Great Adventure

Emily Miller Is the Rebelle Behind the Wheel

by Theresa Christine
Rebelle Photo by Richard Giordano / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.

Ready for the ultimate in road trips? Pack your compass and check your adrenaline, because you're in for a ride. As part of our Great Women in Travel series, we sat down with Rebelle Rally founder Emily Miller to learn more about her passion for automobiles, racing, and the journey to start her own rally raid.

Coffee? Check. Helmet? Check. Compass, map, pencil? Check.

Welcome to the world of rally raids, or competitive off-road racing. The goal here isn’t speed, like you might expect on a typical race track. Instead, as drivers hop into their vehicles or hop on their bikes, they try to hit the designated checkpoints while simultaneously putting their driving and navigation skills to the test.

There’s no Google Maps here — just a good, old-fashioned compass and map for the entirety of the competition, which can last anywhere from a few days to well over a week.

While many rally raids will welcome any competitor who’s got the grit to compete, the scene is — unsurprisingly — male-dominated. But not at Rebelle Rally. The longest off-road race in the contiguous United States is an eight-days trip across two thousand kilometers. And it is exclusively for participants who identify as women.

The Rebelle Rally has started in Tahoe and ended close to San Diego, although every year the route through Nevada and California varies. In 2020, they started along the shores of Lake Tahoe and headed south into the colorful landscapes of Fish Lake Valley, past the Eastern Sierra Mountains and the looming Mount Whitney, and through the lowest point in the continental United States, Badwater Basin. They also stopped by national parks like Death Valley and Joshua Tree, and the whole journey ends in Glamis, which is known for its seemingly endless waves of sand dunes. The woman behind Rebelle Rally is founder Emily Miller. Here's her story.

Rebelle Rally founder Emily Miller. Photo by Nicole Dreon / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.

How did you get into racing?

I met legendary racer Rod Hall at the National Automobile Museum. We started working together on projects, and he offered me the chance to learn from him and race for him. He opened the door for me and was such an incredible coach and mentor. His lessons have stayed with me — he is the voice in my head.

What made you decide to launch your own race?

As the owner of a sports marketing company, I have been fortunate to have produced many events and gain enough experience to know what I wanted to do and how to do it. A rally I had competed in and then helped promote in Morocco was motivation to start a sister competition in the United States. (It’s not a simple or affordable task to compete overseas, especially for people who are new to it.) I wanted to include the components of a well-produced Red Bull event, but rival any of the top global rally events in terms of quality, experience, and competition. I wanted a badge of honor for our competitors.

What were some of the things that you considered when putting together your own competition?

I had been coaching, driving, and racing for a while — and saw very few women involved. So I wanted to create a platform that made women feel like they had a place to shine, and that they had the encouragement to do this. But when I was coaching or offering programs for women, women didn't come. Why weren’t they stepping up? So I created an event that was really built for women's strength — and also pushed them on their weaknesses — set against the backdrop of the United States, some of the most iconic, incredible terrain in the world.

Photo by Richard Giordano / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.
Photo by Nicole Dreon / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.
Photo by Richard Giordano / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.
Photo by Richard Giordano / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.
Photo by Richard Giordano / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.
Photo by Richard Giordano / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.

Aside from being women-only, how is Rebelle different from other rally raids?

We created our unique competition format to provide a challenge that meets a number of our goals — from executing it on public lands and in diverse and challenging formats to making interesting and fun to drive. Our checkpoint challenges are based on precision, and competitors use only a compass and map to locate them. Those checkpoints are rated like a ski run, with green, blue, and black diamond checkpoints. Our Enduro challenges use a traditional rally roadbook, which is essentially a set of instructions similar to what Google Maps might give you, albeit in a different format.

The other thing that is somewhat different from other rallies is that the Rebelle Rally is designed for stock vehicles, that is, the cars we drive every day. Participants don’t need a race car or truck, and all vehicles must be street legal, plated, and able to travel on interstates at the posted speed limits.

It’s a chance for people to see what these vehicles can do.

The biggest was educating land management officials that it is not a speed race, and that our community cares deeply about the environment we travel across. And to communicate to the general racing community that Rebelle is a tough and challenging competition regardless of gender.

Why have an event that’s women only?

Rebelle Rally is the longest competitive off-road rally in the United States, designed to be a total package competition — and it just so happens to be for women. We’re not beating the drum that it’s a women’s event. If we opened it up right now to everyone, it would be filled, and maybe we’d have a team or two of women. And that's what I didn't want. We made it women-only so that they’d feel comfortable doing it.

