Rebelle Rally Founder Emily Miller Is a Total Off-Road Warrior

Plus, behind-the-scenes photos from the all-female Rebelle Rally 2019.

Eleonor SeguraWriter, Photographer

Wisdom radiates from the eyes of the woman sitting in front of me. She's petite, soft-spoken—and a total off-road warrior. I'm speaking with Emily Miller, who's the sort of fun aunt you wish you grew up with, the one you couldn't wait to see on weekends because she'd give you a little more rope than your parents. But instead of allowing you stay up late and have that extra scoop of ice cream, she'd take you ripping across sand dunes and teach you how to navigate harsh terrain.

Miller has worked in public relations and sports marketing for the majority of her professional career, but she's most passionate about off-roading. Miller is the first woman to solo drive the Vegas to Reno off-road race—the longest in the U.S.—and she has numerous podium finishes and wins to her credit, including in the Baja 1000. On top of it all, she founded the Rebelle Rally, the first competitive rally for women in the U.S.

I rode with Miller through the Algodones Dunes during the last leg of Rebelle Rally, and then snagged time with her to learn more about the backstory of her off-roading journey.

Automobile Magazine: How did you get into off-roading?

Emily Miller: Around 2002, I was in Reno, Nevada, and had the opportunity to meet Rod Hall, who introduced me to off-roading. He became a friend, somebody I worked with, and eventually a business partner. Rod was one of the most winning racers in the history of the sport and before he passed away this year, he did every Baja 1000 race for 50 years. He is the one who brought me into off-roading, believed in me, taught me everything I know, and is still the voice in my head.

What was it like to learn from the greatest off-road racer of all time?

"I could teach you how to drive on desert terrain and how to finish, but you have to learn how to win," Rod would say. After he taught me how to drive off-road, I rode with him as his co-driver during races and learned everything I could from him. I then had the chance to drive his race trucks, which was very cool. Later on, Rod asked me to race for his team and I officially started my off-road racing career in 2004. I competed up until GM's factory team went bankrupt.

What was the most important lesson you learned from Rod Hall?

Rod always said that I needed to learn patience through racing above anything else. When he would say that "patience" was the biggest lesson, I thought it was crazy. I never really understood that concept until I got older and it proved to be so true. In his own words, "You want to win as slowly as you can." This short but profound statement made an impact on me, and that's how I kind of feel about the Rebelle Rally and life in general.

Could you share some highlights of your off-roading career?

The second year I entered Vegas to Reno, a three-day rally, with my awesome co-driver Sam Cothrun, I solo drove the entire race and we won. There was one race where I came across the finish line and they told me I had won. It was a 250-mile race; however, it was very extreme in terms of the terrain. When I attended the awards ceremony the next day, however, I found out I actually finished in second place by two seconds. That experience is a favorite of mine, in a way that it forced me to go back and think about the entire two seconds I had lost. Those two seconds added up to 13 minutes and taught me a big lesson.

When did you last compete in an off-road rally?

Earlier this year, in April, I did the Carta Rallye in Morocco and it felt good to get my hands back on the wheel.

You're the founder of the Rebelle Rally. For those who don't know, what is the Rebelle Rally?

The Rebelle Rally is the longest competitive off-road rally in the United States, and it happens to be for women. GPS technology, cell phones, and outside assistance is strictly prohibited. It is not a race for speed, but rather a test of driving precision and navigation skills. Rebelle covers eight days of driving, seven days of scoring competition, and it is the total package.

Where did the inspiration for an all-women off-road rally come from?

Years ago, I competed in a rally in Morocco where a lot of women participated and because not everybody has the budget or that much time to stay in Morocco, we talked about creating one in the U.S. I believe that the American West has some of the best driving terrain, from high elevations to below sea level. Although I love competing outside of the country, I felt that we needed to create something that was a badge of honor for women in the U.S.

One way the Rebelle Rally is different from other off-road competitions is that participants enter with stock vehicles. What's the idea behind this?

When I created the Rebelle Rally, I wanted it to be an off-road rally competition for stock vehicles based on precision driving and not a race for speed. Growing up, I was always taught that the most important skill as a driver is to be able to pilot a stock vehicle successfully. The stock vehicle in your driveway is more capable than you may know.

Why is the Rebelle Rally important?

Rebelle Rally is important because it gives women a platform to showcase their driving skills under challenging circumstances. The way we have structured Rebelle—and every single component of the rally—is designed to gain the respect for women in the sport of off-road, especially in automotive.

How is the Rebelle Rally rewarding for you?

Coaching women, seeing how they respond, how well they do, and their triumphs is special to me. To witness the success of the Rebelle in just four years is also meaningful. The Rebelle Rally is kind of a culmination of all of my work, life, and experiences.

What do you hope women who compete in the Rebelle Rally gain from the experience?  

That through doing the Rebelle, women will become more competent, skilled, and have the confidence to use their voice. Most important, that they believe in themselves. Women often don't believe in themselves nearly as much as everyone does around them. I strongly feel that the Rebelle Rally changes that—I really do.

Rebelle Rally just entered its fourth year and is sort of like a sisterhood. Are there any competitors that stand out or have stayed with you?

They all do. There are so many, everyone is really different and has a special story.

For women who are interested, but don't believe they have what it takes to enter the Rebelle Rally, what do you say to them?

Learn how to say yes and stop saying no. They drive and navigate every single day to the office, to get their kids, on road trips, etc. Women possess the skills—they just need to believe that they can do it. Frankly, women have just got to stop saying, "I can't. " 

Clearly, off-roading is your favorite hobby, but what else do you enjoy doing when you're not floating across sand dunes and kicking up rocks in a 4x4?

Even though I don't get to do it enough anymore given all the time I devote to the Rebelle, I love being on the snow both snowboarding and skiing. Now that I live in Southern California, I mountain bike and surf, which I really enjoy doing with my family and friends.