We recently got the chance to spend some time with Jessi Combs, off-road enthusiast, competitive driver, vehicle fabricator, and TV personality. She has been involved in a number of different ventures over the last dozen or so years ranging from starring in various television shows about all things automotive to building and driving just about every type of four- and two-wheeled motorized vehicle imaginable.
Combs has made her name building and racing all sorts of machines, many of them made to move fast in the dirt. Among those have been Class 10 buggies in the Baja desert, as well as powerful race trucks in off-road events such as the TORC Duel In The Desert held in April, 2014 at Primm, Nevada.
Combs has also competed in the famous King Of The Hammers event in Southern California’s rock-filled Johnson Valley, is currently racing in the Ultra4 Series, and recently earned the title as “fastest woman alive” by roaring across the Alvord Desert of eastern Oregon in the driver’s seat of the North American Eagle.
You may wonder how Combs began this journey. Well, we will let Combs take it from here.
Jessi Combs: “Growing up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I played outside quite a bit. I did have Barbies, but I also had my Hot Wheels. My brother and I also had these little trucks that were motorized, they were much larger than Hot Wheels.”
“I can’t remember what those little motorized trucks were called but we would play with those constantly. More than anything though, I played outside. I was always on my bicycle, little motorcycle, or something of that nature, because I liked being outside more than I liked being in.”
Our family was into four-wheeling. – Jessi Combs
Combs: “We have a picture of my mom at the starting line, full-on pregnant, with everything stripped off the truck. You know, it’s definitely one of those things that is kind of the way that I was raised. Our family was into four-wheeling.”
“I didn’t really know that I liked it until I started fixing my own stuff. I bought my first car when I was 15, so I guess you could say 15, but I’ve never really known anything otherwise.”
ORX: “You’ve done tons of things on your TV shows, but if you could build anything you wanted for yourself, what would be your dream build?”
Combs: “If budget was not an issue, it would probably be an off-road Trophy Truck. It’s what I love the most and I feel like I have a skill in that area and just need to give myself an opportunity to take it to the next level. If money was not an issue, hell yeah, I would build myself a Trophy Truck.”
“But you know, I’ve also wanted a ’38 De Soto, you know what I mean, chopped. I think a lot of people don’t know that I’m into hot rods, they think I’m just an off-road girl because that’s what most people know me as.”
“They see me on a motorcycle and they say, ‘Hey that thing doesn’t have four wheels!’ And I say, ‘Does it really matter?’ What people forget is that I’m a fabricator and I like to build things. I don’t really focus in on one specific area of motorsports.”
ORX: “Your fabrication skills are where it all started, right?”
Combs: “Yeah, I have a degree in custom automotive fabrication from WyoTech, and I graduated from high school with a full scholarship for interior design school, so now I have some pretty sweet build skills, and I’ve built a few pieces. But you know, I haven’t really built anything for myself.”
“My truck is not finished. My motorcycle is not finished. My Land Cruiser is not finished. Nothing is ever finished in my world, so I’ve never actually built anything for myself. My schedule is very chaotic, with TV shows and working on other projects.”
ORX: “What was your first race win and where was that?”
Combs: “My first professional race win was a second place Class 10 finish in the 2011 SCORE Baja 1000. That was a pretty good feeling and that was actually the first time I’ve ever physically been able to drive in the Baja 1000. Any other chance I’ve ever had, the car broke down before it even got to me. I swear for the longest time that was my curse.”
“I went seven times prior with hopes of being able to do something. But either way, every time I went down to Mexico I learned something new about how to get down the peninsula. You know, just how to get around, the things to do like the logistics.”
“A lot of people are completely clueless about those things, so if anything, I learned a lot before I finally got my chance to drive, which I think was a huge benefit when I actually got to race and it helped the entire team, especially since we were a new team. But it was cool. That was my first win, and for me, the second really big win that I feel was major success was my land speed record.”
ORX: “That’s your land speed record set in October of 2013. Tell us about that whole experience.”
Combs: “Well, the fastest I ever went before that was 211 mph in a Ferrari 458 Italia. That’s pretty fast, but I knew that I wanted to go faster. The run just wasn’t long enough. I ended up running the Ferrari off the end of the runway and nobody was really happy about it. I thank my off-road skills that nothing happened to the car.”
