History is full of trailblazing women. Many of them endeavored to explore, defy, and innovate in spite of the ridicule, doubt, and general disregard they faced from their peers. Their accomplishments were often ignored, downplayed, or outright stolen from them and credited to others. Nevertheless, without their actions, we would not enjoy the freedoms, equality, and scientific advancements that we have today.
Women in automotive industries often face prejudice, but despite that Jessi Combs made a name for herself and became a role model for women everywhere. To honor her memory and celebrate her life we wanted to talk about her life and amazing accomplishments.
Jessi’s Early Life
Jessi Combs was born in Rockerville, South Dakota July 27th, 1980. She credited her upbringing in the Black Hills as formative in developing her attitude toward life, saying “I think growing up in South Dakota is a huge part of it. Now that I have lived all over, I understand the quality of life we have here and our work ethic. If it needs to get done, we just do it.”
She graduated from Stevens High School in Rapid City in 1998. She had wanted to be an architect growing up but ended up turning down a full-ride scholarship to study interior design and instead did some traveling which eventually led her to Denver, Colorado to try her hand as a professional snowboarder.
When that didn’t pan out, Combs decided to relocate to Laramie to attend the Wyoming Technical Institute (WyoTech), a premier school for automotive technical training at the time. She graduated at the top of her class with a degree in Custom Automotive Fabrication. She was one of thirty WyoTech students chosen to assist legendary hot rod designer Chip Foose’s “A-Team” on the Season 1 Episode 6 of Overhaulin’, where she worked on a 1956 Chevy Bel Air.
Her Television Career
Upon graduation, WyoTech’s marketing department enlisted Combs and another student, Ben Bright, to build a ’64 Mercury Cyclone from the ground up in only six months for the automotive industry’s largest annual trade show, SEMA. It featured a custom 3-link suspension, a 402ci engine, and carbon fiber body panels.
Her work on this project was enough to jump-start her television career, landing her an offer from Spike TV to co-host the PowerBlock show Xtreme 4×4 alongside Ian Johnson, where the duo worked together for the show’s first four seasons. She was severely injured in an accident in 2007 when a bandsaw fell on her and decided to leave the show shortly afterward.
By that time, Combs was recognized as a bright up-and-coming personality and the popularity of automotive programming during this time meant a lot of open doors for her career. She made guest appearances on shows like 2 Guys Garage, Truck U, Duplicolor TV, Full Throttle TV, Pirate 4×4 TV Live, and Bosch 125.
In 2009, she accepted an offer from Discovery to fill in for host Kari Byron on the show MythBusters during Byron’s maternity leave. She would appear in nine episodes of the show’s seventh season alongside Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, Grant Imahara, Tory Belleci, and others.
She also hosted the Autoblog series The List: 1001 Car Things to Do Before You Die with co-host Patrick McIntyre in 2011. The same year, she was chosen to host All Girls Garage on the Velocity network with Cristy Lee and Sarah “Bogi” Lateiner. The show featured an all-female cast and cemented Combs’ position as an industry icon. Later, in 2012, she would also co-host a relaunch of the popular show Overhaulin that she first made her debut on in 2004 during its initial run.
At the same time, Combs took up professional offroad racing; competing in Ultra4’s King of the Hammers beginning in 2010. By late 2011, she was racing in the SCORE Baja 1000, where her team finished second in the CLASS 10 category. Two years later, she broke the four-wheel Women’s land speed record as part of the North American Eagle Supersonic Speed Challenger team with a top speed of 392.954 MPH, breaking Lee Breedlove’s record of 308.506 MPH set in 1965.
Her team’s ultimate goal was to break the record held by Kitty O’ Neil set in 1976 in the three-wheeled, jet-powered SMI Motivator at 512.710 MPH. She would also go on to participate in the 2015 Rallye Aicha Des Gazelles du Maroc, a grueling all-female offroad rally race held in southern Morocco, as well as being honored as the first woman to compete in the Oilers car club Race of Gentlemen.
The Fastest Woman on Earth
Her career and her life came to an abrupt halt on August 27th, 2019 in Alvord desert, Oregon while attempting to break the all-time women’s land speed record. The front wheel assembly of her jet-powered car collapsed at a speed in excess of 500 MPH, causing her to crash. In June of 2020, Guinness World Records officially verified her record top speed of 522.783 MPH, posthumously affirming her title as the “Fastest Woman on Earth”.
Combs was one of four inductees into the SEMA Hall of Fame in 2021. Her foundation, the Jessi Combs Foundation, awards scholarships to women seeking to get a formal education in the trades. Their mission is to “educate, inspire and empower the next generation of female trailblazers & stereotype-breakers”.
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