Jessi Combs – July 27, 1980 – August 27, 2019

In an attempt at breaking her own record in a Jet Car, Jessi Combs was involved in an incident that has tragically taken her life. She was 39.

There are many people we all look to as heroes in the automotive world. Few transcended multiple genres like Jessi Combs did as both men and women looked up to her equally. She was a stalwart champion of getting women into the garages and racetracks around the world but did so with grace and respect. She wanted the girls in with the guys but didn’t push her agenda in such a way that it turned you off.

Editing Note: I originally posted this with the incorrect birth date for Jessi. Most every source I found was reporting her born in 1983. Her correct date of birth is July 27, 1980. Changes have been made to reflect this.

Who Was Jessi Combs

Jessi was born in Rapid City, South Dakota with a family of off-road adventurers. At a very young age, she grew a love for four-wheeling and exploration, traits that would help her get through her school years and beyond. She didn’t attend college, but instead decided to travel around the US before settling in at Laramie, Wyoming to attend WyoTech. A trade school that specializes in hot rods, racecars, auto body repair, and fabrication and where she graduated in 2004 with highest honors and a degree in Custom Automotive Fabrication.

It was here that she had her first taste of being in front of the camera. She, along with fellow Wyotech student Ben Bright, were chosen to build a car for the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association (SEMA) Show. In just six months, they built that car and it was auctioned for charity. Soon, she became a guest fabricator on Overhaulin’ on the Discovery Channel and that lead to her being hired to co-host Xtreme 4×4 with Ian Johnson on Spike TV. Keep in mind, this was all still in 2004.

Xtreme 4×4

Xtreme 4×4 was how I and many others were introduced to Jessi. The same show that introduced me and the entire world to the King of the Hammers, rock crawling, and more with off-road trucks, SUVs, and homebuilt rigs. What amazed me was that she wasn’t just some face on the show but was getting down and dirty with Ian building these vehicles. I wasn’t the only one blown away by her first appearance on the show.

“When I first met Jessi it was obvious she was one of a kind,” recalled Ian Johnson, her co-host on Xtreme 4×4, “Back in 2004 there weren’t that many females in the automotive industry and Jessi was a true pioneer.” While working with someone on set can be a challenge, even for the best people, Jessi proved to be a great choice to co-star with Ian, “After the first show, I knew that we were going to have a great time making Xtreme 4×4.”

Ian Johnson – Jessi lived her life to the fullest with everything she did
I asked Ian what he remembered best about Jessi during the show’s time on Spike, “When you launch a TV show the hours are long and you end up working 20 hours a day, but we had a great time in and out of the shop. Travelling with Jessi was never boring, and the amount of crazy fun times that we had both on and off the set are too many to mention.”

Queen of the Hammers

Starting in 2010, Jessi began to chase her off-road dreams and that started with the King of the Hammers. In 2011, she would also run in the SCORE Baja 1000 and took home a podium finish for Class 10. 2014, however, would see her take home several firsts for Ultra4: first woman to place in an Ultra4 event, first woman to podium in the Every Man Challenge (EMC), and first woman to win an Ultra4 event. With several first-place finishes, she would also become the first woman to win a championship in Ultra4 and the 4700 Spec Class.

She would repeat a feat by taking first place of the 4500 EMC Modified Class in 2016 and finished in 12th in the same car the next day at the 2016 King of the Hammers. In 2018, she took the 4600 Stock Class win while also finishing third overall, the first time three different classes took the overall podium. She would also be one of the few drivers who have won at least once in three of the four classes of the EMC (4700 Spec, 4600 Stock, and 4500 Modified wins and only missing a 4800 Legends class win). Jessi was, without a doubt, an accomplished driver.

Dave Cole – We were all lucky to have some Jessi in our lives.
“Jessi was a ball of pure energy who lived every moment to the absolute fullest,” Dave Cole of Ultra4 said as I asked him about Jessi, “She was kind and caring and a ridiculous competitor. She inspired thousands of women to achieve their goals, regardless of what they were, but went past that and pushed men to get out of their comfort zones and go further, too.”

