The Rebelle Rally, the longest off-road map and compass navigation rally in the United States, which just happens to only be for women, originated in 2016 to nominal fanfare. A few manufacturer sponsors instantly recognized the event’s worth and jumped on board, including Jeep and Nissan. Eight years in, 10 manufacturers are throwing their weight behind the event now recognized in the off-road motorsports community as a formidable challenge.
Even though many teams don corporate logos including Honda, Rivian, Nissan, Kia, Toyota and even unlikely comers like BMW, there are more privateers filling out the field than ever before. Of the 65 teams entered in 2023, 40 scraped, saved and fund raised the almost $17,000 (which covers entry fees, safety equipment and fuel) to get there.
Kris Vockler and Andrea Shaffer spend their own money to get to the Rebelle. Vockler, CEO/President of ICD High Performance Coatings + Chemistries, which makes silicone polymers and intermediates, stuff that goes into sealants and coatings, believes the privateer has a tougher hill to climb to get to the starting line.
“It’s hard to scrape everything together that we have to,” Vockler said. “Sometimes it feels unfair that so many people show up and are given a vehicle and support. The amount of money and resources we’ve needed to put this team together, it’s close to $20,000. And since we’ve done this for many years funding has gone well beyond the graciousness of family and friends and a couple bucks from the local pizza joint.”
Bringing their own 2017 Jeep Wrangler comes with its own set of financial considerations. They pay for everything out of pocket including $5,000-10,000 in repairs and upgrades. And it’s not just about the expenses of fielding a team for her teammate Shaffer because her husband Michael is on the Rebelle staff as a mechanic. Personal sacrifices get made. “We leave our three kids. For the first week they’re with my in laws. The second week they go to my mom’s. They may not like us being gone but I hope at some point they see that I was doing something for me. And because I’ve done it so many times now it’s just known that I’m gone for two weeks in October.”
Regardless of that bill they have to foot, Vockler and Shaffer come back every year. For Team 145 they believe the reward of competing in the Rebelle goes far beyond a place on the leaderboard. “We do it because it makes me a better person every year. I’d pay more if I had to,” said Vockler.
Not only does she pay for herself, but Vockler believes in the event so much that if a team looking to compete comes up a grand or two shy, she’ll anonymously pitch in to help. “If they’ve put in the work, I don’t want a team to miss it. Just like being a leader at my company. I don’t want anyone to fall short.” Sorry for outing you, Kris.
Emily Miller, Rebelle Rally founder and director, acknowledges that teams get here in different ways, but what matters is that they get here. “I’m happy that manufacturers care enough about supporting women who don’t fit the typical motorsport athlete mold,” she said. “This event is not just ticking off a marketing box for these OEMs.”
And Miller loves that privateers have so much skin in the game and realizes that many of them have worked for years to get here. “Those teams work extra hard. They invest in Rebelle U, do trainings to give themselves the best advantage.” The fact that they use their own vehicles creates an additional point of pride. “Many of our competitors build their own rigs or more impressively bring the car they need to drive home and take to work on Monday after the rally. When it’s their own car there’s so much pride in that accomplishment.”
Team 117 comprised of French sisters Maureen and Hortense Brouck came to the United States over a year ago on a visa to work at Disneyworld in Florida to save money and compete in the Rebelle. They bought their 1998 Jeep Wrangler (with a manual transmission) sight unseen in Texas on their way to tech inspection in Mammoth, California.
Despite certain opinions, the OEM-supported teams have a tremendous amount of stress on them to represent whichever company entrusts them with a vehicle. The onus is on them to do well with the understanding that they’ve got to take care of that vehicle and return it in one piece.
“It’s different, yes, but they all get the same challenge, and no one is treated any differently. The staff don’t know who’s the OEM team or who’s the privateer. They’re all there to get them across the finish line, which is everyone’s goal.” said Miller.
Some privateers have become such formidable competitors that they’ve earned themselves OEM sponsorship. Laura Wanless entered the Rebelle five times bringing her own vehicle every year and working her way up the leaderboard with second and third place finishes over the past two years. Executives at Ford were watching and recognized her efforts. This year they put her in one of their cars.
“I come to win every time,” said Wanless. “The focus is the same. Regardless of the car I’m driving, I’m already trying to do the best I can.”
She disagrees with those who say that with an OEM vehicle you’ve got an advantage. “You’re less in control of the variables as a sponsored team. It’s a lot more challenging to drive for a manufacturer than in your own vehicle. I’ve got months or years in my own car to figure out how to make it do what I want it to do. With the Ford Raptor R, I had three or four days.” Much to her credit, she figured it out, taking another podium finish in third place in the 4x4 class.
“Regardless of whether you’re a sponsored team or coming in on your own, to succeed in the Rebelle you need to show grit, determination, and skill,” said Miller. “Everyone here must prove that they can compete every single time they show up. And the most important person to prove it to ultimately isn’t a manufacturer, their sponsors, their family, or even me. They need to prove that they can compete in this competition to themselves.”
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