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Jessi Combs, racing driver known as ‘the fastest woman on four wheels’ – obituary

Jessi Combs on the Discovery Channel show Overhaulin', which she co-presented
Jessi Combs on the Discovery Channel show Overhaulin', which she co-presented Credit: Phil McCarten/Reuters

Jessi Combs, who has died aged 39, was a television personality and racing driver known as “the fastest woman on four wheels”; she was killed in her jet-powered car in the Oregon desert while preparing for an attempt on the women’s world land speed record.

She was born Jessica Michelle Combs on July 27 1980 at Rockerville in South Dakota. Her father, Jamie Combs, taught her to drive as a young girl; her mother was called Nina Darrington; her great-grandmother, Nina DeBow, was a jazz pianist who raced steam-engine cars.

The family moved to Piedmont, South Dakota, when Jessi was two. After leaving school she moved to Denver, aiming at a career in snowboarding. When that did not work out, she turned down a scholarship to study interior design and instead attended a technical college in Wyoming that prepares students for work in the car industry; her first job after graduating was to build a car from scratch for the college to exhibit at a trade show.

Combs drives the North American Eagle (NAE) Supersonic Speed Challenger in Oregon in 2013 on her way to breaking the women's four-wheel land speed record Credit: David Cohn/ Zuma Press/Eyevine

One of her first notable racing finishes was second place in the 2011 SCORE Baja 1000 race in the Californian desert. A clutch of victories in the Ultra 4 off-road series followed over the next few years, and there was a top-10 finish in the 2015 running of the women’s-only Rallye Aicha des Gazelles in the Sahara.

At the same time Jessi Combs forged a media career, hosting nearly 100 episodes of the motoring show Xtreme 4x4 on the pay-television channel Spike TV. In 2007 she suffered a serious on-set spinal injury when a piece of machinery fell on her, necessitating months of rehabilitation.

Jessi Combs

With her upbeat, sparky style she presented a dozen episodes of the popular science programme MythBusters and spent three years fronting All Girls Garage, in which women upgrade classic cars. She was one of the mechanic-presenters upgrading classic jalopies in the series Overhaulin’, and she also wrote a children’s book, Joey and the Chopper Boys, about a motorbike-loving girl.

At Alvord Desert in Oregon she was hoping to break the women’s land speed record of 512mph, which had been set by Kitty O’Neil there in 1976. As the stuntwoman’s rocket-powered vehicle was three-wheeled, Jessi Combs already held the four-wheel record, having driven at 398.9mph in 2013. Her ultimate goal was the overall record of 763mph set by the Briton Andy Green in 1997.

For her latest attempt on O’Neil’s record, Jessi Combs’s project team had taken an abandoned Lockheed F-104A Starfighter jet, restored the fuselage, modified the wings and added aluminium wheels.

The North American Eagle Supersonic Speed Challenger, as it was called, was 56ft long, with a 52,000-horsepower engine that consumed up to 160 gallons of fuel per minute. It is believed that the crash was caused by a mechanical failure, the car exploding in a fireball.

A few days before her death she posted a message on social media: “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.”

Jessi Combs is survived by her partner, Terry Madden, a colleague on the Eagle team.

Jessi Combs, born July 27 1980, died August 27 2019