctors, organizers, mechanics and passionistas), only to find at the end of their hard work, 2 women were selfish enough to make it all so disappointing. This rally has the Princess of Morocco behind the wheel, the daughter of the head of Senegal as a world class driver and yet, in the desert where everything should have been on level sand, the reality of what some people will do to win, dawned on them all.
When Emily returns to the US, we will be doing an outreach to women and trying to get some more people to try next year’s rally and hope that everyone can start with a clean slate.