It’s not everyday that you find someone so passionate about the automotive industry that they would ooze oil rather than blood, but automotive “It Girl” Jessi Combs is definitely on that level. Lucky for us, we got a chance to catch up with Jessi, who made appearances at SEMA, continued to work on her own empire, and even became the first female to win a class at the annual Griffin King of the Hammers event in the last few months. How we secured time in her busy schedule, we’re still not sure, but boy was it amazing hearing all she had to say about being a female in the automotive industry!
Young Jessi driving with her dad. Images courtesy of: Jessi Combs.
Q: What got you into hot rods and how old were you when it happened?
A: My great grandmother’s family owned a car lot and she raced Stanley Steamers back in the 1920’s. She was also a jazz pianist and traveled many miles on Goodrich fabric tires and ended up being a spokesmodel for them.
My mother raced our Blazer with my dad being the pit crew. His mechanical engineering mindset, my mom’s desire to win, and my great grandmother’s classy free spirit were instilled in me… so, the moment I was conceived is when it happened.
Q: What inspired you to get into the automotive industry?
A: Easy… passion. I remember the day I was sitting on my dad’s lap while driving our ’72 Blazer on the back roads of the Black Hills. I was in control of the wheel and I drove us into a ditch. He looked up just in time to avoid plowing into a pine tree.
Once back on the dirt road, he pointed out in front of my face and said, ‘See the road little one, try to stay on it. OK?’ and let me continue driving. I was three years old.
“Thanks to the birds and the bees, I don’t know if I really had a choice in all this chaos. It’s in my genes.” -Jessi Combs
Because I was never discouraged, nor taught otherwise, I fell in love with knowing how to operate such dominating, yet beautiful pieces of engineering. Granted, there isn’t much to that truck compared to today’s technology, yet that’s what I love about it… the merging of new advancements with old-school techniques and the never ending learning process of it all.
Q: What was your first position in the automotive industry and how did your career progress from there?
A: When I lived in Denver, I went to many local fab shops to try and get my foot in the door. I was denied like the plague so I chose to get a legitimate education.
One of Jessi’s WyoTech projects Super Cyclone.
While getting my degree in Custom Automotive Fabrication at WyoTech in Laramie, Wyoming, (at the top of my class I might add) the marketing department offered me a job to try out a new student program–to build show cars and use them as a marketing tool for the school.
So technically, before I graduated, my classmate Ben Bright and I had immediate employment building a ’64 Mercury Cyclone, affectionately titled the “Super Cyclone”.
A custom 3-link, roll cage, 402, carbon fiber panels, bodywork, paint, and interior, and the car was off to the 2004 SEMA show. About three weeks before the show, I was offered the position to be a Host/Technical Producer for Xtreme 4×4.
It was never my intention to be on TV, though in order to help make a name for myself as a capable woman in the industry, I accepted the position. The rest is history.
Everywhere she goes, Jessi is welcomed by fans!
Q: What’s it like being one of the most recognized females in the male-dominated automotive industry?
A: It’s got its positives and negatives. When they have a chance to meet me, the majority of my fans want to simply shake my hand. To me, that means that I am doing something right, something to leave a lasting impression.
For as much as I am put under a microscope and scrutinized for any tiny imperfection, I can understand why there are not a lot of women taking on this role. The good thing is that I know what I am capable of and have proven to millions that I am passionate about what I do and have the skill set to teach millions.
Q: What’s your favorite part of being in the automotive industry?
A: Hands down, working with so many talented people. After working next to Chip Foose, Brian Fuller, and Troy Trepenier for a week (during her debut season on Overhaulin’), it was their passion that excited me about really doing something for myself in this industry.
When Kari Byron from Mythbusters took a maternity leave, I was chosen to fill in for her and I got to work closely with Grant Imahara and Tory Bellecci, and occasionally with Jamie and Adam…some of the most creative and motivated teams ever! Cristi Lee and Bogi on All Girls Garage definitely keep me on my toes. Gene Winfield, George Barris, The Snake, the list goes on and on. I have been greatly blessed to watch these people change peoples lives and make history by doing what they love to do.
Q: What have you not yet achieved in the industry that you’d still like to?
A: If I died tomorrow, it would be with a feeling of achievement. My life has been so blessed in so many amazing ways with so many fantastic opportunities. Thankfully they keep coming.
I do my best to be the best at what I love to do. It’s not about the winning or losing, it’s that fact that I’m doing it. That right there is where the bonus comes in.
