— Life —


Jessi Combs and her North American Eagle 'car,' 2018. All photographs courtesy of her website.
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This week Jessi Combs, the “fastest woman on four wheels,” car fabricator and TV host of Mythbusters, died in what’s been described as a “horrific accident.” With the afterburners in full thrust, Jessi Combs was driving her red and blue North American Eagle—which was really an F-104 fighter jet without wings—on a dry lakebed in the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon. Jessi was trying to break her own supersonic land world speed record of 398 miles per hour set in 2013. Although she’s reached a top speed of 483 miles per hour, it wasn’t in an official attempt to break a world record.

Jessi’s death reminded me of my own thoughts about breaking a world land speed record and the realization I could no longer trust my husband.

Jessi Combs in the Alvord dessert, 2018. Notice the man with the push broom. Even one small rock… anywhere… on her six-mile plus route could be disastrous at those speeds.

Like Jessi, I was 36-years-old. I’d been racing Porsches in SCCA events and Hill Climbs and winning for nine years when my first husband, Philip—the brilliant founder of a public company that built the first desktop computer and designed the microprocessor—and our Porsche, automotive genius friend, Bob, decided they could build a car for me to drive. A “rail job” they called it. The car would be able to accommodate several interchangeable engines with differing horsepower that would allow me to break multiple classes of land world speed records and put me in the Guinness Book of World Records.

In order to officially break a Guinness World Record, the Guinness people must be in attendance, and you must do it twice within 24-hours. It would have been a lengthy, expensive, dangerous undertaking. The plan was that after I’d driven the first class—twice—they would swap engines, and I would attempt to break the record in the next class, and so on. If we were successful… I have no doubt faster cars and engines, much like Jessi’s, would have been built for me to drive.

Jessi’s “car.”

As Philip and Bob thought about prototypes for “the car” and factored in power-to-weight ratios with each different engine plus the weight of the car and my added weight and the speeds I would need to reach for me to break each world record, I remember being strangely silent. I couldn’t find my voice to say, “I’m not doing this.” The voice I’d worked so hard to acquire. The voice that had consciously driven me to be the polar opposite of my overprotective mother and the way she’d raised me. 

I wanted to become a strong gutsy woman, not remain the little girl who was wrapped in one too many sweaters, who couldn’t play outside because an asthma attack left me gasping like a giant dying dog.

At the heart of my silence, however, was shock. Shock my husband assumed I would do this… He never asked me directly… Shocked he would risk my life in the quest for something so fleeting… World records are meant to be broken. Yes, I was fascinated with Craig Breedlove and others who’d broken the top land world speed records. And yes, I’d swallowed my fears and eagerly stepped-up to every intimidating thing that came my way, including flying in an Air Force fighter jet, landing on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean, submerging in a nuclear submarine, driving and firing the M-1 tank and hacking my way through three-canopy jungles but strapping myself to a rocket…

Jessi Comb’s 2013 World Land Speed Record Run. Watch as about half way through this short video the afterburners kick in, and she’s propelled like a rocket across the desert.

While I’d already crossed the line between fun and fear, adventure and adversity more times than I could count, I couldn’t ignore that Philip no longer had my best interest at heart. His cocaine and alcohol addiction and his own sense of ego and mortality had betrayed me. Soon afterward he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. World records were never talked about, again. 

Over the years I’ve learned if we give in to our weaknesses, we will never push beyond our boundaries and become the person we know we’re capable of being. I’ve also learned there’s a fine line between pushing our boundaries, copping out and things we just shouldn’t do, and that sometimes it takes more courage to say “no.”

In retrospect it wasn’t that I didn’t have the guts to say no. I hoped the plan wouldn’t go beyond the brainstorming stage, plus perhaps I knew it would not have been productive to have this conversation with an addict who had mood swings.

God’s speed, Jessi Combs. You had more raw courage than anyone I know, and you will always be one of my heroes.

Have you ever been in a position where it took guts to say no?


  • Gayle August 31, 2019 at 6:58 am

    I don’t understand this need to break a record like this. It doesn’t make me think Jessi is brave or a hero. What a waste of life. She could take her knowledge and power to solve big world problems, hunger, lack of water, diseases, mental illness. How did speed make a difference?

    • 1010ParkPlace August 31, 2019 at 9:18 am

      Gayle, There are a lot of people who like racing cars, whether it’s on a small scale like I did, Indy or Formula I, motorcycles, driving endurance races across the desert in Morocco, or racing boats in the America’s Cup. They’re adventurous and they find it challenging and thrilling. “Man” has always wanted to explore new worlds and take on challenges. That’s nothing new, and there are a million ways to do that. FYI, Jessi Combs has put her knowledge and money and sponsorship behind her Foundation to work on some of the problems you’ve mentioned. In the coming weeks her family will be announcing how they’re going to continue Jessi’s Foundation should people like to contribute. She was very loved and respected in the world of auto racing. She touched many people and died doing what she loved, so I don’t believe hers was a waisted life. xoxo, Brenda

    • brian cope sr September 23, 2019 at 6:02 pm

      most peoples saying same as I for one say for what I am alive thank you god mom n dad I don’t need no fkn record I hate compititions !!! it was invented centuries ago for money or wealth just rejoice life !!!

