Jessi Combs, a Legend Lives On

Jessi Combs is an Inspiration We’ll Never Forget

On Aug. 27, 2019, we lost one of the most influential and endearing off-road automotive greats: Jessi Combs. Inspirational in many respects, Jessi Combs was fearless, compassionate, funny, and dedicated to making a difference. This one-of-a-kind woman, who died at the young age of 39, left us too soon, but the impact she made on the world is felt by all, especially those who got to ride alongside her in life. Her encouragement and influence helped women excel in their non-traditional careers, take chances on new paths, and retain resiliency to forge ahead and face challenges head on.

Jessi Combs poses with young girl
Jessi Combs took time to talk to anyone, no matter their age or gender. It didn’t matter what they said—she was genuinely interested in their conversation and loved meeting them. Photo by Mercedes Lilienthal.

Combs was a talented welder, fabricator, off-road racer, and prominent TV personality on shows like Overhaulin’, Xtreme 4×4, and Mythbusters. Her physical life ended with her trying to beat her own land speed record of 483 mph and attempting to top Kitty O’Neill’s 1976 record of 512.7 mph at Oregon’s Alvord Desert, but her spiritual life will continue to inspire many for years to come.

“Jessi’s biggest accomplishments aren’t even close to being over.”

According to a press release from the Harney County Sheriff’s office, “a mechanical failure of the front wheel, most likely caused from striking an object on the desert” caused the front wheel assembly to collapse on the jet-powered North American Eagle. This, in turn, led to the crash that occurred at speeds near 550 mph, according to the sheriff’s office.

Even though Combs is physically no longer with us, her spirit will carry on. She was a huge advocate for women in skilled trades and a role model to young children, no matter their gender. No matter how busy Combs was, she took time to chat with people interested in meeting her. In her mind, she wasn’t a celebrity; she was just another girl doing what she believed in.

Best Friend, Life Partner

Terry Madden, Combs’ best friend and life partner, knew her for years. During that time, they got close as they attended multiple events every year all over the country, such as King of the Hammers, the SEMA Show, Easter Jeep Safari, and Hand Built, to name a few.

“We actually sat down after King of Hammers a few years ago and had the talk of ‘do we want to risk this amazing friendship and screw it up by publicly dating?’” Madden said. “I invited her to Malibu for the weekend and she said no; she was gonna stay on the lakebed. I went by myself and about 11 p.m. that night I got a text. Jessi texted, ‘Where are you camped? I’m here!’”

Jessi Combs and Terry Madden Lake Tahoe
Selfie snapped in front of Lake Tahoe during a celebration vacation after the 2018 land speed record. Photo by Terry Madden.

And with that, the rest was history.

“There is no description for Jessi’s personality,” Madden said.

“She was truly my unicorn,” he said. “She had an amazing way of [no matter what she was dealing with internally] putting it all away and taking care of others.”

That’s where Madden and Combs bonded. They both held in their issues over the years and finally had a person to confide in where they did not feel judged. The inseparable pair were lucky enough to live and work in the life they loved. Their worlds merged as they were able to travel and work together.

“I learned a lot from her that I never wanted to learn,” he said. “If I didn’t know better, I would swear she was grooming me for being able to handle things when she was gone.”

Jessi Combs smiling
Combs always had fans sitting in the co-driver seat if she was on fun runs, like this one during the 2019 Easter Jeep Safari. It was apparent she loved giving them a memorable and fun experience. Photo by Mercedes Lilienthal.

The Real Deal

Jessi Combs along with Theresa Contreras, of LGE-CTS Motorsports based in San Dimas, California, made it their mission to motivate and help women and young girls gain self-confidence, get hands-on training with all sorts of trades that are normally male-dominated, and break through stereotypes. To them, there weren’t boundaries, just challenges to push through. In addition to each of their jobs and daily duties, they decided to create the Real Deal Revolution organization to help empower women.

