Remarkable People

Land-speed tragedy as Jessi Combs dies in jet car accident

TV star, metal fabricator, off-road racer and land speed record holder Jessi Combs was killed in a tragic jet car crash yesterday
TV star, metal fabricator, off-road racer and land speed record holder Jessi Combs was killed in a tragic jet car crash yesterday
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The North American Eagle land speed racer
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The North American Eagle land speed racer
Jessi Combs with the North American Eagle land speed race car
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Jessi Combs with the North American Eagle land speed race car
The Eagle as the team found it - a decommissioned US Air Force Lockheed Starfighter
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The Eagle as the team found it - a decommissioned US Air Force Lockheed Starfighter
TV star, metal fabricator, off-road racer and land speed record holder Jessi Combs was killed in a tragic jet car crash yesterday
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TV star, metal fabricator, off-road racer and land speed record holder Jessi Combs was killed in a tragic jet car crash yesterday
A highly talented extreme off-road racer, Combs was just as good at abusing cars as she was at building them
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A highly talented extreme off-road racer, Combs was just as good at abusing cars as she was at building them

We often cover extreme motorsports events on New Atlas, where people put themselves in positions of incredible risk in pursuit of goals that might seem purely an abstract numbers game to people who aren't involved. Land speed racing is a perfect example; to etch your name into the record books like Jessi Combs did back in 2013, you've got to spend insane amounts of money and time, and expose yourself to the possibility of catastrophic failure at unimaginable speeds on the salt flats.

But some people are built differently to the rest of us, thank god, and Combs was a perfect example, with a list of life achievements, skills, talents and experiences most people wouldn't even dare to dream of. A wickedly talented metal fabricator, she also had the looks, personality and gift of the gab to become a TV star on spanner-heavy reality shows including Xtreme 4x4, Overhaulin', Truck U, Spike TV, Two Guys Garage and All Girls Garage. When Mythbusters' Kari Byron went on maternity leave, Combs landed her biggest role yet as her replacement host and fabricator for a season.

She was just as adept at thrashing vehicles as she was at building them, managing several class wins in the grueling King of Hammers and a handful of other Ultra4 off-road races, and bringing home a couple of class second places in the Baja 1000 off-road rally.

A highly talented extreme off-road racer, Combs was just as good at abusing cars as she was at building them
A highly talented extreme off-road racer, Combs was just as good at abusing cars as she was at building them

And then, of course, there was the land speed business. The North American Eagle (NAE) project was a crazy and audacious idea conceived when the team found a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter that the US Air Force had decommissioned and sent to the scrap heap. Once flown by Chuck Yeager and used as a chase plane during development of the X-15 and SR-71 Blackbird aircraft, the team saw a highly aerodynamic chassis with a monster jet propulsion system on the back, and set about converting it into a car with the addition of pure billet aluminum wheels to go salt flat racing.

This was the jet car that took Combs to her title of "fastest woman on four wheels," back in 2013, breaking a 48-year-old record as she put in an official two-way average speed of 392.954 mph (632.39 km/h). You can see that incredible run in the video below:

Jessi Combs Sets Womens' 4-Wheel Land Speed Record

But the NAE machine and its 52,000-horsepower jet engine (which produced double that power on afterburner) was capable of much more. The team's eventual target speed was a shocking 808 mph (1,300 km/h), or 1.058 times the speed of sound.

The North American Eagle land speed racer
The North American Eagle land speed racer

It was not to be. Combs and the NAE team were at the 13-mile (20-km) Alvord Desert track yesterday looking to incrementally extend her speed record with a target over 600 mph (965 km/h), or roughly the speed at which an international airliner cruises. Something went wrong – details are yet to be released – the car was destroyed, and Combs died in the wreckage on the Oregon salts.

Her partner Terry Madden was first to the scene, and farewelled her publicly in an Instagram post:

It's a tragic ending to a story nobody could ever describe as ordinary. Combs died reaching for speeds few humans ever get close to on the ground, in a vehicle that would freeze lesser mortals with horror, in the prime of a life very few would dare to live. And it's a reminder to the rest of us just what these wild men and women are risking when they set out on such extreme paths. We'll let Jessi Combs herself have the final word, in this Facebook post she made on Saturday.

Source: NAE Project via Popular Mechanics

7 comments
Hankvana
I think Loz is the most entertaining, committed and respectful contributor on your team.
Nobody
Everyone has a different tolerance to danger. Even the most risk taking would surprise you. My Father had a fear of heights and could not stand to climb up a ladder but he was also a test pilot in the early 1950s and routinely flew to 50,000 feet or more several days a week. He loved to fly and even commuted to his test pilot job in his own plane. How someone could have a fear of being 10 feet off the ground but not hundreds or thousands of feet always amazed me. Yes Loz, "some people are built differently to the rest of us...". Very differently.
guzmanchinky
That is so sad. But, when you push such high risks something bad is almost 100% inevitable, given enough time. My condolences and respects, she was fun to watch, especially on Mythbusters...
FabianLamaestra
So sorry to hear this, but you can't cheat death forever. RIP.
Nelson Hyde Chick
Why do we glorify this kind of stuff? This waste of resources for childish reasons is one of the reasons mankind is destroying life on this planet.
kwalispecial
@Nelson Hyde Chick: I am sure if someone close to me took on such pursuits, that I'd probably feel as you do. But on the other hand, if there weren't those among us willing to push the limits and take risks like this, humanity would have never evolved beyond moving around on our own 2 feet. We'd have lives that only extended a few miles from home, no technology, medicine, science, or anything else. I am grateful to the adventurers and risk takers for those things.
meofbillions
I don't see the usefulness of such an endeavor as a "land speed record." Such a record is highly dependent on the land itself, and without huge expanses of flat, level earth, there wouldn't be such attempts. So as usual, Mother Earth graciously supplies us with gifts and we trash it. And just what are we testing here? We know that jet engine could propel an aircraft far beyond any speed record of a land vehicle, so this isn't a test of the powerplant. I guess it's a test of wheels? tires? No, it's a test of how recklessly people could test their own lives. I wouldn't even rate it with mountain climbing, which requires more from the human body than sitting in a seat, pushing a few levers and holding a steering wheel. It's not even the skill of a race car driver. What is it a skill of? How well you can wow fans?