The environment in racing doesn't discourage women’s participation, but it doesn't necessarily encourage women to participate either. There are women who compete in races who have no problem signing up for the Rebelle, but there are women who have wanted to get into this. The Rebelle Rally is a platform where they feel like, “Okay, this is a great place for me to start.”

Photo by Nicole Dreon / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.
Photo by Richard Giordano / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.
Photo by Nicole Dreon / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.

What was the biggest challenge in starting Rebelle Rally?

There were a number of challenges, but the biggest was educating land management officials that it is not a speed race, and that our community cares deeply about the environment we travel across. And to communicate to the general racing community that Rebelle is a tough and challenging competition regardless of gender. These challenges were not impossible, and tackling them has helped us get to where we are today.

And I cannot leave this question without mentioning the layers of logistical challenges and the attention to detail it has taken to create an automated scoring system with such a unique competition format. The Rebelle Rally is a brain puzzle for not only the competitors but for the staff!

How do you decide on the route and the checkpoints? The places are truly incredible!

Jimmy Lewis, a legend in the Moto world, has been the Rebelle Rally Course Director since we started. He and I lay out the course route, and from there I set the checkpoints on the route. The secret sauce is the checkpoints have to accomplish a number of things: keep competitors moving down the right path, challenge their navigation skills, create a fun drive with intermittent driving challenges, and take in and see incredibly stunning places. We want to give a gift to the people who participate. It genuinely gives us a serious stoke to accomplish these goals on the course while having the participants see sites they normally never would.

Photo by Nicole Dreon / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.
Photo by Nicole Dreon / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.
Photo by Nicole Dreon / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.

What do competitors take away from the Rebelle Rally experience?

They become better drivers and better navigators, but they also really learn about themselves. The rally is about teamwork and leadership and working together, so people walk away with lifelong friends made through experiences that have bonded them together. Even though they may be competing against each other, they have to work together to get to the final finish line, because it's hard and it's long. And that's one of the more interesting things about the rally.

What advice would you give to a woman whose hobbies or interests are in male-dominated spaces?

Keep working hard and following your dreams and passions. Stay positive. No excuses.

She is so talented; she dances with a car.

Where are your favorite places to off-road?

I’m a big travel fan, and my heart loves British Columbia and Africa, but some of the best off-roading is in the western United States — specifically Nevada. It has such an incredible number of back roads, ghost towns, diverse terrains, and it’s so sparsely populated. Also, you can’t beat the areas between Death Valley and Mt. Whitney in California. To have the highest point in the United States within such a short distance to the lowest is amazing. The topography is incredible. What I love is that it is literally our backyard. It helps you appreciate our public lands in our own country.

Who are other women you admire in off-road racing?

My idol when I was 16 was Michelle Mouton. She raced for Audi and won the famous Pikes Peak race. She is so talented; she dances with a car. I also admire Sue Mead, a dear friend who blazed trails throughout her life as a journalist and has driven all over the world off-road. Sara Price may be young, but she has so much experience and raw driving talent and determination. I love her enthusiasm, passion, and attitude. And I really admire my great friend Nicole Pitell, who owns Total Chaos Fabrication. I spend a lot of time with her in the car, and she is so incredibly talented as a driver, has built a company in off-road from scratch, making top quality components. She’s always there to share an off-road adventure. There are definitely others as well. It’s great to see women embracing adventure and competition beyond the pavement.

Photo by Richard Giordano / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.
Photo by Richard Giordano / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.
Photo by Nicole Dreon / courtesy of Rebelle Rally.

The last two years have been rough, but you still held the Rebelle Rally in 2020 and 2021. It’s a no-spectators competition, and you had strict testing and mask regulations. What was special about these rallies?

One thing that’s really exciting for us that I’ve been wanting to do from the beginning is recognize electric vehicles. We see the Rebelle as a proving ground: It tests people and it tests vehicles. So we started the electrified designation with cars like the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and the Rivian R1T. We want to use the rally as a proving ground for electric vehicles, because for people to want to purchase them they need to be able to do more than just drive them around town.

The best part, though, was just being there. 2020 was a really tough year. Every day leading up to the Rebelle, we questioned whether we’d end up at the starting line. So to actually be at the starting line has been a gift. I think it was the smoothest we've had, and we didn't expect it to be smooth because of Covid. But we've been together as a team for a long time. We have each other's back, and we're all here to support each other.

What’s next for you and for the Rebelle Rally? Any exciting future plans we can look forward to?

Yes, but they’re secret and I can’t share right now. I can say we will go back and take our findings that we learned this year, the course and the feedback, and we'll use that to further refine the Rebelle. I think you can expect to see cool additions to our course, and I'm excited about that.

Think you have what it takes to compete in the 2022 Rebelle Rally? Head to RebelleRally.com to learn more and to sign up.