Jessi Combs: A Legend Lost Too Soon

As the world learns of the passing of Jessi Combs, it's important to reflect on the impact she had during her short life.

Photos from JessiCombs.com and Instagram @thejessicombs

The ‘fastest woman on four wheels,’ has died in a land-speed accident at the age of 39-years-old.

Jessi Combs, a legend in many facets of the automotive world, passed away on Tuesday following an accident in a jet-powered land-speed car in the Alvord Desert in Oregon. The accident occurred as she was trying to break her own land-speed record, set back in October 2018. While it was cut short, Jessi had the kind of impact on automotive enthusiasts that turns little kids into dreamers, gear-heads into engine builders and racers, and fans into believers.

“I will try everything at least twice…  I wouldn’t want to be jaded by the first attempt.” -Jessi Combs

Jessi Combs’ life began in the Black Hills of Rapid City, SD where she grew up as a fearless kid who was determined to one day slide behind the wheel of a race car. Her upbringing allowed her to explore off-roading and activities to scratch the itch for speed that she developed at a young age.  She was described as being an adventurous and independent soul who loved to work with her hands, and was fascinated by machines, metal working, leather craft, and photography.

As a young adult, she turned down a full scholarship from a prominent interior design school to travel the country, eventually settling in Denver, Colorado where she began a career in snowboarding. This physically demanding sport would prove to be something Jessi wanted to move away from,leading her towards Motorsports and fabrication.

Jessi later moved from Colorado to Laramie, WY where she studied Collision/Refinishing, Chassis Fabrication, Street Rod Fabrication, and Trim/Upholstery at WyoTech, graduating at the top of her class with a degree in Custom Automotive Fabrication. Her first big breakout project was a paid gig to build a car for the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association’s (SEMA) show with fellow student, Ben Bright. 

Her ties with the SEMA family didn’t end there, as Jessi had become a familiar face of the association over the years. She was always happy to stop and talk to fans and take pictures with them during SEMA shows she would attend. Jessi Combs and Dennis Pittsenbarger even recently co-hosted the 50th-annual SEMA Industry Awards Banquet in 2016.

“I had the joy of knowing and working with Jessi through her affiliation with SEMA. Her personality was as big as her passion for the automotive aftermarket and the adventures she enjoyed.  Due to her diverse involvement (racing, rock crawling, cross country touring, TV personality, etc.), she eagerly spread the word about all of the amazing opportunities through the SEMA Businesswomen’s Network.  She was a huge advocate for women in the industry, promoting and encouraging women to just go for for their dreams. I am forever thankful for her for sharing her passion and inspiring us to do what we love.  She will be greatly missed, but never forgotten.” -Tammy Holland, Sales Communication, COMP Performance Group; Former SBN Chair; Current HRIA IPC

The world got its first real appreciation for Jessi when she became a guest fabricator on Overhaulin’, and from there went on to co-host Xtreme 4×4, a show part of the Powerblock on Spike TV. Over the four years, and over 90 episodes, Combs and co-host Ian Johnson built race and street trucks, and everything in between, for an adoring audience to follow along.

“Jessi Combs was someone who was truly respected by everyone in the industry, even if you didn’t personally know her.  Watching her on TV in her early days of Xtreme 4×4, I quickly developed a tremendous admiration for her abilities, and respected her even more for the person she appeared to be.  As she became more recognized, and I met her a few times, I was even more impressed with the person she was.  A truly genuine person, who had a passion for the industry, and would stop and talk to anyone, anytime.  She will truly be missed by her industry friends and even more so by her family.”  Mark Campbell, Director Outside Sales Group, COMP Performance Group™

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A freak accident in 2007, while Jessi was working in the studio, would cause great injury to the co-host when a large piece of machinery fell on her. A fractured L3 vertebrae in her spine could have caused the young gear-head to become wheelchair bound, but she rebounded after painstaking surgery, rest, and physical therapy. Although she was granted a full medical release after 8 months, Jessi left the show in 20018 to pursue other career opportunities.

Jessi didn’t have to host a TV show to stay in the public eye, she spent the next year making appearances on 2 Guys Garage, TruckU, SEMA Show Special, DuplicolorTV, Full Throttle TV, Pirate4x4 TV Live, and Bosch 125. She would also appear as a a host and builder on Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters in the show’s seventh season, and the Velocity Channel’s All Girls Garage, and the 2011 reboot of Overhaulin’.

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It was through these programs Jessi would receive the training to become a high-performance driver for film and commercial projects.  She has driven virtually anything on two or four wheels (or no wheels!) in her career. Stunt driving became a passion that connected her even more closely to her love of speed and machines.

A fierce competitor, Jessi raced in Ultra4’s King of the Hammers in years 2010, 2012, 2013, becoming the first female ever to take home a spec class win in 2014 at any Ultra4 event, and then went on to finish the season with the National Championship. In 2011, she took home a class 10 podium finish at the Baja 1000.

In 2013, the North American Eagle Supersonic Speed Challenger added Jessi Combs to the team to attempt to break the 512mph Women’s Landspeed World record – the record was previously set by Kitty O’Neil in 1976. While chasing this number, she earned the title of ‘the fastest women on four wheels’ when she set the record of 398mph, and reaching a top speed of 440mph in a car built from a decommissioned fighter jet. Recently, she piloted the same car to 483.227mph in a single shakedown run in October 2018.

Days before her death, Combs posted about her new pursuit via Instagram, “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,” she wrote, adding the hashtags #gottabreak512 #aimingfor619.

Her partner Terry Madden confided the news to the public that Combs was driving the same North American Eagle Supersonic Speed Challenger she has used in previous attempts when she crashed on Tuesday. He also offered that, “’I was the first one there and trust me we did everything humanly possible to save her,” Madden said.

Land-speed racing is one of the most intense forms of Motorsport in the world, and it can be cruel at times, taking several lives prior to Combs. However, the drive to do something great behind the wheel is a serotonin blast like no other, and only those who can compete could understand why competing on this level is a feeling unlike any other euphoria.

“While we mourn the loss of anyone in our automotive world, it’s particularly tough to lose one of a small number of women who are paving the way for the next generation of little girls who like to play with cars. The automotive community encourages and embraces women enthusiasts, but she had a special fearlessness, a restlessness, that drove her to try new things, break new barriers in the industry. She refused to be boxed in to what others expected from a female in a male dominated world – she knew what she wanted, she took the hard path and stuck with it and made a name for herself.” -Hailey Douglas, Marketing Coordinator, COMP Performance Group

In the coming days, the dangers of living on the edge are surely to be discussed, but what’s more important is recognizing the major impact Jessi Combs has had on the automotive community. She undoubtedly encouraged thousands of engine builders to get to work, little girls to pursue their passion for fabrication or driving, and will forever have a place in the hearts of millions of fans who morn life, while celebrating her great achievements.

“As a company, we join the automotive/motorsports industry in grieving her loss but also in celebrating the indelible mark that she left on our industry. Jessi Combs was a true automotive pioneer in every sense of the term. Personally, she was warm, engaging and had the ability to make everyone she came in contact with feel like an old friend. Professionally, I knew her to be driven, passionate and authentic in her never ending mission to break barriers. Jessi not only broke barriers on the race track but also in the marketplace by encouraging so many young people to join the hobby/lifestyle. She was a true champion of the industry and left this world a much better place than she found it.”-Chris Douglas, Chief Operating Officer-COMP Performance Group; SEMA Board of Directors