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Profile: Meet the Women Who Tackled the Rebelle Rally in a 2020 Kia Telluride SX

Alyssa Roenigk and Sabrina Howells performed impressively, and they also rescued a Ford Bronco Sport—twice.

Telluriders Team Tackles Tough Off-Road Rebelle Rally

Stepping up to an extreme challenge,  ESPN senior sports writer Alyssa Roenigk (driver) and Los Angeles-based actress Sabrina Howells (navigator) tested the limits of a 2020 Kia Telluride SX during the fifth annual Rebelle Rally in October. Like all competitors, they tackled eight days of grueling off-road competition in the Nevada and California deserts; from Lake Tahoe to the U.S.-Mexico border,

Team Telluriders pushed the boundaries of a wholesome SUV on a 1,500-mile journey to a spectacular second-place finish in the X-Cross vehicle class. And, to the amazement of other competitors, Team Telluriders scored the most points on the competition's final day. Their machine, the all-wheel-drive 2020 Kia Telluride SX underwent minimal modifications that included all-terrain tires and a skid plate to make it suited for the competition.

In the end, Team Telluriders came within a mere 16 points of winning its class and, along the way, benevolently pulled a Ford Bronco Sport out of trouble-which helped the Bronco to secure first place. We spoke with Roenigk and Howells to discuss their experience driving the 2020 Automobile All-Stars winner on a thrash through merciless desert environments.

Before participating in the Rebelle Rally as Team Telluriders, did you both know each other? 

Team Telluriders: We met years ago at the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles in Morocco and immediately hit it off. Ever since then, we have stayed in touch. Flash forward to 2020, and we ended up being dropped into the 2020 Kia Telluride SX together for 10 days in a pretty intense rally that is the Rebelle. Anytime you can do that with someone and come out liking them even more, having more respect and admiration for them, [it] says a lot about a person. It does not always work out that way; we've seen it go the other direction.

When Kia approached you about competing in the X-Cross vehicle class of the fifth annual Rebelle Rally with a 2020 Kia Telluride SX, what were your first reactions?

We got a call from a rally-staff member letting us know that a new manufacturer was entering the competition and they were looking for a driver and a navigator. They asked if we were interested in forming a team, with the Kia Telluride as our third teammate.

Initially, we didn't know Kia had a capable SUV that could withstand the Rebelle Rally, and a quick Google search gave us all the intel we needed. The Kia Telluride has won virtually every award in its class. To us, it makes sense why a manufacturer with a new SUV would want to enter the Rebelle Rally, especially a vehicle that most people would not think of like an off-road beast.

It is a big commitment to spend two weeks with a teammate. It was important for both of us to know who the driver and navigator were. Having already known each other, we quickly signed on.

In preparation for eight days of competition in harsh desert environments from Lake Tahoe to the Mexican border, what did you do to prepare yourself mentally and physically? 

Preparing and packing creature comforts are going to make your 10 hours in a car a little less challenging. That means trips to REI for outdoor gear, and your navigation tools are meticulously organized on the dashboard to help save time. Every second is crucial in making it to a checkpoint on time. You will need the utmost energy and mental acumen possible to drive and navigate well.

Days before the competition started, we were fortunate to be able to take the Telluride to Glamis, California, to experience it in the heat, dirt, and dunes. That was a significant training session as it allowed us to feel comfortable in the vehicle and a reminder of how hot it can be out in the desert.

You are both experienced desert-rally competitors, having competed in past Rebelle Rally competitions and the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles in Morocco. Did the pandemic change the experience this year? 

It was vital to know both of us were taking this pandemic very seriously, and before training together, we had COVID-19 tests performed. The highest levels of precaution that the Rebelle Rally organization put in place and strict health compliance enforcement made us feel safe. The safeguards did change the dynamic in terms of making connections with the rest of the competitors. However, it didn't take away from the support, love, energy, and respect we all have for each other. What we can say is that it was a strangely fascinating version of the rally.

How challenging was this year's Rebelle Rally?

In terms of navigation and strategy, this year was by far the most difficult Rebelle Rally [the organizers] ever mapped out. You have to get all your checkpoints if you want to win, and it seems that the number of checkpoints doubled since the first rally back in 2016. Figuring out the strategy of the Rebelle, navigation, plotting, triangulation was so much harder this year. For the driver, the X-Cross class is already more of a challenge than if you are driving a big lifted four-wheel-drive vehicle.

With a stock vehicle, there is the enormous task of driving with less clearance, factory wheels, and only minor mods such as the addition of a skid plate. In the first years of the Rebelle, you could sail along and collect your checkpoints without even blinking. Now that there are more checkpoints, there is an element of speed to the rally, and on the days that you get behind, it is essential to be able to hold a specific speed through rocky terrain as you listen to directions from the navigator.

Emily Miller, a champion off-road driver and Rebelle Rally founder, is a force in desert racing. She is an inspirational figure in women's desert rallying and like a mom to all the Rebelles. What are some of the lessons you have learned from her?

