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The new documentary “The Fastest Woman On Earth” tells Jessi Combs’ story, and while it has the absolute saddest of endings with Combs’ death on a top speed run in 2019, it’s also a story about breaking boundaries and how she stands as an inspiration for women now and into the future.
“The Fastest Woman On Earth,” directed by Graham Suorsa and Christopher Otwell, starts on a high with top speed runs in the desert, incredible shots and fast cars. It’s right up Combs’ alley. Footage in the documentary from Autoblog’s “The List” video series that ran from 2011 through 2017 lets us learn a little more about Combs and what makes her tick. Two wheels, four wheels … any number of wheels, and Combs wants to drive it. Fast.
Being a woman in a male-dominated world was the furthest thing from easy, though, as Combs had to fight for every bit of acceptance in this automotive space she pursued. In the doc, Combs spoke of her sheltered experience growing up. She didn’t have larger-than-life women role models as a kid in the South Dakota Black Hills. Even so, her career and the way she lived her life is one to be inspired by today. We spoke to director Graham Suorsa, who worked with Combs for years, about how she overcame adversity and led by example.
“At the end of the film, you get the opportunity to look back and go, ‘Oh my God, it was all there this whole time,’” Suorsa says. “She wrote the blueprint for all of this and was living it the whole time.”
Combs was a host on “Overhaulin’,” “Extreme 4×4” and “All Girls Garage,” a part-time host of “Mythbusters,” and appeared on “Jay Leno’s Garage.” She raced the King of the Hammers event in 2010, 2012, 2013, and earned a spec class win in 2014 and the distinction of becoming the first woman ever to place at any Ultra4 event. In 2011, Combs raced the Baja 1000, finishing second in the Class 10 division. Combs was truly a masterclass in automotive media and wildly impressive in motorsport. What she seemed to love more than anything, though, was the thrill of breaking speed records.
For those unfamiliar with four-wheel top speed record breaking, know that the vehicles used for such attempts these days aren’t normally cars in the traditional sense. Instead, repurposed fighter jets are far more suited to the job. They already have the necessary engine technology and aerodynamics to get up to those high speeds, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to engineering these machines. As you’ll see when you watch the documentary, the cars are difficult to work on, exotic and very fickle beasts. The first time Combs took one for a drive, she was hooked. Another director from the film, Chris Otwell, told us all about how Combs attacked the desert.
“It’s kind of hard to explain that thing that happens to you when you get exposed to that world,” Otwell tells us. “We talk about catching the bug … and this leads to a lot of the questions that people ask about Jessi and her endeavors and the choices she made to press on with the land speed record as it got progressively dangerous and she had some close calls and her life was getting complicated, but yet she continued to press ahead with it. She wouldn’t give it up, and it’s because the fever you catch from this thing is so strong, and the potential to what you can achieve with it and the statement you can make with it, the message you can send. Sharing it with the world is such a powerful possibility that we couldn’t let it go, she couldn’t let it go.”
Of course, when you go after something like this, you’re always aiming for a record. The impetus of this documentary was to watch Combs break records and to one day go over 800 mph. Before that, though, Combs set out to best Kitty O’Neil, the previous fastest woman on Earth. O’Neil’s record: 512.710 mph. O’Neil was a stuntwoman and loved making top speed runs, and she was also deaf. Despite these challenges — including an alleged long-term violent boyfriend — she proved doubters wrong and held the fastest woman on Earth title for decades before Combs eventually broke it.
“I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m not ready to die,” Combs says in the documentary in response to a scare she dealt with in the Alvord Desert of Oregon. A top speed attempt there saw her car’s parachutes fail to deploy on a run where she almost failed to stop. The car ended up finally gliding to a stop right as she came upon some bushes at the end of the desert floor. Combs was still going 90 mph when she was approaching the bushes, but with the help of the brakes, she just made it out unscathed. Combs’ mother, who was pivotal to Jessi’s life and traveled with her to these top speed runs, was right there with her at the end of the desert to make sure she was alright.
Close calls were a theme in Combs’ life. When she was growing up, she had a nasty accident that broke her back. Doctors told her it was a miracle she didn’t end up paralyzed or in a wheelchair from it. For Combs, this only gave her more motivation to push harder and faster.
Unfortunately, we all know how Jessi Combs left this Earth too early at age 39. “The Fastest Woman On Earth” spends a lot of time covering, dissecting and going over Combs’ last fateful run in the Alvord Desert. In the end, the team determined that she wasn’t able to stop because the leading wheel hit a rock in the desert that caused it to break and ultimately made it impossible for Jessi to slow down.
Viewer warning: The film shows the heart-wrenching moment of impact and the aftermath of Combs’ deadly crash.
Afterwards, her team determined that in her final run, she had broken Kitty O’Neil’s record to become the new fastest woman on Earth with a speed of 522.783 mph. Combs was posthumously given the record, and it stands today. Beyond the record being broken, Combs leaves behind a legacy. A scholarship was established in her name that will go to women pursuing careers in trades such as welding, fabrication, automotive mechanical/electrical work, metal fabrication, pipefitting and mechanical engineering.
“We had to make some hard choices about how much of Jessi’s history do we include, knowing that some of the audience would know something about her, but a lot of people wouldn’t,” Otwell says. “We didn’t want it to be a biography of Jessi. We were intending to focus on this chapter of her life, but in order to understand what it means for her, you have to know something about her past and where she came from.”
Hopefully, this documentary will help spread the legend of the woman that Jessi Combs was and what she still represents today.
“What we’re left with is her legacy,” Suorsa says. “We can show you that she lived it, and it was alive when she was. And now through the foundation and the blueprint that she laid out, that work continues on and it is undying. And necessary. So if this film can serve as the continuation of her mission, as her legacy, that to me is the most powerful outcome of this film.”
“The Fastest Woman On Earth” is full of passion, excitement and utterly gut-wrenching moments, and it’s a must-watch. You’ll be able to stream the movie on HBO Max on October 20.
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