The Rebelle Rally kicked off from the starting line at a stunning, yet bone-chilling campground in Mammoth Lake, California, surrounded by the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And this year, it felt like protecting those beautiful surroundings was as much a focus as winning this brutal competition.
Hybrids and fully electric vehicles had more of a presence at the 2023 Rebelle Rally than ever before, as did renewable power for those cars as well. For the all-women drivers racing in this desert contest, it was a chance to test their mettle in the most cutting-edge vehicles you can buy right now. For the automakers supporting them, it was a chance to find out if off-roading has a place in an electrified future and to find out how their cars hold up under the harshest of conditions.
Emily Miller is the race director and founder of the Rebelle Rally. “People tell me that they want their kids to do this someday and if they want their kids to do it, someday soon, we're going to have to figure it out,” Miller said. “It's not easy. Nobody is doing a long-distance rally like this. The goal is that we are around when vehicles are mandated. If you can't sell an internal combustion engine in California, this thing's not going to happen, unless we figure this out.”
Gallery: Rebelle Rally 2023
Figuring it out means solving for access to clean power sources in remote locations. Charging EVs in normal driving conditions is already an infrastructure challenge. Rural desert vistas present a whole new level of complexity. Miller said she is not yet ready for an all-EV race. “We can't really afford to have someone who's a newbie, who can't navigate, show up in an electric vehicle and get lost and drive an extra 50, 60, 70 miles, having no idea where they're going.”
Throughout the week, 65 vehicles piloted by women drivers and navigators made their way south across 2,000 kilometers of rough terrain to the finish line in the Glamis dunes. At the completion of the rally, 130 competitors had driven up to twelve hours a day, pitched tents to sleep under the stars for nine nights, and tested the limits of their executive functioning skills.
I joined the rally at base camp in the prologue phase, the day before the official start. Drivers bustled around to prepare for the unscored day of off-road driving. Tents dotted the campground landscape around the starting line. The vehicles were parked in neat rows, impounded before the race.
Winning the Rebelle Rally requires teams to earn the most points for finding navigation points, avoiding deductions for miscalculations, and overcoming inevitable setbacks. It takes a savvy blend of discipline, organizational skills, and the wherewithal to power through the long hot days and frigid nights as temperatures dip down to 14 degrees. It’s all about driving the vehicles to the max over long grueling days judged on managing time, speed, and ticking off checkpoints that vary in difficulty.
The Rebelle Rally is a thinking person’s game and one that requires true grit. The competitors have no phones, no nav, and no prior intel on the course to rely on. Only compasses, maps, and communication skills among drivers and navigators support their bids for the podium. The vehicles in both the 4x4 and the smaller X-cross classes (made up of all-wheel and two-wheel-drive vehicles) are mostly newer models and stock, but the methodology is pure analog.
For those reasons and more, it may seem like entering an all-electric vehicle is a risky gamble – especially when doing this in a gasoline vehicle is no walk in the park, either. The additional element of range calculations must be added to the entrants’ math, and that just to start.
But the Rebelle has had electric vehicles enter in past years. Journalist Emme Hall competed in one of the first production Rivian R1Ts in 2020. This year, five all-electric vehicles competed, including four Rivians and one Ford Mustang Mach-E Rally, a new beefier model of Mach-E that goes on sale next year. Seven additional hybrids round out the electric category, including Jeep Wrangler 4xes and Toyota Tundras and Sequoias. (Ultimately, a Rivian won the race.)
While about a dozen of 65 total vehicles used electrified power, that number is likely to increase at the Rebelle Rally and across the off-roading community. As California — and presumably the country — moves away from gasoline, the future of off-roading will become more reliant on battery-powered cars, and that means solving for power sources to charge vehicles in remote locations, which is not a straightforward task.
How to provide that electricity in a sustainable way has been a work in progress. The Rebelle Rally sources green hydrogen from the Salt Lake City based company Renewable Innovations. “The only two places to get this type of tank filled were in North Carolina and Georgia. Our driver drove to Georgia and picked up 800 kilograms of green hydrogen. It's a lot of hydrogen, but it's what it takes just to power these electric vehicles remotely and rapidly and to power the base camp as our backup to get down the road,” Miller said.