“When I set the land speed record, that was 392. Our data records are closer to 396, but that’s unofficial. My top speed was 440.709. That’s one way over a seven-mile course. You have to do a two-way measured mile average. So that’s why my record is at 392 mph.”
At 300 mph it gets kind of sketchy … – Jessi Combs
“That first run should have been my fastest run because I had 40 mph tailwinds. I had that pushing me down the runway and I was gung ho. I was ready to do it. So now we’re going to go back out. We’re aiming for this summer, all depending upon the BLM, but we’re still trying to break the 512 record that Kitty O’Neil made in 1976.”
ORX: “Let’s talk about something a bit slower, but no less challenging, your King Of The Hammers experiences. This year (2014) was your fourth time at King Of The Hammers, right?”
Combs: “This year was my fourth time racing King of the Hammers, but I’ve been there for seven years now. I couldn’t have asked for a better day. But leading up to the race, I was completely stressed out feeling like I wasn’t prepared at all because I had so many issues with the car.”
“The GPS wasn’t working right and the steering wasn’t working right. I was fatigued within 10 minutes of pre-running and that’s totally unlike me. Then qualifying day, we’re at the starting line and the car just totally shuts off. We had some issues with our fuel pumps, which we had taken care of literally the day before the race. So it was really stressful.”
“I didn’t really have any chance to pre-run at all and I just went off my gut. You know, my co-driver Patrick McIntyre is my co-host from The List (one of Combs’ TV shows) and he was completely unfamiliar with King Of The Hammers, or with anywhere in Johnson Valley for that matter.”
“That was the first time he had ever been there, so it could have been very interesting because if something had gone wrong he would have had no idea what to do or what direction to go. We were very dependent on our GPS, so between GPS and our steering … like I said, it could have been a very interesting day.”
“So basically Patrick and I looked at each other and said, ‘Right, just another Sunday drive.’ Somehow, we ended up winning our class. We did get lost when the second lap splits from the first lap and that was probably about a five to, it seemed like forever, maybe even 10-minute delay. Other than that, we really didn’t have any huge problems whatsoever.”
“I mean I got two flats. I had to use the winch twice. Once when we, or everybody pretty much had to use a winch at this one spot, and then the second time was just a stupid driver error on my part when I got both axles stuck on rocks and had no traction on anything. We winched ourselves out, and that was it.”
“At one point we started catching up to my old teammates Richie and Kristen Carter, because they were driving in the Legend’s Class, which started way ahead of us, so that was pretty awesome. I think it was a pretty epic day.”
ORX: “So you’re running the Spec Class this season in Ultra4 events across the country and winning. What is it about Ultra4 Racing that appeals to you so much?”
Combs: “I really enjoy the challenge of it all. I love the fact that there is fast racing mixed with the technical slow driving. I love that you actually have to think a lot. You have to be on your toes. The course is always changing.”
“You never know what terrain you’re going to be driving over, whether it’s going to be silt, rocks, hard pack, lake bed, gravel, or whatever the case may be. So, I love the desert racing aspect because I love going fast but I also love mixing it with the technical aspect, which is what I grew up with four wheeling.”
ORX: “We know you’ve been involved in other motorsports. Is off-road racing your favorite?”
Combs: “Oh yeah. It’s absolutely my favorite. Don’t get me wrong, I love driving cars on-road and off-road. I love motorcycles, and flying planes. If I can get my hands on it and drive it or pilot it, I’m super excited about it. But I love off-road racing.”
“It’s gnarly, its brutal, you know, it beats you up. So to be able to finish a race or be able to show that girls can do this, because it’s not very often that you find girls in off-road racing, that’s cool.”
“The fact is that it’s one of the most difficult types of racing because there are so many different elements to it. So when you become successful, it’s a bigger accomplishment to me than if I were, you know, drifting, or I don’t know, just about any other form of driving I’ve tried.”
So there she is. Jessi Combs. Fabricator, designer, driver, record holder, and outspoken personality. She lets it all hang out. If you want to keep up with her, well, you can try, but you had better be fast.
If you want to follow her, you can do so by giving her Facebook page a Like! We had a great time talking to her and were inspired by her unwavering drive. Who do you want to hear from next on Interviews with Off Road Xtreme?
All Photos Courtesy Jessi Combs and Stuart Bourdon