‘Fastest Woman on Earth’ Proves Jessi Combs Was Not Like Most of Us

  • HBOMax will release a full-length documentary on land speed racer Jessi Combs on October 20.
  • Combs died in August 2019 in Oregon while trying to break a 512-mph record as a driver with the North American Eagle team.
  • The movie, titled The Fastest Woman on Earth, is the result of a seven-year filmmaking project.
jessi combs hbo documentary

HBOMax

It should surprise no one that drivers striving to set land speed records aren’t ordinary people. Nor are they necessarily successful and accomplished racing drivers, which is why names like Andretti, Earnhardt, and Schumacher aren’t in the speed record books. Instead, they tend to be thrill-seeking daredevils who enjoy the limelight and eschew conventional life. This new HBOmax documentary, The Fastest Woman on Earth, clearly illustrates that such people come in all genders.

Jessi Combs was a gifted car fabricator with a powerful affinity for both cars and motorcycles. She parlayed these talents and passions into a number of successful off-road race drives and a career as TV personality with a long list of shows to her credit—Overhaulin’, Mythbusters, The List: 1001 Car Things to Do before You Die, All Girls Garage, Full Throttle TV, Xtreme 4×4.

In the process she connected with Ed Shadle and his San Diego-based team that had created the North American Eagle—essentially a 60-year-old Lockheed F-104 jet fighter shorn of its wings and fitted with wheels—to try to take the 763-mph land speed record from the British Thrust SSC team. Created in 1998, the team made slow but steady progress and set its intermediate goal as taking the unofficial 512-mph women’s land speed record set in 1976 (the women’s record is unofficial because the FIA, which tabulates speed records, understands that a car’s performance is unrelated to the sex of its driver). With her automotive background, on-camera skills, strong following, and daredevil nature, Combs had found her next quest.

Land speed record cars are two to four times as fast as Indy, NASCAR, or Formula 1 cars. And the rules are wide open. So long as the car rolls on wheels, pretty much anything goes. Yet despite the fact that the cars are so much faster and their designs so much more original, the budgets of the teams fielding these earth-bound rockets are a small fraction of what is spent by a professional racing team in a major series. Speed-record teams are often barely more than amateur organizations—almost LeMons racers (as in the very amateur racing series) to the 10th power.

For Combs, being involved in such an effort, as well as maintaining her TV appearances and high social media profile, clearly required an extreme commitment. Combs acknowledges as much, concluding that having a more normal life and a family seem unlikely for someone with her ambitions, especially as a woman in what is largely a man’s world.

In one of the movie’s most interesting sections, Combs seeks out the existing women’s speed record holder, Kitty O’Neil, who was a former stuntwoman in Hollywood and had her record ambitions cut short for various unfair reasons. The connection between the two women, who are clearly cut from similar cloth, is fascinating and touching.

I would have liked more technical explanation about the North American Eagle and the details of the various runs, but then I’m an engineering nerd. But watching the speeds increase during the years spent running at the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon gives you an idea of what a long and painstaking process it is to achieve a record. Especially when your ambitions are delayed when weather conditions render the desert surface unsuitable in some years. Combs eventually does achieve her goal—and pays the ultimate price.

The movie goes live on HBOmax on October 20 and is well worth watching for anyone interested in land speed record racing, breaking gender stereotypes, or unconventional life choices. Most of us will marvel at all that Combs accomplished, while also being grateful for our more sedate lives.

Csaba Csere survived a 200-plus-mph flip at Bonneville in 1995 while pursuing a much more modest production car speed record.

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