Off the beaten path: Engineering grad grateful for desert adventure

Wild horses. A minefield. A sinkhole. A saloon. These are a few things Michelle Gerrity Klein ’12 saw on an intense 1,500-mile off-road auto endurance race through the deserts and mountains of Nevada and California last October.

And lots of tumbleweeds. “We (she and teammate Maria Guitar) nicknamed our truck Tumbleweed,” Klein said. “One day, we even threw (a tumbleweed) in the back and took it with us.” 

Klein, a mechanical engineering graduate who’s now a crash safety engineer at Honda R&D Americas, Inc. in Raymond, Ohio, was thrilled to pair up with Guitar, another Honda engineer, for the Rebelle Rally, the first U.S. women’s off-road navigation rally. Though Honda hadn’t competed before, the company sponsored two teams of women engineers for the event.

With just four months to prepare, Klein, Guitar and a group of engineers from across several divisions at the company made sure the bright green 2018 Honda Ridgeline was all-terrain-ready. And since the rally forbids the use of phones or GPS, Honda flew the two women to California for 1:1 training with Rebelle Rally founder and professional racer Emily Miller, who taught them to use a topography map and a compass to navigate. “Emily taught us how to read shadows on the sand, navigate by mountain peaks and how to safely drive the various terrains of the West,” Klein said. 

Then, in October, Klein and Guitar embarked on the eight-day trek from Lake Tahoe to San Diego. Each day was a high-stakes scavenger hunt, with the team earning points by finding a series of checkpoints — often in the middle of nowhere. Subsisting on chips, red licorice and crackers by day, Klein, Guitar and other participants were rewarded with a chef-prepared meal at base camp every evening. 

Reflecting on the “life changing” experience, Klein noted the cooperative spirit of her competitors. “There was a different energy among both participants and staff. No one was cutthroat. In fact, they would risk losing points to ask others if they needed help. It was amazing to see the kindness to others.”

After dinner every night, Klein and others told stories from the day. “The sense was, ‘We’re all in this together — and we’re all going to finish.’”

“While it was a competition for the podium, it was also a test of the human spirit,” she said. “Grueling, but, in the end, rewarding.”

Klein, whose day job involves ensuring the quality of Honda vehicles’ structure, seats and safety belts, had a front row seat to test these aspects of the truck. And meeting other adventure-seeking women gave her insights into what they wanted in an off-road vehicle.

“That’s a potential future customer,” she said.

— Mary Brolley

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