  • Diane August 31, 2019 at 9:41 am

    I can totally understand her need to keep on growing. Excelling. Getting better, bigger, faster. It is the need that drives all of us to do better. To do more. It is that drive that has given us the medicines we have. The marvels and conveniences of the modern world. What a tragedy that her drive finally took her life. But upon her platform, others will build. And growth in all its grand forms will continue.
    I am in awe of people like Jessi. I, too have a drive to be better—albeit in ‘safer’ ways.
    My call would be to all the ‘Jessi’s’ of the world: Keep striving to be better. To do more. To discover more.
    But, when that little voice niggles at you that all may not be right, listen to it!
    Thank you for this today, Brenda!
    See you on the other side, Jessi!

    • 1010ParkPlace August 31, 2019 at 11:28 am

      Thank you, Diane, for your comment. You’ve written, so eloquently, about the drives within us all to be better and strive for excellence, regardless of our chosen field. Bless you for “getting it.” xoxox, Brenda

    • brian cope September 23, 2019 at 6:15 pm

      someone is dumb you just don’t get it! read what there posting !!already send the money to the I don’t work have a job anymore foundation THERE DONE!!the state BLM wouldn’t give anymore permits they knew someone was going to die on there watch.

  • Donna August 31, 2019 at 9:45 am

    Great article, Brenda. I too was saddened to learn of her death… but there are so many things that people are guided, driven, or compelled to do that are thrilling/dangerous, and the people who do them “know the job is dangerous when they take it.” She was the fastest woman alive, a role model, and I always admired her courageousness and her drive!
    She died doing exactly what she loved, and how many of us will be able to say that?

    • 1010ParkPlace August 31, 2019 at 11:32 am

      Donna, You’re so right! How many of us will die, knowing we’ve done what we loved, that thing that sets our hearts on fire and challenges us to be our best selves? Whether that’s being a parent or a mountain climber, it’s a far better ending than being unhappy with our lives. Thank you! xoxox, Brenda

  • Eileen August 31, 2019 at 9:55 am

    Yes, and I did say , no. Men encourage this sort of behavior, and I realized that some men have little regard for life beyond their ego. If we women want to play in that world, fair warning.

    • 1010ParkPlace August 31, 2019 at 11:35 am

      Eileen, I’m glad you found your voice and said “no.” Fortunately not all men have little regard for life. In Jessi’s case, she was surrounded by men of all ages who loved and admired her and wanted to be a part of something greater than themselves, and they wanted to help her achieve her dreams. Thank you for adding to the conversation! Brenda

  • DonnaR August 31, 2019 at 11:18 am

    Saying yes is easy, saying no is hard, but the worst is making that decision when your heart says yes and your brain says no. It takes courage. I’ve made that decision to say no and found it changed my life for the better forever. Thank you for a beautifully written article and tribute.

    • 1010ParkPlace August 31, 2019 at 11:38 am

      Wise words, Donnar! So often we’re torn and even though the decision about which way to go is clear, it doesn’t make it any easier to vocalize it and go with it. I’m glad your choice changed your life for the better, and thank you for the nice compliment. I appreciate you! Brenda

  • Mithra Ballesteros August 31, 2019 at 1:33 pm

    Speaking of breaking records, I think you should break your word count rule. So many questions I have about both Jessi and you. I hope you use this too short teaser to pitch Sports Illustrated for your take on Jessi’s death. Or to sell advance copies of your memoir?

    • 1010ParkPlace August 31, 2019 at 2:36 pm

      Interesting suggestion about Sports Illustrated, Mithra. Do you think they’d really be interested? Actually I did break my 500 word rule count on this one, and I thought about that the whole way. Thanks for always supporting me and my writing and urging me on with my book. We definitely have a mutual admiration society. I appreciate you! xoxox, Brenda

  • Rebecca Forstadt Olkowski August 31, 2019 at 8:01 pm

    It was so sad to hear about Jessie and I had no idea you had raced cars too. That blows me away. I know the feeling of dealing with a substance abuser too. Ugh! You can’t trust their decisions and it can really screw you up if you do.

    • 1010ParkPlace September 1, 2019 at 7:48 pm

      Rebecca, I’m sorry you know what it’s like to deal with a substance abuser. I will never do that again. I have a friend who’s an alcoholic, but I’ll never say anything because it would make them mad and it wouldn’t do any good. It’s hell to watch this person drink themselves to death. xoxox, Brenda

  • Sally Leonard September 1, 2019 at 12:36 am

    I agree with the previous comment about the futility of this woman’s death. So big deal, she might have broken a record..what would that achieve except stoking her ego?! I assume she left many family and friends behind to deal with their grief. Her exploits seem incredibly selfish to me.

    • 1010ParkPlace September 1, 2019 at 7:58 pm

      Hi Sally, I love seeing you here! I disagree about what could be achieved, because we never know. Our attempts to reach the moon and race cars have advanced our technology, metallurgy and medicine in ways we couldn’t have foreseen. My late husband’s company set out to replace the old glass teletype machine. They wound up building the first desktop computer and the microprocessor. We just never know. We can also be angry with people who smoke and drink or are obese because they’re at a higher risk of dying and leaving people behind to grieve their deaths. Self-esteem and curiosity drive many of us to seek out new challenges, regardless of the arena we play in, so I can’t condemn one over the other. I’m also an adrenaline junkie… not like I used to be… but I get Jessi’s desire, and had I known her, I would have said, “You go, girl!” xoxox, Brenda

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