I grew up wanting to be an architect, got a full ride scholarship for interior design, went to school for custom paint, graduated a metal fabricator, got a career as a TV host, became a brand representative, and am now a race car driver. Ideas, dreams, and goals morph as we experience life, so I’m not sure I can look at it like [there’s] something I haven’t yet achieved since I will always be striving for something more.
Q: What awards or recognitions have you received for your work with your current projects and within the industry?
A: This whole journey I am living is the award!
Q: What was it like breaking the woman’s land speed record this year?
A: Unexplainably epic! Had you asked me a year ago what my racing plans were, land speed would not have been included. [But] Bonneville always had a special allure that I had yet to fulfill.
Jessi never thought she’d make it into the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, but with her land speed record, that’s exactly where she ended up!
When Ed Shadle and Keith Zangi from the North American Eagle team began their hunt for a new female pilot, my good friend Will Higgenbothem suggested I’d be the perfect fit. After an engine test in the Seattle area, a few months of mental training, a trip to the Alvord Desert, and five runs in three days, I made history as the fastest woman on four wheels.
Turns out being fearless meshed with the opportunity of driving a 50,000 hp F-104 Starfighter jet turned jet car 7-10 miles down a dry lakebed was a golden ticket to show myself and others that ANYTHING is possible.
Lee Breedlove made her mark at 308 mph back in 1965 and we blew it out of the water at 392 mph with a top speed of 440 mph!! Not only am I soooooo honored to be a part of all this, I hope these achievements will light some fires for more girls to get involved in the motorsports industry.
Jessi took 2nd place at the 2011 Baja 1000 off-road race in Ensenada, Baja Mexico. Image: WIDE OPEN
Q: What’s your favorite thing about being part of the off-road community?
A: The community itself. We are a family, we look out for each other and support one another. Even being heavily involved in the racing aspect, it’s really nothing but some of the best of friends hanging out and having a good time.
Q: Are you working on any personal automotive projects right now? What are they?
A: There is always something I am working on. The issue for me is being out of town so often, there is simply not enough time to do everything I want to do.
Four or five years ago I bought a 1976 Harley Davidson Ironhead. It has been a part of so many unfinished projects, though now that I have a design in mind, I would like to say that is what I will be finishing first.
When I graduated from WyoTech in 2004, I bought myself a 2000 Toyota Tundra for it’s reliability and utilitarian purposes, and I got exactly that; 230,000+ miles of love.
That truck has been and always will be a second skin of mine, and to thank it for all the good years, I am finally turning it into the pre-runner it’s always wanted to be. Total Chaos, Deaver, Fiberwerx, RuffStuff, ARB, Falken Tire, Raceline, and Active Graphics have already jumped on board, with many more showing interest every day to help my little baby become something of herself.
Jessi’s Tundra in the works.
Jessi dreams of vehicles like this ’05 Tundra race truck, which she races with Nicole Pitel of Total Chaos.
Q: What is the one vehicle you hope to have at some point in your life–resources being no object?
A: I have a love affair with most cars, whether it’s a hot rod, muscle car, supercar, truck, or even a van. One of the houses I designed when I was 8 years old had a 14 car garage. If that doesn’t speak for itself, I don’t know how to explain that I wish I had one of everything.
Jessi’s ’76 Harley Ironhead–one of her many projects.
As a little girl I had always loved Ferrari’s, 1967 Camaros, and monster trucks. In my Street Rod fab class, I fell for a ’38 DeSoto. If I could have a trophy truck or even a class 1, I wouldn’t complain one bit.
Realistically speaking, I have my eyes out for a Subaru STI 5-door wagon, although I wouldn’t mind taking an Audi R8… or the new Stingrays are sexy as hell… a race bike would be sick… or… see what I mean?!
Q: We heard you’d like to open your own fab shop. Is that going to happen anytime soon and what are your goals for that?
A: Right now my shop is more like my studio. Being on the road over 77 percent of the year, I need the time and space to focus on getting some of my own projects done.
Eventually it will be open to the public and we will offer classes and clinics for welding, wrenching, painting, leather crafting, jewelry making, among many other hands-on arts and trades. The plan is to get tools in girl’s hands and let them throw sparks, be creative, feel empowered and have fun in a comfortable working environment. Long term, I’d like to have a chunk of property for a camp where we can offer retreats, conferences, and weeks of training.
Q: A major hurdle for you, your accident in 2007, was well publicized but can you explain to us what exactly happened? How did you overcome the physical hardship of the accident? Did you ever think of quitting your automotive career?
A: If I could explain what really happened I would, but it is still a freak accident to me ‘cus I have no idea how it all went down.
I love to build, I love to drive… as fast as possible, I love using my brain, I love being creative, I love being dangerous, and I love to let loose…not many things in life allow you to have control of such freedom.
