When I told my friends and family that I wanted to spend a week getting lost in the desert in the name of rally, they weren’t surprised—especially my partner Calvin Cooper. Together we own and run Cooper Autoworks, a BMW-exclusive shop in Edwardsville, Illinois. We have been competing in various forms of rally sport in BMWs and Minis since 2017. We’ve participated in numerous TSD rallies, organized our local rallycross program, and won American Rally Association Class Championships in our 1991 E30. I am most known for being the driver of a very unconventional rally car: a 1999 Z3 coupe dressed in a strawberry livery. We love showcasing BMW’s motorsport heritage and we are no strangers to preparing a vehicle for the demands of a rally.The Rebelle Rally is the longest navigational rally in the United States. This year it covered over 2,580 kilometers (1,600 miles) in eight days and took us through some of the most epic off-road trails the wild west offers. This rally is an international motorsport event for women and draws competitors from all over the world. My teammate, who did the majority of the navigation, was fellow rally driver and outdoor enthusiast Liz Mohan. Every team traverses the desert landscape using only a map, compass, and odometer, hunting for both marked and unmarked checkpoints. Each of these points is assigned values based on how difficult they are to obtain. All on-board navigation must be disabled, and any devices with connectivity to the outside world, must be sealed away for the duration of the event. No phone calls to home. No social media. Only your complete attention on the adventure that awaits. The Rebelle requires endurance, eight continuous days of competition with limited parts, and mechanical assistance. We knew we needed a vehicle that could go the distance with plenty of room for our tools, spare parts, required safety equipment, and camping gear. We chose our 2013 X5 xDrive35d for the challenge as it is BMW’s most capable off-road platform, especially with the 3.0-liter diesel power plant.
Since this event is not a race, we kept prep as simple as possible. We installed a 1.5-inch body lift, a skid plate, and off-road tires. Thanks to Hawk Performance, we also upgraded the brakes and rotors. We fitted the roof rack to mount a spare tire and our MaxTrax Recovery boards. I covered it in the “M-Spot” livery to honor BMW’s motorsport heritage and to stand out in the lineup.The hotel’s parking lot in Lake Tahoe could barely contain the 54 teams awaiting technical inspection. As I made my way through the line, we passed Jeeps, Fords, and Toyotas. These four manufacturers make up almost 70% of the total entry list. Teams are divided into only two classes, 4×4 and Crossover. The 4×4 class contains most entries with a low-speed transfer case with low-range gears. Only eight competitors, my vehicle included, were in the X-Cross class, which is for all-wheel-drive vehicles with no transfer case. I looked down the long row of rigs and smiled when I saw my spotted BMW. When I signed up, I was only given the address to the hotel in Lake Tahoe, and were told that we would finish in the Imperial Sand Dunes just a few miles north of the Mexican Border. Everything that lay in between was a complete mystery. Each morning Emily Miller, the founder and mastermind behind this demanding competition, rings a cowbell at 5 a.m. in camp to wake the competitors. Waking up to below-freezing temperatures didn’t make it easy to climb out of my sleeping bag to receive the day’s maps and checkpoints. Knowing I could crawl into those heated leather seats and crank the climate control made it much more manageable. We’ve plotted twenty coordinates, and those tiny dots are scattered across a 1:100,000 scale map. As we sit at the start line we begin choosing the little squiggly lines of trails that hopefully lead to our day’s checkpoints. What lies ahead? Sandy trails in the desert brush hard-packed with deep washes running across. Rocky canyons with sharp stones and steep climbs. Silty dry lake beds that would leave massive dust clouds in our wake. The world’s largest dirt road. Sections of the trail were washed away by flash flooding. Measure, drive, watch the terrain and the odometer, triangulate and repeat. Looking over the hood to see a waving green flag or blue pole would appear in the topography ahead was euphoric. Part of the challenge is choosing trails that don’t exceed your driving or vehicle capabilities. I tend to be a calculated driver with a lot of mechanical sympathy. I was often pushed outside my comfort zone, but the X5 surpassed my expectations over every obstacle. Every kilometer allowed me to grow and develop my confidence in myself and my BMW. We were on trails for the first seven days, but we would be spending our final day in the Imperial dunes. The weight of a production vehicle on soft, shifting sands meant we would need to be smart about choosing our path through the dunes and using our momentum. Like many competitors, we got stuck in the dunes more than once, but my navigator was a vehicle recovery master. With a bit of shoveling, our recovery boards, and the xDrive, we were on the move before you could say, “Schnell.” As we pulled up to the finish I thought about the last year of hard work and dedication it took to find sponsors. The privilege of representing the 100 Acre Wood Performance Rally group where I got my start in rally, the St. Louis BMW CCA chapter, and the Rally Ready Driving school where I’ve trained as a driver. The magnificent sunrises and sunsets over desert scenery. The amazing people who supported this journey and the lifelong friendships I made. I am so full of gratitude for the opportunity to pilot the first BMW in the Rebelle Rally and I can’t wait for the opportunity to compete again. —Kelsey Stephens
Kelsey Stephens is a 31-year-old rally driver, co-driver, and media personality. She attended her first rally in 2012 where saw women in race suits for the first time. This was the spark that lit her passion for motorsports. She met her partner Calvin Cooper and together they have built Cooper Autoworks, a BMW specialty shop and rally team. Calvin and Kelsey competed together in their E30 rally car for four years with Calvin as the Driver and Kelsey co-driving, winning two class championships together. In 2021 they picked up a second rally car, a very unique Z3 coupe that she now rallies as a driver. She has a passion for encouraging and teaching others about motorsport, has hosted rally live streams, creates exciting and educational YouTube content, and has given Motorsports and STEM talks to students. She was the first to drive a BMW in the Rebelle Rally in 2022.