To calculate the amount of hydrogen needed for this event, organizers had to factor in the amount of power required for each EV, the terrain temperature, and the elevation. “I literally have to plot that out on a graph and then figure out where to put the remote, rapid power so that we can figure out exactly how much power we're really going to need for the whole base,” Miller said. Hydrogen fuel cells also power water for showers and hand washing, solar-powered refrigerator trucks, and lights at base camp. The EVs plug into the back of the Renewable Innovations semi-truck as the compressors on board hum loudly. The only emissions produced from the hydrogen fuel cells were water and heat. The heat emitted from inside the unit was a bonus on a cold evening and I used the steam to warm my hands.
At the first of the three base camps on the route, I listened in on drivers’ briefing and the dizzying set of rules issued by race organizers as the competitors pored over maps. I talked to several teams about their strategies. Competitors ranged from rookies to experienced Rebelle Rally veterans. Laura Wanless, a corporate governance attorney by day, told me she doesn’t chit-chat in the car while driving. Every second counts. She and her Bronco Raptor navigator Maria Guitar finished in third place in the 4x4 class.
Navigator Trista Smith jotted notes on a paper in the tent. Her neat penmanship showed off a series of calculations, the Pythagorean theorem at work, and plots that correlated to places on the maps. After completing the prologue, she was working out how to shave off 20 seconds from her endurance time. I asked Smith, who lives in a converted Amazon Cargo delivery van in Washington with her family, if she had any interest in driving an electric vehicle in the rally. She said while the 30 minutes of rest time during the day to charge might do her good, she isn’t ready to make the switch. “It would be one more thing to think about,” she said.
For the Mach-E Rally’s first off-roading jaunt, pro driver Bailey Campbell was at the wheel joined by navigator Kaleigh Miller. Their car had increased ride height, all-terrain tires, magnetic suspension, and underbody sealing. “It’s something so much lower to the ground, but still very capable,” Campbell said after getting out of the car on Friday afternoon. “It's kind of a whole new world.”
Hether Fedullo, Ford Vehicle Dynamics Manager, was on-site at base camp to observe Ford’s five teams and said she would later assess the Mach-e’s overall performance, based on diagnostics. “I’m very interested to hear the feedback from the drivers,” she said. “They have a lot of experience doing this type of thing and not necessarily in the space of EVs. I want to know how they feel about the technology. I want to know if they had fun and liked driving the car.”
Ford EV program manager Peter Schultz traveled to the rally to prep the Mach-E. “We can't wait to see how it does over the course of the week. You can apply that to future products and continued development,” he said. “I think it's going impress a lot of people out here with what it can do.” Whether real customers will actually drive the Rally edition in these challenging elements remains to be proven.
By day two of the race on Monday night, the Mach-E Rally team led the X-cross class but ultimately dropped down to finish in fifth place. It was the only EV entrant in that segment. Melissa Fisher and Jessica Moore won the X-cross in a 2022 Ford Bronco Sport, followed by teams in a 2024 BMW X2 X35i and a 2024 Kia Telluride X-Pro.
But EVs— with that extra torque boost — proved to be competitive in the overall rally. Lillian Macaruso and Alexandra Anderson drove a 2023 Rivan R1T to win the Rebelle Rally, a first for an EV there. Nena Barlow and Terralin Petereit took second place in 4x4 in an electrified 2024 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe.
It’s still an open question whether the larger off-roading community is ready to switch away from gasoline tanks to EVs en masse. The Rivian models earn high marks but are also high in price. The GMC Hummer EV adoption has been low. A Jeep Wrangler EV is reported to be coming but is not yet available. Just on Friday, Toyota revealed what could be an all-electric Land Cruiser, but if it goes to production, that’s years away from now.
Miller said that she’s not convinced the off-roading community will exclusively drive pure EVs, and instead will opt for a suite of power solutions as new vehicles come to market. “There will be a number of powertrains,” Miller said. But EVs certainly aren’t done proving themselves in this event. The Rebelle Rally and its extreme driving is designed as a place for the community and industry to test the limits, and that will include ones that don’t run on gasoline. “We want to be a proving ground for people who are manufacturing vehicles,” Miller said.
A new documentary series called “Dead Reckoning” shows the evolution of the Rebelle Rally over eight years and is available on YouTube.