By Dave Good
U?nlike the romantic backdrop of the 1942 Ingrid Bergman film, Casablanca, the real Morocco is a harsh, dry kingdom of ripping sandstorms, where temperatures in the desert soar into the ridiculous. Nomads live in the shadows of 60-foot dunes, and mischievous monkeys will jump into a vehicle if its driver stops long enough.
Romantic? Not so much.
Nevertheless, each year, during an all-woman, off-road race known as the Rallye Aïcha a des Gazelles, this unforgiving expanse of red sand becomes a test of female endurance and womanly grit. Joining this year's race, March 19 through April 2, are Emily Miller from Encinitas and Tricia Reina from Carlsbad.
If four-wheeling through treacherous dunes in a barely modified truck weren't punishing enough, race organizers up the ante by making the rally an exercise in getting lost.
"You're not allowed to have cell phones-no GPS, and no support crew," says Miller, a three-time Rallye driver who likens the 10-day trek to a game of chess. "You're given a compass, some old and out-of-date maps from the 1950s, a ruler and a calculator."
Miller, a petite, 44-year-old blonde with ice-blue eyes, owns a North County sports marketing company. In her spare time, she competes in, and frequently wins, off-road races. In 2009, she took the checkered flag in the Vegas to Reno challenge. That same year, she bested Ivan "Iron Man" Stewart to win the stock class in the grueling Baja 1000, the mother of all off-road races. Baja is all about speed, Miller says, but with one big caveat: Mexican race fans lay booby traps.
"The rule down in Baja is that, if you see a bunch of people out in the middle of nowhere standing around the racecourse, slow down," Miller says. "They build hidden jumps; they dig ditches."
The first Moroccan Rallye, organized in 1990 as a campaign to combat gender bias and prejudice, has become one of France's premier motorsport contests. Each year, more than 200 women participate-professional athletes, movie stars, famous singers, even the princess of Morocco. The women pair up in teams consisting of a driver and a navigator, staging in France and transferring by boat across the Mediterranean to Tangier. That's where the real action begins. A typical race day starts at 5:30 a.m. and continues until dark. "A lot of time is spent digging out of terrain that nobody in their right mind would try to drive through," Miller says.
Countering conventional motorsports logic, the fastest car doesn't always cut it. Winning in Morocco is about cunning and endurance.
"The goal," Miller says, "is to reach each checkpoint along the course in the least amount of kilometers."
Competing in the Rallye requires serious coin. Registration, accommodations and the rental fee for a truck costs in the neighborhood of $30,000-and there is no prize money to help recoup expenses. Funds generated by the Rallye are used to provide medical care to poor people in the Moroccan badlands.
While being a global racer could put a strain on some relationships, Miller says her husband is supportive.
"He's using the Morocco race as an opportunity to go surf some of the best breaks in northern Africa, and then meet me at the finish line," she says.