• Jessi Combs was an internationally-recognized race driver, car builder and TV personality.
• She was killed in a car crash in Oregon's Alvord Desert in 2019 while trying to break the women's land speed record set in 1976.
• She achieved her goal posthumously in 2020 when her name was added to the World Guinness Record database.
• She founded the Real Deal Revolution organization to inspire and support women in pursuing automotive-related areas.
• The Jessi Combs Foundation was inaugurated in 2019 to honor her legacy and provide scholarships to women in automotive and industrial fields.
Whether you know her from her internationally-recognized career on TV, or for her prowess behind the wheel, the truth is that Jessi Combs was extremely skillful in doing what she loved the most.
Besides her career in the car building world, Jessi’s successful career in the entertainment industry and race driving led her to become one of the most famous stars in the automotive world. However, her title of “the fastest woman on four wheels” was ultimately a high price to pay for making her biggest dream come true.
So how did Jessi Combs die? Did it happen on the track or somewhere else? What happened to her family and loved ones, and how many records did she break? Keep with us to know more about Jessi and her impressive life!
How Did She Die?
Unfortunately, Jessi Combs was killed in a car crash on 27 August 2019 at 39 years old. At the time of her death, she was in Oregon’s Alvord Desert attempting to break the women’s land speed record set in 1976.
As reported by the Associated Press, the official cause of death was ‘blunt force trauma to the head’, which she supposedly suffered right before the car was engulfed by fire.
According to witnesses, Jessi’s jet-powered car named the North American Eagle Project, fell to the desert’s lake bed after failing to stop. These types of failures were supposedly prevented by several safety measures included in the car’s design, but as an investigation led by The North American Race Team and Harney County Sheriff’s Office determined, a failure ‘most likely caused from striking an object on the desert’ led to the front wheel assembly to collapse while the four-wheeled vehicle ran at 550 miles per hour.
Resulting from this unfortunate incident, the North American Eagle Project was abandoned in the following months. However, despite her unfortunate and tragic end, it’s important to remember Jessi as someone who pursued her passions with everything she had.
Was Her Record Registered?
Jessi Combs actually became the world’s fastest female racer on that fateful day in August 2019. Jessi had already broken a world record in 2013, but the record set by Kitty O’Neil in 1976 of 512.71 mph was her biggest goal for several years, but mechanical problems had prevented her from achieving it other times when she’d tried.
Regardless of the unfortunate way in which it was achieved, in June 2020 the World Guinness Record updated its database with Jessi’s name as the new titleholder of the female land speed record, for reaching an average speed of 522.783 mph during her last runs in the Alvord Desert.
On her way to breaking this record, she had even become close with O’Neal, who gave Jessi her blessing some time before dying in 2018. As well, Jessi’s association with The North American Eagle Project since 2013 was key in achieving said goal: ‘Jessi was one of the most innovative, energizing, and gifted figures in modern racing’, written on their Facebook page.
As affirmed by her boyfriend and team-mate Terry Madden: ‘no record could ever be worth her not being here, but it was a goal that she really wanted’.
What Records Did She Break?
In 2013 Jessi Combs broke the first record of her career when she became the fastest woman on four wheels in October that year. The previous record had been set by Lee Breedlove, who in 1965 reached a speed of 308.506 mph while driving the Spirit of America Sonic, surpassed by Jessi with 398.954 mph on average.
Jessi’s 2013 feat wasn’t only impressive by general standards, but also her own. As she admitted in an interview with Off Road Xtreme in 2014, the fastest speed she had ever reached before that was 211 mph a couple of years prior, while driving a Ferrari: ‘I ended up running the Ferrari off the end of the runway, and nobody was really happy about it’.
😧 "U.S. driver Jessi Combs killed in bid to break land-speed record U.S. driver… Combs was one of the rare dreamers with the bravery to turn those possibilities into reality, and she left this earth driving faster than any other woman in history.” https://t.co/Eg1MTOcLXh pic.twitter.com/1z8hQl5jtC
— Tammy Bruce (@HeyTammyBruce) August 28, 2019
Although breaking Breedlove’s 48-year-old record should have been enough for anyone, it was only the start for Jessi, on her way to breaking Kitty O’Neal’s record. During the following years she tried to achieve that feat several times, even breaking her own 2013’s record in 2016 by running at 477.59 mph, which was surely enough to ensure her legendary status in the race world.
Who Was Jessi?
To say Jessi Combs was a race driver would ignore all the impressive feats she achieved in her life. A native from South Dakota, Jessi’s appreciation for cars and speed started in her early childhood, a hobby only rivaled by her passion for sports and creating everything from photography and leather crafting to steel building. Nonetheless, Jessi’s most impressive talent was her high resilience and relentless will to make things by herself: ‘I will try everything at least twice. I wouldn’t want to be jaded by the first attempt’, as her website reads.
Though she was granted a scholarship to study design, Jessi pursued a career in snowboarding in Colorado instead. However, dedicating her life to sports proved to be more demanding than she expected, so she chose to move to Wyoming to pursue a degree in Custom Automotive Fabrication at WyoTech, graduating in 2004.
It may seem a little crazy to walk directly into the line of fire… those who are willing, are those who achieve great things. .
People say I’m crazy. I say thank you 😉
.#fastestwomanonearth #almost #fasterthanfast #jetcar #afterburner #landpsee… https://t.co/IrnCQQWMGJ pic.twitter.com/A5NZ6Luq0u
— Jessi Combs (@TheJessiCombs) August 24, 2019
Her time in WyoTech learning everything from upholstery and fabrication turned in her favor, as her first job upon graduation was building a car from the ground-up to be exhibited and later auctioned at that year’s Specialty Equipment Marketing Association’s (SEMA) show. Not only did that job gain her recognition in the automotive world, but also made clear that pursuing a career in the car field was the right choice.