They wanted Real Deal to spark their interest, to take the intimidation factor out of trying something most women wouldn’t normally do, and to let them try it right now. Together they designed and built a 10×10 wood-and-metal booth that they took to car and motorcycle shows to demonstrate welding and pinstriping. Anyone at any age could try each skill. They attended events like Chopper Fest, Born Free, and Babes Ride Out, an event where a lot of women got to know them. Combs wanted Real Deal to be about everyone else, not necessarily about them.

“Jessi wanted the speed record so bad,” Contreras explained. “For Jessi, it was always about breaking new boundaries. Jessi was always a goal-oriented person; she wanted to do something and strove to accomplish it. She understood you had to go through the struggles and challenges in order to succeed—that it wasn’t failure.”

That was part of their mantra, to help empower others, and get other girls excited about things in life that weren’t typically meant for women.

Contreras and Combs worked on various builds together, but one that stood out was a BMW R nineT they built for Real Deal. In 2015, when BMW approached them, they decided to design and craft a land speed–inspired motorcycle that women could both ride and race.

Jessi Combs and Thea Ulrich welding booth
Jessi Combs and Thea Ulrich in the Real Deal Revolution welding booth at Babes Ride Out 6 (BRO6). Photo by Shannan Gibson.

“The colors were inspired by the colors of the dry lake bed at sunset, where you get the golds and silvery tones that dance across the horizon and the desert sand,” Contreras said. “We wanted to make the bike look rawer, naked.”

So, they decided to delete a lot on it and give it a more café-racer look with a “less is more” type of feel.

Although the project motorcycle took a while to finish, they proudly showcased it in BMW’s booth at the 2016 SEMA Show. There it started its tour of several shows, winning accolades along the way.

“Our [next] goal with Real Deal is to get some ladies on the dry lakebed to race it like it was intended!” Contreras exclaimed.

They wanted to show women (and girls) you didn’t have to go to college to learn a career. There’s a whole other world out there. Real Deal wanted to break through stereotypes, to show that working their asses off can get them to where they want to be. They showed what it takes to get there, and that, in turn, will strengthen and empower their ideals.

Inspiring Teacher

Thea Ulrich, Combs’ friend and fellow welding co-teacher at the Babes Ride Out events, said Combs helped her crack into the off-road and trade industry. Ulrich has taught welding, blacksmithing, and fab work for many years. In fact, she makes many of the apparatuses for her mid-air acts as an aerial performer. Ulrich hadn’t gotten her moto license and knew nothing about the automotive world. Even though she wanted to learn, she just accepted there weren’t many other women out there for her to work with. But then she met Combs through Instagram and was asked to help teach for Babes Ride Out.

Jessi Combs teaching welding
Combs teaching welding to one of the many women at Babes Ride Out in 2018 in Joshua Tree, California, for the Real Deal Revolution. Photo by Shannon Gibson/Various Lives Photography.
Jessi Combs building front faring
Combs looking at the lines on the front faring she was hand-building for the Real Deal BMW motorcycle. Photo by Theresa Contreras.

“Teaching alongside Jessi was not only my first experience being able to work as a team with a badass woman, but I was introduced to this vast and amazing community of female builders and makers,” Ulrich said. “She was a magnet for extraordinary women, all of whom were radical, kind, and experts in their field.”

Ulrich goes on to say Combs was a bright bolt of positive electricity. Energy just radiated out from her wherever she was. Ulrich believes people think that “badass” and “incredibly kind and giving” don’t stereotypically go together—but to her Combs was both of those things.

“For Jessi, it was always about breaking new boundaries.”

“She was so fierce, so strong, absolutely unwavering in her pursuit, but also just the nicest, funniest, most approachable, and generous person you could find,” Ulrich said.

The community of women builders and makers are still strong, yet heartbroken.

“There are no words that could express my gratitude for this gift [to meet all of them],” she said.

Jessi Combs using tube shark
Combs was using tube shark in the Long Beach shop to bend a piece for Madden and her Strider build for Sturgis 2019. Photo by Terry Madden.

