Rebelle with a Cause—Our 8-Day Off-Road Racing Adventure at Rebelle Rally

Backed by Marmot, a pair of off-road newbies set out on a 1,200-mile journey through the California and Nevada deserts armed with a Ford Bronco Sport and a whole lotta determination.

by Richard Osborn

Jovina Young and Erica Martin were perched atop a mountain of sand, their red/black/gray Ford Bronco Sport hanging precariously in a downward direction.

It was Day 6 of the Rebelle Rally, an off-road competition that winds some 1,200 unforgiving miles across the California and Nevada deserts. The annual eight-day, all-female event, the first of its kind in the U.S., is the brainchild of veteran racer Emily Miller, who had challenging moments just like this in mind when she founded the Rebelle in 2016.

Troubleshooting and teamwork on the fly. No cellphones. No GPS. Just a map, a compass, a capable set of wheels, and some instinct. Think orienteering meets the Baja 1000.

“My vision was to create an event that rewards intelligence, proper planning, and attention to detail,” said Miller, the first woman to solo drive the Vegas to Reno Race, at 500 miles the longest single-day off-road race in the U.S.

As both Young and Martin discovered that arid afternoon, there’s good reason why George Lucas chose the Imperial Sand Dunes as a backdrop for the third installment of his original Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi. This sprawling desert outback just north of the Mexico border is otherworldly, extraterrestrial and downright inhospitable.

If Young was looking to get out of her comfort zone, mission accomplished.

Photo Credit: Rebelle Rally

“I wanted to show that there are a lot of women that do this—a lot of badass women that do this,” she said. “And to prove it to myself. It’s been a long time since I challenged myself in something where I’m completely uncomfortable. Selfishly, I was thinking, ‘When will I ever get a chance to do this again?’”

Young also wanted to set an example for her two young daughters.

“You’re never too old or too set in your ways to try something new,” she added.

Young and Martin, aka Team Fearless Fillies, had known each other since their first job out of college, with J. Walter Thompson, ad campaigns for Ford F-Series pickup trucks among their first collaborations. Their lives/careers would take them on different paths, but they were reunited a decade later when, unbeknownst to them at the time, they accepted roles within a month of each other at the Ford Motor Company to work on the Bronco/Bronco Sport brand.

Sure, they knew a thing or two about trucks, and about SUVs. But let’s be clear about this: Outside of a few off-road 101 how-tos, those teammates, helmeted and lurching forward in their seat belts, staring down that dune in the Sonoran Desert, had absolutely no real experience with rally racing. In a field that included seasoned pros like Shelby Hall, granddaughter of the late off-road legend Rod Hall, the 1969 Baja 1000 champion, Young and Martin were novices.

“I like the outdoors, but I’ve never been a backpacker, a hiker or anything like that,” said Young, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Michigan.

But when Ford broached the idea of sending three teams to the Rebelle Rally in October 2020, one of them comprised of newbies, she jumped at the opportunity.

Photo Credit: Rebelle Rally

“As a marketer on Bronco, I knew I had to be authentic in the message,” said Young, who was quick to seek out Martin as a teammate. “I knew there were going to be a lot of people buying the Bronco or Bronco Sport who had never off-roaded before. We were creating things to help them get into it. Our whole idea was to help the novice have as much fun as the expert. That was a key engineering philosophy. I thought, ‘I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is.’ So I raised my hand.”

“No one at Ford had ever done this before,” she underlined. “We would never use our own employees, let alone ones who’ve never even off-roaded before. We always hire professional racers.”

Before they knew it, Young and Martin, equipped with a gleaming new eight-speed, 250-horsepower Bronco Sport, were among 36 driver/navigator tandems between the Rebelle’s 4x4 and X-Cross divisions, guiding street-legal, stock vehicles over demanding terrain from Lake Tahoe to San Diego. Along the way, they were tasked with hitting anywhere from 10 to 20 checkpoints per day, eventually meeting up with the rest of the field at night in base camps.

“I knew that the Rebelle Rally progressively got harder every day with the navigation, the driving, the terrain we were hitting,” said Young. “The first day, it was nerves, nerves, nerves. It started with the tech inspection, where they make sure you know how to navigate. We studied hard. Once we got past that, it was, ‘Oh, my God. We’re literally going to take off on the starting line tomorrow!’”

One of the Fearless Fillies’ first on-course tests came on Day 4. The route sent the teams from Ridgecrest, California through the Trona Pinnacles and Death Valley en route to the Dumont Dunes. The Marmot-sponsored duo got stuck in the sand, only to be rescued by fellow rookies Erin Vogel and Sara Swenson of Team Ponderosa.

On Day 5, upon entering the Johnson Valley, home to the largest off-highway vehicle recreation area in the country, Young and Martin braced themselves for the ominous red mountains, dry lake beds, and sandy washes they had heard so much about from the engineers at Ford. This was the ultimate proving ground.

“We even stopped at the sign in the road to commemorate being there,” Young recalled.

Team Fearless Fillies plotted a coordinate that took them to the base of a steep, rocky incline. But after more than an hour of searching, they still hadn’t spotted the checkpoint. It wasn’t until Martin scampered up a nearby hill on foot that she noticed a blue steel rod jutting out of the sand in the distance.

“I see it! I see it!” she shouted, jumping up and down.

They jumped back in their Bronco Sport and, holding their collective breath, tackled the incline with purpose, navigating the jagged rocks along the way, until they reached that elusive checkpoint.

“We were so proud that we didn’t give up on it, and that we actually scaled such a steep climb,” said Young. “I never would have done that on my own.”

Photo Credit: Rebelle Rally

The following day, after navigating Joshua Tree National Park and the shores of the stenchful Salton Sea, Young and Martin found themselves stranded on that Return of the Jedi set, in the Imperial Dunes. It was white-knuckle stuff. Temperatures (soaring to 104 degrees), tensions, and stakes ran high. Paulette Kirby and Jessi Puffenbarger of Team ARC Trooper spotted the duo on the dunes and did their best to free the truck. But with light fading, Young and Martin were forced to radio race officials for backup, knowing all along that any outside assistance would incur penalties.

The challenges weren’t limited to the driving. There were nights when, after 10-12 hours of off-roading, exhausted competitors had to set up camp, often in the dark. (As Team Fearless Fillies reported, the easy-pitch Marmot Limelight tents were clutch.) They would break it all down again at 5 a.m.

Bronco Sport teammates Hall and Penny Dale (Team G.O.A.T.) would go on to capture the Rebelle Rally’s X-Cross title, with Young/Martin finishing fifth. Not bad for a pair of off-road neophytes. But, in the end, it was less about any race against the clock or infiltrating a sport long seen as a bastion of masculinity, and more about the selfless support of her fellow competitors, the newly formed friendships, that stuck with Young the most.

“That camaraderie we had when we came to dinner each night was special,” Young reflected. “You’d hear everyone’s stories, what happened to them that day. Everyone shared their experiences, their strategies. There was something about seeing everyone at the end of the day, just being together.”

“It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event,” she said, “twice if I can convince Ford to do it again.”