Over the years, we have learned from her that we are more capable than we believe ourselves to be. For example, if you were to ask Emily: Do you think I can do this? She would turn around and say, I don't know, can you? In a few words, she can instantly change your way of thinking, and it transforms you into a person with a "yes I can" attitude. She instills confidence in you and expands what you believe is possible with your abilities.

Emily Miller encourages you to surround yourself with great people; she is a collector of people. Impossible to say no to, Emily is someone who never wants to be the smartest person in the room because she says it's best to be around people who make you smarter and better.

As mentioned, the only modifications to the 2020 Kia Telluride SX were a skid plate and all-terrain tires. Did you ever have any doubts about a predominantly stock family SUV making it successfully to the finish?

Beforehand, sure, because we didn't know what to expect, and we think anyone who would compete in the Rebelle with a new family SUV from Kia would probably feel the same.  But the vehicle that we entered the rally with is not the reason we did not win first place in the X-Crossover class; we came within 16 points of winning that title. The Kia Telluride is an incredible and very capable SUV, and on the final day of the rally, we had a ton of fun.

The navigation was impeccable, so much so that our communication and trust in each other was on target. Several of the 4x4 teams were joking the entire day that they were skirting around these massive dunes, and they'd see us in the Telluride going right through the middle of this epic dune. Even they were impressed with the Kia.

By the time we reached the Glamis dunes, our confidence in the Kia Telluride had shot through the roof. Not to mention, we pulled the Ford Bronco Sport out of the dunes, not once but on two separate occasions. We sacrificed some points the first time we towed them; however, that is part of the nature of the Rebelle, that you help each other and make allies.

The Kia Telluride pulling a Bronco out of the sand from a dead stop speaks volumes about its off-road capability and the power you can get from all four wheels. Having an audience watch the dramatic scene play out, and a photographer there to capture the rescue, made it worthwhile. If you are traversing the most breathtaking dunes in North America, are willing to go anywhere, and at the same time yank the Bronco Sport out of a jam, that is a testament of what the 2020 Kia Telluride SX can do.

Did the Telluride ever get stuck or have any issues during the eight-day rally?

We had flat tires on the first and second days, and at that point, we were out of spares. The first day was a pretty rocky one, and although we did have off-road tires, the 20-inch wheels meant we didn't have much sidewall, which resulted in a small leak. On the second day, we were hustling to get to a checkpoint and hit a rock that punctured the sidewall. Luckily the tire was still holding air, so we were able to patch it as a spare.

With five more days to drive, we didn't have another spare tire; if we did ask for an additional spare, that would result in the loss of 50 points. The folks in the 4x4s can afford to make a mistake; they could miss [spotting] a rock at speed, and it's not a big deal. We couldn't do that. It changed the way we thought about the course, routes, and forced us to assess obstacles more thoroughly.

The Kia Telluride took home an impressive second-place trophy in its first entry to the Rebelle Rally. How close did Team Telluriders come to winning first place in the X-Cross vehicle class?

On the final day of the Rebelle Rally, we were down by almost 100 points and came within 16 points of taking home a win. It took us back to day two, where we missed a checkpoint, and it also had us thinking about the small procedural mistakes. In fact, after the second day, we didn't even think there was a chance at finishing the rally successfully. One day we skidded into base camp with one minute to spare before we were going to time-out for our points. The goal then became, "Let's make it to the top of the rankings for the day," and our strategy, as it turned out, worked.  

Emily Miller and the rest of her team upped the ante this year to make the Rebelle a lot more challenging because they've had women return to compete in every rally. And to that end, we can confirm they succeeded. We're proud that we finished in second place in what is by far the hardest Rebelle Rally to date.

What is your biggest takeaway from the 2020 Rebelle Rally?

As challenging as the Rebelle Rally has become, it made us individually a better driver and navigator. [This year in general] has been a terrible year for a lot of people, and the majority of us are stuck at home. To have the opportunity to compete in an off-road rally and being able to see other people after all of these months felt special. Time goes by so fast at the Rebelle, and you never have enough hours in a day behind the wheel. In your [normal] day-to-day driving, you can get super annoyed and bored as hell, but the Rebelle Rally always makes you want one more hour.

The Rebelle does not permit the use of any form of technology during the competition. The restriction on the use of technology allowed us to switch off our phones and disconnect from current affairs and everything on social media. Your mind expands, and for the 10 days of training and competition, you are constantly thinking. Not being inundated with what's going on in the world for a couple of weeks was refreshing.

To be a part of an extraordinary adventure with a group of bad-ass women in this bubble of excitement and thought-provoking challenges was incredibly inspiring. The camaraderie that comes with it is unique; it re-inflated the balloon of positivity that's been steadily losing air this entire year. We are tremendously grateful.

Telluriders Team Tackles Tough Off-Road Rebelle Rally