Influential Woman

Jessi Combs was Warn Industries’ spokesperson for nearly 10 years, and her racing efforts were sponsored by the company.

“Jessi embodied so much of what Warn Industries stands for—integrity, passion, and perseverance—she was an inspirational part of the Warn Industries’ family,” Andy Lilienthal, the company’s strategic communications manager, said. “She really was genuine and relatable; she was great to work with because she was a natural.”

Jessi Combs smiling
No matter where or when you saw Combs, she always had a huge smile on her face. Photo by Mercedes Lilienthal.

Lilienthal goes on to mention that Combs was talented in many ways: from her fabrication skills and racing prowess, to her ability to connect with people and motivate, inspiring both men and women, young and old.

“She was a natural with her fans, especially with younger kids,” he said. “She was a dedicated racer who strived to be the best she could be, both on and off the racecourse.”

Combs was not only a world-class, awe-inspiring, kick-ass human, but she was a symbol for many, Ulrich said.

“She was a representation of dreams that pushed boundaries and fought for something greater,” Ulrich said. “When a symbol dies, it can be hard to remember that dreams do not also die. In the midst of grief and shock, you have to disentangle the person from the ideology they represented. Jessi’s death does not mean believing that these ideals were a farce; it means we have to believe in them that much harder. We have to do what Jessi would do. Double down, work even harder, shine even brighter, and never take no for an answer!”

True Legacy Continues to Impact the World

Jessi Combs’ biggest accomplishments aren’t even close to being over.

“Her legacy and what her name, teachings, and spirit are going to do for this world is by far her biggest accomplishment,” Madden said. “It was amazing to watch her work and watch the fruits of her work develop.”

In addition to the Real Deal, the Jessi Combs Foundation was formed as an organization dedicated to educating, enabling the next generation of female innovators.

“She was more important to this world than she ever knew,” Madden said. “To her, she was just another girl doing what she believed in. The difference is she had the balls to do it.”

“… Jessi was a bright bolt of positive electricity. Energy just radiated out from her wherever she was.”

Madden said that Combs’ biggest challenge was exactly the thing she was working against, the perception of a woman in the automotive industry who was just a pretty face and didn’t actually know what she was talking about. She was extremely talented but had to work twice as hard to prove it because she was a woman in a man’s world.

“If I had to pass on any advice [I learned from Jessi] to a young girl, it would be to be comfortable in your own skin,” Madden said. “Everyone has the same thoughts and insecurities as you do. As soon as you get comfortable with yourself, you’ll be a step ahead of everyone else …”

Jessi Combs "Goldie Rocks" Jeep
Combs’ “Goldie Rocks” Jeep easily chomped up boulders, sheer rock walls, and loose dirt, especially with Combs behind the wheel. Photo by Mercedes Lilienthal.

“It’s hard to describe someone like Jessi,” Ulrich said.

“You really don’t want to fall back on clichés, but what you have to realize is that Jessi is the type of person from which [the] cliché, ‘Marches to the beat of her own drum,’ was born,” she said. “It’s perhaps simply best to rewrite history and assume that Jessi came first; she inspired the cliché.”

Combs was a true inspiration to many. She’ll forever be missed. RIP Jessi Combs, you’ve just crossed the final finish line.

Through a Journalist’s Lens

Jessi Combs

Seeing Jessi Combs shatter male-dominated glass ceilings boosted my confidence, which eventually led me to pursue my dreams as an off-road journalist and freelancer. I loved seeing Combs, capturing her energy through the lens of my camera, but most importantly, belly laughing at the silly stories we’d share after a long day of racing or an off-road event. I had a longtime career as a commercial interior designer and project manager, but instead of locking myself in a mundane vanilla box of walls, I decided to change. I pushed my boundaries and charged into the unknown. Was I at risk of failure? Certainly. But finding inner strength that motivates, drives determination, and inspires change can be the ultimate leap of faith to find true happiness.
—Mercedes Lilienthal


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Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the March/April 2020 print issue of Tread Magazine

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