“Jessi Combs is a solid driver behind the wheel regardless of being a woman,” said Jarod DeAnda, announcer at Formula Drift, on-air and in-person host of several SCORE Baja 1000 races, and SEMA’s Ford Out Front and SEMA Banquet Co-Host with Jessi, “she’s dynamic, talented, daring, successful in all of it.”

Ian knew what kind of driver she was after the first season of Xtreme 4×4, “I remember in season 1 she told me, that her goal was to be a professional race car driver and I was so happy when I saw her fulfill that dream,” he remembered when I asked him about his time with her, “she truly was an amazing driver and she mastered many types of racing and excelled at any racing event that she tried.”

A Real Deal

While she was racing, she was also still building. In 2012, she took part of a major vehicle build in the SEMA Show once again. This time, she partnered with several other women for the “Built by Women” Ford Mustang. Kirstin Stone, who was working at Turbosmart North America at the time as their Marketing Manager and part of that build, recalled, “Jessi was my first real hero in the automotive industry. She seemed like an actual mechanic when I saw her on TV, and it made me idolize her. The first time I met Jessi was during the SEMA Mustang build that was ‘Built by Women’ back in 2012.”

What’s even more amazing is that Jessi was the same, camera on or off her. Anyone who met Jessi quickly would appreciate that after meeting her for the first time. “After dealing with some other television personalities that had been a part of the build,” Kristin explained, “I was amazed that Jessi was really hands on with the project, even when the cameras went away.

Kristin Stone – I think she’ll continue to serve as a role model for girls and women who want to turn wrenches and go fast.
“She cared about the aftermarket and what we were all doing there to advance the industry. She was a legit car person with a passion anyone could pick up on in conversation,” Kristin continued, “Jessi was truly a skilled mechanic and fabricator, and a talented multidisciplinary driver – an incredible reminder of what women can be in an industry that sometimes forgets.”

“Even more importantly she was fun having son of a gun!” Jarod recalled happily, “We’ve shared many laughs over the years from the mountains of Maine at Frozen Rush or hosting the SEMA Banquet together. Jessi will be sorely missed but will forever be remembered!”

“Jessi lived her life to the fullest with everything she did,” Ian told me, “there was no question that she chased every dream that she had. She would light up any room she walked into and inspired countless young women to chase their dreams in the automotive/fabrication field.”

The Fastest Woman in the World

In 2013, Jessi and the North American Eagle Supersonic Speed Challenger team joined forces to break a long-standing record for women. The 48-year-old record of 308.51-MPH average was originally set by Lee Breedlove in 1965. That record was shattered by Jessi with an average run of 398.954-MPH with a top speed of 440.709-MPH. Then, in 2016, broke the top speed set by a woman at 477.59-MPH before setting a run during shakedown at 483.227-MPH.

She would try to break that record once again and set off to the Alvord Desert in Harney County, Oregon on August 24, 2019. On the 27th, the car lost control and we lost the fastest woman on Earth.

Jessi Will Never Be Forgotten

In the end, Jessi wouldn’t want us to focus on her loss. Instead, she’d want us to celebrate her life and remember her while she was here. In a way, she will continue to be with us so long as we do and continue to push ourselves past our own perceived limits. That’s all she would have wanted from all of us.

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Justin Banner

Justin Banner, Lead Editor and Founder of Carbage Online, has been involved with the automotive media and industry in many capacities and now tackles publication ownership with CarbageOnline.com. Prior to that, he has freelanced for top online publications of modern media that include Speedhunters, MotoIQ, Super Street Online, Hot Rod Magazine and many others. All due to his nearly 20 years experience as a mechanic, service writer, and technical support in the automotive industry. Justin is also a Journalist Level member of the Motor Press Guild - an industry recognized entity of professional automotive journalists - since 2015.