Renting a car is a bit of a crapshoot in the best of circumstances. Want an added challenge? Rent one to compete in a rally halfway around the world. This is a challenge Lyn Woodward and I were up for taking.
Team Wild Grace was invited to compete in the Rally Jameel, the first women-only off-road navigation rally in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A monumental moment for the women of Saudi who were granted the right to obtain driver’s licenses in 2018. Along with two other US teams, we embarked on this event with excitement and openness to what the women of Saudi are bringing to motorsports.
The Jameel hosted competitors from 15 countries, 68 women in total and 41 from Saudi. While a handful of teams like ourselves have rally or motorsports backgrounds, most teams were relatively new to driving. They were taking on this adventure with a fresh perspective and rejuvenating energy.
That vital energy filled the first driver’s meeting room as the competitors poured question after question on the unsuspecting staff. The rally’s infancy was prominent as they attempted to define the format and rules clearly to a room full of eager competitors. It was when Dr. Ahad Al Saud broke it down in the most relatable way. “It is like playing Sonic the Hedgehog or Pokémon Go. Go along the track and collect the coins. Catch those Pokémon.” The connection between video games and navigation rallies snapped everything into place.
Formatted much like the Dakar, Rally Jameel uses roadbook navigation but with the omission of speed and the added challenge of average speed sections. Rallies formatted in this way allow competitors to use a stock car with minor modifications. Giving competitors the chance to drive what is in their driveway or, in our case, a vehicle we can rent. In the instance of the Jameel, most competitors had no modifications, including taking on the desert terrain in street tires.
In the parking lot of the small regional airport of Ha’il, we signed the rental agreement for a Toyota Fortuner. Lyn and I are no strangers to competing in unfamiliar vehicles. Together we compete in the Rebelle Rally, a women-only navigation rally here in the states. In the past six Rebelle Rallies, we have taken a different vehicle each time, giving us the unique advantage of hopping behind the wheel of a strange car and quickly assessing how to maximize its’ potential as our third teammate.
The Fortuner is an unassuming body on frame mid-size SUV, a Highlander body on a Hilux chassis. At first glance, I dug it! A taller stance than its state-side cousins gave it an attitude that it would easily handle the vast desert we were about to traverse. In the three days of competition in a combination of tarmac transits and open desert, we put the mightily-under powered 4-cylinder Fortuner through its’ paces, pushing the rental and ourselves to give it all out on the course of the Rally Jameel.
It is always interesting to borrow a vehicle to compete in, but thankfully, the vehicle prep was minimal for this event. We placed the spare in the cargo area for more accessible and speedier tire changes, removed the front air damns, you know, those bits that get bumped and torn when you least suspect it, and did a once over to be thorough. All that was left was to drive it like a rental!
As we proceeded off the start line to begin our first tarmac transit, it was clear where some of the vehicle’s shortcomings were. The archaic 5-speed transmission clunked through the gears on a long stretch of Saudi highway as Lyn pushed the car to climb to the posted 140 kph speed limit (87 mph). At the 120 kph mark, the car gave a heady beep, giving us a fair warning not to ask for more. We sigh, remarking that it is a good thing the Jameel is not a speed race, and settle in for a stretch of 110 kilometers, cruising a notch below the speed limit.
While the speed was capped at 70 kph or 43 mph on the off-road sections, we had four average speed sections set at a much slower pace. These segments were small portions of the course where the challenge was to maintain the prescribed speed. I will argue that holding a speed of 38 km h (23 mph), especially in pockets of soft sand, invokes more nail-biting anxiety than racing at full speed.
In an unnecessarily dramatic fashion, just as we turned into our first average speed section, I bumped our external speedometer off the dash as I went to set our stopwatch, leaving Lyn with the finicky analog one among the gauge cluster. As I scrambled in the passenger seat to reset our space, a calm came over Lyn as she took complete control of the task at hand, and our third teammate, endearingly named Miss Piggy, responded well. We made it primarily unscathed through our first average speed section and even more dialed in on Miss Piggy’s contribution to the rally. Suddenly, our little rental felt like a part of the team.
In our short time in Saudi, we bonded with our fellow competitors, soaking in their culture and view of the experiences they were having. There are always humans that draw you in. Atefa Saleh and Eleanor Coker out of Riyadh absolutely captured my heart.
Around Karak tea and Arabian coffee, we gleaned some light on what led these women to rally. Adventurous moms, Eleanor and Atefa, expressed how they always push to be learning and how this event spotlights that the Saudi desert is open to women. Atefa remarks, “There is nothing masculine about driving over a dune anyway.” Signing up for the Jameel was a way to live what they taught their children. Always keep learning.
I had the joy of cheering them on as they learned to appreciate the highs and endure the lows, ultimately riding the middle of the numerous emotions accompanying competing off-road.
Through the push of competition, I took time to absorb the fact that I was weaving through the desert of Saudi Arabia! The moments when the camels crossed the terracotta-colored dunes and the incredibly welcoming people that cheered us along the course. Even more soul boosting was coming in at the end of the day to hear the stories of my fellow competitors’ days out on the course.
I competed in my first rally seven years ago, which changed my life. In Saudi Arabia, I sat front row as these women’s lives were changing, and I did not take that for granted.
Lyn and I crossed the finish line on the last day, the little Fortuner too, feeling accomplished and proud of what we did out on the course of the Rally Jameel. We finished 5th overall and stage three winners. We cheered as our new rally friends, Atefa and Eleanor, took the stage for their second-place trophies. Their first rally experience and first podium looked good on those remarkable women.
Borrowed vehicles were scattered among the rankings. First place was occupied by a Swedish team in a rented Rav4. I would take any lemon of a rental to do it all again. Miss Piggy, the Fortuner that could, was far from a lemon and became an integral part of our adventure. Rentals may be a mixed bag, but what kind of adventure isn’t had with a mixed bag of something? I choose to take on the challenge rather than miss out on the experience.