During a non-film week of Xtreme 4×4, I took some time to intensely clean up and organize the studio. While cleaning, I discovered an industrial sized bandsaw that had yet to be set up. At one point, the 550 lb saw fell on my back and taco’d my head to my knees, burst-fracturing my L3 (lumbar). Aside from every rib, my collar bone and humerus bones being fractured, torn ligaments in my right knee, and the wind knocked out of me for days, my back was the largest concern considering there were multiple pieces of broken vertebrae pushing on my spinal cord.
Five days of laying flat on my back, an L1-L4 vertebrae fusion, relearning how to walk, some physical therapy, full medical release at 8 months (typically 12-15 months), and 7 years later, my doctor still considers me a miracle case.
Not only did I never loose function of my legs, I never lost feeling, healed faster than most, and remained positive through the majority of it all, when I should literally be sitting in a wheelchair.
My whole life could have massively changed at that very moment, though I never allowed myself to go there. They say my over-determination, strength both mental and physical, and my support system is what sped up the healing process and allowed me to keep doing what I do with zero limitations. In fact I do more now than I ever did before.
Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of bad days, but I do my best to stay strong, active, and don’t let this little hiccup slow me down. I look at it as a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to slow down and take a look at the bigger picture. It helped me become healthier, as well as figure out what training regimens work best for me.
Not once have I thought about changing careers due to my injury. In fact, I am now more involved than I ever have been. I don’t think it would have been much of a different thought process had I permanently ended up in a wheelchair; I would have simply found a way to adapt and overcome.
She may have been a female, but Jessi's great grandmother certainly held her own behind the wheel of a Stanley Steamer and as a spokeswoman for Goodrich tires in the 1920s, overcoming gender obstacles in her own right.
Q: What other obstacles have you had to overcome to reach your current success?
A: [It] seems like every day is overcoming obstacles, although the biggest one is breaking the ‘girl’ stereotype; that every girl loves the color pink, makeup and kittens; has to look pretty and skinny 24/7; belongs in the kitchen; doesn’t know how to drive; breaking a nail; etc.
One of Jessi’s many sentiments.
I am so anti-pink…to a point where when I get a pack of socks, I always get rid of the pair with pink in them; I love when I don’t have to wear makeup and I’m not a fan of cats; I often introduce myself as the dirty girl because I am usually covered in grinding dust or grease up to my elbows or have crazy helmet hair. My cooking skills are less then stellar and my weight fluctuates like every other person. [I’m] pretty sure I can drive better than 90 percent of people in this world [and] I break a nail practically every day….
The point is that I am a girl, I was born this way. Can’t change the way I am wired, nor do I want to. Yes, we are emotional, we like pretty things, we like to plan, we like to go shopping, [and] we are more social, though none of that should depict the skills I have to get the job done in a professional, efficient, and quality manner.
We may have to grow thick skin and let certain circumstances roll off our shoulder to make it in this industry, [but] my mission is to spread the word that girls too can get dirty, go fast, have fun, and at the end of the day, still be the beautiful nurturing humans we were created to be. There are no boundaries!
Q: What advice would you give young females looking to get into a career in the automotive industry?
A: Believe in yourself, stay strong and never give up!
Jessi teaching fellow females how to weld.
Q: What’s next for you in the coming year?
A: Where do I begin?! Television-wise I will be filming the third season of All Girls Garage for the Velocity channel, as well as continuing to capture awesome adventures with my crew for The List: 1001 Car Things to do Before You Die, on AOL’s autoblog.com.
Sustaining the brand [and] representing relationships I have with WARN Ind., Lincoln Electric, and WyoTech.
According to Jessi, her and Nicole may be embarking on more off-road adventures soon!
When it comes to racing I will be driving the entire Ultra4 West Coast series for Falken Tire in the Spec Class; the North American Eagle will be going back out for the 512 mph FIM record that Kitty O’neil set back in 1976; and after the Powder Puff race this year, Nicole Pitel from Total Chaos and I have discussed racing in a desert series such as BITD in their Tacoma race truck “Lil T”.
A few fellow females and I have been working on a foundation to promote and empower women in the automotive and industrial arts industries. Hopefully that will be up an running by the end of the year. All that among establishing a few brands, tightening up my shop and getting busy with some of my projects….never a dull moment in my life.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five to 10 years?
A: Changing the world!
“There is nothing that compares to helping open people’s eyes to what women are capable of. Hopefully my and other legitimate women’s hard work will eventually squash the stereotypes and we can all live as one. Although I must say, when it’s all said and done, I’m just another human doing what I love to do.” -Jessi Combs