27 August 2019 was a dark day for race car and speed enthusiasts as they went from holding their collective breaths awaiting confirmation that Jessi Combs had broken a 40-year record, to having their hearts break into pieces when the phenomenal woman was carried out of the wreckage on a stretcher. Here are the details of the tragic accident that robbed the racing world of one of its brightest stars.
Racer, TV Personality, Fabricator
Born Jessica Combs in July 1980, Jessi was best known for breaking records as a professional car racer, hosting and featuring in several television shows, and restoring vintage cars. Jessi grew up dreaming of becoming a race car driver – she loved machines and motorsports and hoped that when she grew up she would get the opportunity to enjoy the thrill of racing in a machine she’d worked on. As she grew up, she nurtured her passion by learning everything she could about professional racing, using every opportunity she got to study machines and cars, and planning her education to align with her goals.
Jessi had two role models from whom she drew motivation, and reassurance that she would realize her dreams. Her first role model was her great-grandmother, Nina DeBow, who raced steam cars long before women were respected and valued in motorsports. Jessi’s second role model was Kitty O’Neil, the woman who set the 1976 record that Jessi aimed to beat. With the assurance that women who came before her had succeeded in the field, and the determination to carve a spot for herself in racing, Jessi took the first step toward the future she dreamed of when she joined WyoTech. At the technical college, she enrolled in courses that equipped her with fabrication and vehicle restoration skills, such as the Collision and Refinishing Core, the Street Rod Fabrication and Custom Fabrication, and the High-Performance Powertrain programs.
Immediately after graduation, Jessi got her first opportunity to practice the skills she’d acquired at WyoTech when the institution hired her to build a car and show it at a specialty equipment show. Six months later, she was at the show proudly displaying her work. Before the thrill of building her first car wore off, Jessi went to work restoring vintage cars, boosting their power, training in different types of driving, and collaborating with fellow enthusiasts and sponsors to enter racing events. Jessi was slowly becoming a household name in motorsports, known for her ability to drive anything from monster trucks to rally cars and hot rods.
— Jessi Combs (@TheJessiCombs) June 15, 2012
Jessi’s growing skills and reputation attracted TV executives and producers, and it wasn’t long, before she made her television debut. She started out as a performance driver for films and commercials, but transitioned into hosting and being featured in shows. Her first major appearance on television was in “Overhaulin” – Jessi was a guest fabricator before she was approached to co-host “Xtreme 4×4” on Spike Tv. Jessi felt right at home in the show, since her role involved playing out her childhood dream of building cars, subsequently appearing in over 90 episodes, which aired in the four years from 2005 and 2009, before an accident that threatened her future in motorsports prompted her to leave the show. She was working in the studio alongside her co-host, when a piece of the machine she was using fell on her, fracturing part of her spine. She was lucky to eventually recover her mobility.
After the accident, Jessi moved on but didn’t leave television. She hosted a series of other shows including “2 Guys Garage,” “Full Throttle TV,” and “Busch 2015”, while one of her most memorable stints on television was her roles in “Mythbusters” and “All Girls Garage.” Television allowed her the visibility and reach she needed to advance her call for the representation of women in racing and skilled automotive trades, a cause she was passionate about. Her partner in advocacy, Theresa Contreras, has kept Jessi’s passion for empowering women to make space for themselves in the trades alive, through “The Real Deal Revolution”, the non-profit they co-founded.
A Man’s World
Before her untimely death, Jessi was filming a documentary, hoping it would be released after she broke the record to show her journey to holding the Guinness World Record for the fastest four-wheel-driven land speed. Unknown to her, she would break the record but lose her life in the process. In the documentary, released in 2022, Jessi discusses the hurdles she spent her entire career fighting to overcome, for being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
In a raw candid conversation with the filmmaker, Jessi revealed that she was often treated differently to the men she worked with, competed with, and often surpassed in both fabrication and racing. She reported being constantly required to prove herself, her skills, and her knowledge by people who doubted her qualifications. despite having proven herself severally. Jessi was particularly saddened and frustrated by people who insisted that as a woman, she could have earned her place in the motorsports industry long after she earned the nickname “Queen of the Hammers” for finishing second in the “King of Hammers,” the most grueling and difficult desert race in the world.
Jessi’s frustration at having to prove herself led her to track down her role model, Kitty O’Neil, who had suffered a similar fate before her retirement. Like Jessi, Kitty was one of a few women in the industry in her time, and had set the record for the fastest drive across the Alvord Desert in a rocket-powered car in 1976. She had hoped to push her limits further and break more speed records, but faced resistance. Sexism played a huge role in her failure to attempt to set other speed records; one instance in particular had Jessi angry at her hero’s lost opportunity. O’Neil was set to attempt a new record but her sponsor barred her attempts to allow a man to set the record instead. Jessi vowed to set a new record in honor of her role model and sought O’Neil’s blessing.
In the course of her career, Jessi enjoyed several successes and set a few records. In 2011, she finished second in the “Baja 1000”, then two years later, set a new land speed record when she became the first woman in history to average 398mph and hit a top speed of 440mph on 4-wheels. The following year, she finished first in the Ultra 4 King of the Hammers special class, and in the same year, she achieved the fastest speed in the event’s legend class. Her winning spree continued over the years until 2018, when she hit a new high speed of 483.227mph at the NAE Landspeed race. Jessi concentrated on getting progressively better, in readiness for the ultimate challenge; setting a new land-speed record in Alvord Desert.
With O’Neil’s blessings and a determination to set a new world record, Jessi was unstoppable. According to her partner, Terry Madden, on the morning of the accident, Jessi woke up ready to make history – she’d confided in Terry that this would be her last. An excited Jessi went through the safety check-ups, geared up, and boarded The North American Eagle ready to take off and drive her way into world history and the Guinness World Records. Within minutes, Jessi was cruising through the desert the whole time keeping in communication with the team she left behind.
Everything appeared to be going well for Jessi until the car disappeared in a cloud of dust – the crew read out the mile markers into their linked communication channels, and instructed Jessi to kill the engine. When she didn’t respond, the crew panicked and made more frantic calls until a terse one-word response “copy” was heard from her linked microphone before she stopped responding. That was the last word Jessi spoke. In seconds, rescuers were rushing from the starting line to her car, hoping to find the world record holder alive. By the time they got to her car it was on fire, and Jessi had taken her last breath.
In the aftermath of the accident, the racing world followed keenly the investigation into the cause of the crash. It emerged that the front wheels disintegrated after Jessi struck an object along the course. Further reports showed that she was driving at a speed of close to 550 mph when the front wheel assembly collapsed. The speed and impact threw her head against a blunt object in the car, killing her on the spot – Jessi was dead before the car caught fire. The accident was caused by a mechanical issue and Jessie had followed every safety precaution, made sound decisions, and adhered to all emergency procedures. Sadly, Jessi achieved her lifelong goal and broke O’Neil’s record, but didn’t live to revel in her achievement.
Immortalized on Film
Jessi is the current world record holder for the fastest land speed, being awarded the record and honor posthumously. Her achievement has been immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records, and on film following the release of a documentary on her journey. The document is appropriately entitled “The Fastest Woman on Earth” and shows the determination, courage, and passion that led Jessie to achieve her dreams.