Manhattan to Morocco New York City-dwelling sisters Michele and Robyn Shapiro are revving up to go off-road in the Sahara as the first U.S. drivers in the Rallye des Gazelles

April 18, 2004

There's little about the lives of New Yorkers Michele and Robyn
Shapiro to suggest a shared predilection for off-road auto
racing. Residents of Manhattan, the Shapiro sisters are hip,
young professionals with a taste for designer clothes. Michele,
34, is an editor at Glamour. Robyn, 25, is an account executive
at the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Neither owns a car
nor has any competitive motor sports experience. Yet on April 22
they will represent the United States in the 14th annual Rallye
des Gazelles, a prestigious all-female point-to-point race run
over eight days through the shifting Saharan sands of
southeastern Morocco. "I almost feel like we won a contest," says
Robyn. "It's like becoming an instant race car driver."

It hasn't been as easy as that, but there's no denying the
Shapiros have come very far, very fast. They grew up in the
Boston suburb of Wayland, Mass., and though both drove Jeeps as
teenagers, their only off-roading was through the woods behind
their high school. That's something Michele, a lifelong race fan,
has always wanted to change.

About two years ago Michele stumbled across a website for the
Rallye des Gazelles, which is open to novices as well as
experienced racers. She immediately set her sights on entering.
In the last year she and Robyn--who will be the first Americans
to compete in the event--have gathered enough sponsors to foot
most of the $45,000 needed for entry fees and expenses. "I look
at this as my independent film," says Michele, who aspires to
someday try open-wheel racing. "I would do anything to make this

The sisters have trained by driving in the woods of northern New
Hampshire at the Team O'Neil Rally School, and last month Michele
went to Morocco to practice racing over sand dunes. Pro rally
driver Andrew Comrie-Picard signed on as their coach and has
worked with them for the past two months. "I was ready for them
to be dilettantes," he says. "They're not. They're capable and

Those qualities should serve them well. The Rallye des Gazelles
is a race not of speed but of accurate navigation and disciplined
driving; the winner is the team that covers the shortest distance
in reaching all the checkpoints. Besides their
turbo-diesel-fueled 4¥4, the only equipment the Shapiros will be
allowed to use are a compass, binoculars and a topographic map.
Robyn is the team's navigator, and she'll have to pick her lines
through the sand based on little more than dead reckoning. "It's
going to be tough," she says. "I'm just scared we're going to

To alleviate tension, she has printed inspirational quotes on
strips of paper that she plans to pull out at moments of high
stress. "They're from everyone, from Cher to Thomas Edison,"
Robyn says. It's an admittedly goofy gesture, but one that she
hopes will keep their spirits up.

Her sister is confident that the race will go well. "It was less
of a concern to me that I hooked up with an experienced driver
than with someone I could trust," Michele says. "I trust her. I
know she'll step up." --Mark Beech

COLOR PHOTO: SILVIA OTTE DRIVE, THEY SAID Michele and Robyn (far left) will ride togetherfor some 1,500 desert miles.