Career On TV
Although the entertainment world might not be the preferred field for people in the automotive field, Jessi’s charisma and endless talent landed her a first job on TV in the popular series “Overhaulin’” as a guest fabricator. Not long afterwards, she became host of “Xtreme 4×4”, which showed in depth the process of building four-wheeled vehicles, and keeping them on the road.
In 2008, Jessi left the show suddenly due to health reasons, but her career on TV had only just started. The following year she joined the cast of “MythBusters” as Kari Byron’s replacement for one season, later landing her most recognized job on TV by returning to “Overhaulin’” as a main host.
She left the latter show after only a year, to become “All Girls Garage”s host and main builder. Though she appeared briefly in “1001 Car Things to Do Before You Die”, in 2013 she took a break from TV to focus on her racing career. In 2016 she returned as a metal builder and car driver for “How to Build… Everything”.
Unbeknownst to many, Jessi had a brief career as an actress, as Catherine Lewis in the movie “Breathless Betrayal”, and in the film “Interviewing Monsters and Bigfoot”, premiered a couple of months after her death.
In 2007 Jessi Combs suffered a severe accident while on set of “Xtreme 4×4”. As it happens, Jessie often took part in the many repair and mechanical projects featured in the show, but a huge piece of machinery fell and ‘folded’ her in two, as her website reads.
Jessi was lucky enough not to lose her life in such a terrible way, but the fracture to her spinal L3 was close leaving her in a wheelchair. Jessi overcame that unfortunate time of her life by getting seven drawers on her spine in surgery, being confined to a hospital bed for months while undergoing a long recovery process, but ended up leaving the show ‘in pursuit of other opportunities’.
While Jessi didn’t often talk about the accident and apparently recovered well to live normally, she described her spine situation as a ‘L1-L4 Vertebrae fusion’: ‘I have more good days then bad days, tho’ it doesn’t seem to slow me down in achieving my goals’, as she wrote on her website.
Race Driving Career
Although Jessi Combs left her goal of becoming a professional race driver aside for years, the dream was never forgotten. Growing-up, Jessi trained several in driving styles, including performance and stunt driving, which merged well with her knowledge in mechanics and fabrication she acquired later in life.
Despite being in the field for several years, it wasn’t until 2011 that Jessi gained her first big result by reaching second spot in The Baja 1000, followed by getting the spot at the Ultra 4 Stampede in 2014, not long after taking an indefinite break from TV to focus on driving. That same year she scored several top racing spots, including becoming a national champion of the Ultra 4 Stampede, and Ultra 4 King of the Hammers in the Spec Class, a feat she successfully repeated in the following years in the event’s other categories.
In 2015, Jessi won her first international race championship at the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles, followed by other North American titles. In 2018 she was placed second in the Gambler 500 Mini Moto Enduro, ending an accomplished but career cut-short in the race world.
How Much Was Her Car Worth?
Knowing how prolific her career behind the wheel was, it’s unsurprising for people to wonder how much Jessi Combs’ record-breaking car was worth. However, while the real cost of the North American Eagle Project is unknown, she drove other jealousy-inducing vehicles worth quite a lot.
For starters, the Ferrari 458 Italia she drove before breaking her first speed record is nowadays worth over $200,000, but its price is fairly surpassed by the 2017 Bugatti Chiron, a car she drove in a 2018 feature in “Jay Leno’s Garage” valued at $2.9 million. According to Leno, the Bugatti is able to go from ‘zero to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds and reach a top speed of 261 mph’, fairly winning the title of the fastest mph road car in the world.
Although most people aren’t skilled enough to drive such a great and expensive machine, it was unsurprisingly a piece of cake for Jessi.
In 2013, Jessi Combs was named spokesperson for WyoTech, in a joint effort to spread the love and passion for car fabrication and education in general. Jessi held public events all around the US, representing WyoTech as one of its most honorable graduates: ‘she’s an outstanding example of what dedication and perseverance can achieve’, as the institute stated.
Becoming a spokesperson wasn’t Jessi’s only effort to inspire others, as in the following years she co-founded Real Deal Revolution, with the designer and custom car painter Theresa Contreras. Their organization’s goal was to inspire and support women in pursuing automotive-related areas, including wielding, steel fabrication and racing, on top of breaking stereotypes for women in a male-dominated industry.
Despite Jessi’s death in 2019, Real Deal Revolution’s mission continued on afterwards. The organization is still active and run by Theresa, who never fails to spread her and Jessi’s once shared dream and passion.
Tributes & Legacy
After her death, Jessi was featured in the movie “Interviewing Monsters and Bigfoot”, directed by Thomas Smugala. Although Jessi’s role was brief, Smugala dedicated the film to her: ‘she was the kindest and [most] uplifting person in the world. She was fierce. She was giving. She was loyal. She will be missed by all’, he told Fox News.
Despite dying very young, Jessi Combs’ accomplishments were undoubtedly impressive and greatly inspiring. That’s why her legacy still lives on to this day, and thanks to the creation of The Jessi Combs Foundation, inaugurated in September 2019 at the Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum, where the exhibition “Jessi Combs: Life at Full Speed” was held. During this event, a variety of Jessi’s belongings were exhibited, including some of her cars and memorabilia.
However, more than just a tribute for Jessi, the organization’s mission is to inspire people in all walks of life by her life’s story, on top of encouraging women to follow their dream path in life. Thanks to the Jessi Combs Foundation’s scholarships, to date dozens of women have been granted annual financial support in careers related to automotive or industrial fields considered male-dominated: ‘the program is a platform for driving change within the cultural fabric of the trades industry; creating pathways for more women to enter, thrive, and succeed’, as the website states, definitely making Jessi’s philosophy more relevant than ever.