It's 5 a.m. Thursday in the heart of the Chegaga Dunes in southern Morocco, and the sound of Carole Montillet's engine wakes up the campsite. A souped-up Fouquet Buggy with a Nissan 350 CV engine -- the car looks like a bulldog on steroids -- rumbles across the Sahara Desert with the force of a small earthquake.
Since leaving the town of Erfoud, Morocco, on March 22, France's Montillet and her navigator, Julie Verdaguer, have led the 2012 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles -- the world's most prestigious all-female car race. Although their lead is comfortable, a navigation mistake or car failure during the final day would be disastrous. It would be just the kind of break a team like Jeanette James and Florence Pham, sitting in second, has been waiting for.
If she is worried at all, Montillet doesn't show it. Casually holding a cigarette in her left hand, she makes last-minute inspections to the car, while Verdaguer plots the final five checkpoints on the map. "You must come to a race thinking you are going to win," says Verdaguer, a dental hygienist from Toulouse, France, who's played the studious role of navigator all week.
Finally, when the two agree on their direction, they climb into the low seats of the Buggy, and in a flash, they are gone into the endless sea of sand dunes.
Now in its 22nd year, the French-inspired Gazelle has been described as a massive scavenger hunt in the Sahara Desert meets the problem-solving scene in "Apollo 13." Competitors are equipped with old maps and compasses -- no GPS, no radios, no support crews. Their goal is not to record the fastest speed but to cover the shortest distance while hitting mandatory checkpoints.
For Montillet, who has competed in the rally nine times as driver and navigator, and who won the event in 2011 with partner Syndiely Wade, her strategy is simple. "I am always looking at the mountains and knowing where we are in relation to the mountains."
The mountains are where Montillet is most comfortable. A 2002 Olympic gold medalist in Alpine skiing, she is one of France's most celebrated athletes. Now she has parlayed her race skills on the hill -- the ability to take the straightest line in the least amount of time -- to success behind the wheel.
"You'll hear her come up behind you," says American competitor Amy Lerner, describing Montillet, "and then the next thing you know, she's gone."
Indeed, chasing Montillet across the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco is no easy task. But for Lerner and her sister Tricia Reina, who are competing in their second Gazelle, it is the ultimate challenge.
A former equity trader on Wall Street, Lerner was inspired to enter the rally as a driver after reading an article in The New York Times three years ago. Younger sister Tricia, who studied geology in college, was a natural fit as the navigator. "She [Reina] is more familiar with terrain and features and what it looks like on a map," Lerner says.
At Checkpoint 5 on the last day, the sisters (one of only two American teams in the field) sit impressively in 10th place out of 150 teams.
"We were a little surprised at first to be running with the top group," Lerner says, almost whispering. "I mean, we trained for it and prepared for it, but to finish in the top 10 " She stops, almost afraid to finish her own sentence. "To finish in the top 10 would be amazing."
But the day is only half over, and like everyone else in the race who has set personal goals, car failure or navigation errors could easily negate a week's worth of hard work.
"The pressure of navigating is so much," says fellow Gazelle Frederique Dupon. "Even if you are confident where you are going, you are still never sure until you get there. If you are off by even 1 kilometer, you can be driving around for hours, and your race will be over."
The one place all competitors must be confident in finding is the bivouac -- a makeshift campsite that is set up in a new location every two days. As the sun starts to set on the final day of competition, competitors, caked with mud and dust, slowly trickle back to the bivouac, a place they now consider home, one by one.
Soon the camp starts to take on a party atmosphere, and the Black Eyed Peas lyrics, "Tonight's gonna be a good night," blast into the night. Montillet and Verdaguer, who returned a few hours earlier, gather around a linen table in the dining tent, laughing with friends. While official results won't be released until the awards ceremony in the beach town of Essaouira two days later, the word has leaked out -- they have won.
Nearby, Lerner and Reina, the unlikely contenders in the mostly French field, eat quietly, their faces still smeared with sunscreen applied earlier in the day. What they don't know is that somewhere between Checkpoint 5 and the finish, they moved up from 10th place into eighth -- a huge leap for the day and from their 52nd-place finish in 2011.
For them, also, tonight's going to be a good night. And next year, when they return again, they might just be the ones sneaking up behind Montillet somewhere in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
1. Carole Montillet/Julie Verdaguer
2. Jeanette James/Florence Pham
3. Elisabete Jacinto/Sofia Carvalhosa
4. Frederique Dupon/Nadia Mantin
5. Marielle Asou-Pothet/Valerie Thiebaut
6. Marie-Pierre Moyne/Sabine Bernot
7. Catherine Blanchet-Perrette/Sylvie Freches
8. Amy Lerner /Tricia Reina