The Enduring Spirit of Jessi Combs

The World's Fastest Woman

By Jeff Alexander

The Fastest Woman on Earth not only serves to chronicle Jessi Combs’ land speed record odyssey but to capture her unique and enduring spirit. Filmmakers Chris Otwell and Graham Suorsa dedicated over nine years to the documentary film and both proudly stated that it by no means stands as an exclusive, moto culture film, but instead, an authentic portrayal of Combs and the positive impacts she made.

“Her story always felt legendary to me and when she tragically passed, Graham and I felt we had a responsibility to tell her story because she always looked at life with a bigger vision; it was never just the car or the record. It was her message of the audacity of chasing big dreams and making positive impacts on the relationships created throughout a dream’s journey,” stated Otwell.

Jessi Combs passed in 2019 due to her jet-powered vehicle’s front wheel failure. She was posthumously recognized by Guinness World Records for the fastest land speed ever achieved by a woman, with an official speed of 522 mph. For the filmmakers, her tragic loss left a void not just within the moto culture community but through every individual she ever created a relationship with. Otwell and Suorsa always maintain The Fastest Woman on Earth was never solely focused on chasing and achieving the record, no matter how elusive and coveted the goal was. 

“Jessi is unique because she crossed over to many disciplines and her drive and inspiration were infectious. She had the strong ability to make you feel like she was speaking directly to you, while on camera or not and some people have that gift to make you come away with having a powerful experience. She was one of them,” reflected Otwell.

Jessi Combs rose to prominence with Mythbusters and Overhaulin’, where she worked to prove that her knowledge was not only invaluable but she could also put it into action. Otwell and Suorsa first worked with Combs in 2013 on The List: 1001 Car Things to Do Before You Die. Combs had worked tirelessly to elevate production values and celebrate moto culture’s versatility. Suorsa reflected on initially working with Combs.

“To have her on The List was an act of defiance. We felt making a car show for men was too basic. There were already programs following formulas. Having an action-adventure series with an action-based woman host that was so dynamic was a way to build a new, diverse audience.  We wanted the audience to see things at stake and go along for the ride and we worked hard to elevate the series.”

Combs’ versatility enabled her to test limits and not relegate herself to television or be known for a singular thing. She refined her skills as an accomplished fabricator, racer, and artist. Always working to push herself into the unknown with her unrelenting spirit, the filmmakers believe she meant many things to many individuals.

“Jessi always had a well-defined audience and whenever we worked with her, we honored that but we also knew her unique spirit and drive was never exclusive to moto culture. When Graham and I first began the film, we knew the story we wanted to tell and Jessi trusted us to convey her message,” reflected Otwell.

The Fastest Woman on Earth remains a poignant documentary and succeeds because it transcends the seemingly singular focus of the land speed record. 

“Graham and I wanted to be the medium to show this magic person she was by highlighting her friends, family, and reveal this bigger-than-life person without simply making a documentary about her chase and achievement of the land speed record. We wanted to make a compelling document that also showed how she impacted everyone she interacted with,” stated Otwell.

Jessi Combs with Kitty O’Neil

Otwell recalls one of the most difficult interactions Combs had was speaking with Kitty O’Neil. O’Neil held the women’s land speed record for decades, the very record Combs was training to surpass. Both filmmakers and Combs were very fortunate to have met O’Neil, as she stopped giving interviews years ago, after retiring in 1982.

“We were really lucky to work with Kitty in 2014. She had seen Jessi from afar and this lit something in her like her competitive spirit was being awakened. Kitty is a complex person and had a hard life. The intersection of those truths was complicated and alcohol took its toll. She retreated to live in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t drive anymore and the small town engaged itself in a mass, tough love effort. Kitty was an incredible trailblazer but this was a difficult thing to see. Both her and Jessi share the conviction that once you do more than you think you can, the sky is the limit for your capabilities,” said Otwell. 

He added, “I think meeting Kitty impacted Jessi because they are both outliers because of their unique spirits and goals to push themselves, but some people can suffer because of that. It can separate yourself from others and creates real loneliness. Kitty succumbed to this and it was tough seeing such a strong and capable woman struggle. I think Jessi realized this and it was tough for her to see.” 

O’Neil passed in 2018, having earned several land speed records and creating new benchmarks for future generations.

The Fastest Woman on Earth serves as a versatile document and testament to the human spirit’s endurance. For Otwell and Suorsa, both filmmakers believe they continue learning from Jessi, whom they both consider larger than life.

“I continue learning just how tenacious the human spirit is and perhaps moto culture is the great equalizer. The vehicle doesn’t know what gender you are once the helmet goes on. I feel the barrage of assumptions were tackled by Jessi and she was very comfortable earning the position of a role model. I’m content with the film we made because we handled her story with truth and respect,” said Suorsa.

Suorsa serves on the board of directors for The Jessi Combs Foundation. Formed in 2019, the foundation serves to educate, promote, and elevate the next generation of women fabricators, welders, auto body workers, and auto mechanic engineers through grants, scholarships, and event sponsorship. The foundation continues working to facilitate the career paths of dedicated women seeking to make their respective marks in moto culture. Both filmmakers agree the foundation is integral for women seeking a pathway into the industry. 

Otwell echoes Suorsa’s sentiment of having created an authentic document of Combs that continues to offer new learning opportunities.   

“Jessi had the ability to touch you and bring out the burning desire of your spirit. I witnessed her positive interactions with people several times. She formed these deep connections well outside the world of moto culture. I believe her desire to break the record was also a life statement of being willing to put it all on the line, for any challenge and any end goal. When the film finally came out, I felt a tremendous sense of release. I felt I honored her legacy and our friendship,” concluded Otwell. 

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