Words/Photos: Mercedes Lilienthal
There are certain moments in time one should reflect, rejuvenate, and reengage one’s soul. The ones that make you want to step away from the everyday grind, get out into nature, and celebrate those around you – especially those loved and lost. Too often, we let daily stresses take hold of us, and not what matters most fills our minds: the people who helped shape who we are, even if we don’t know them well.
The first-ever Jessi Combs Foundation Trailblazers Run was held at this year’s Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah (the 57th year the event series had run). People gathered for a day of celebration and trail driving to remember the legendary Jessi Combs and her remarkable spirit. It was a day of laughter, wonderful comradery, and meaningful things. It was 100% what Combs would’ve wanted to see if she were still with us.
Who was Jessi Combs?
Combs was a talented fabricator and welder, and mentor to many. She was also a prominent TV personality who hosted and co-hosted shows like “Overhaulin’,” “Xtreme 4×4,” and “Mythbusters.” Combs also became the fastest woman on earth by shattering her land speed record and beating Kitty O’Neill’s 1976 long-standing record of 512.7 mph at Oregon’s Alvord Desert before perishing that same day on August 27, 2019. She was only 39 years old.
Although Combs isn’t with us physically, her spirit carries on in many ways. She lived life to the fullest by giving back to the community even more than pushing her limits in the motorsports world and automotive trades industry.
She and Baja Forged’s Theresa Contreras started the Real Deal Revolution in 2015 – a nonprofit organization that aimed to help women and young girls learn about the automotive trades by getting hands-on training through various workshops and events.
“Our goal was for Real Deal to become a perpetuating community of helping empower other women to do things they didn’t know they were capable of doing,” Contreras said. “And to create a supportive community of both men and women for them to do it in.”
For the next several years, Combs and Contreras made it their mission for anyone – no matter their age – to attend workshops and learn how to weld, pinstripe and more. Their goal was to show women and girls they could have a rewarding career without necessarily going to college.
To the world, Combs exemplified positivity, including total focus and dedication, that could make anything possible.
The Queen of the Hammers
Combs stood for many things, one of which was perseverance. Even though she faced many challenges in life, she didn’t let that stop her. Combs never gave up, but instead learned from her mistakes. She asked questions. She worked hard and kept at it until she conquered her goals.
Along with her land speed record, another notable achievement for Combs was winning the 2016 King of the Hammers’ Every Man Challenge in the Modified Class with her #88 Ultra4 off-roader. No woman had done such a thing before. Combs became America’s “Queen of the Hammers” and made history as the first female to win the grueling EMC rock-crawling race.
“We simply had to focus on our aim,” Combs said as she raced that year, “win the EMC mod class. Keep it together. No whammies.”
Though Combs won the Spec Class two years earlier in 2014 in another vehicle (#8), she won the hearts of thousands with the 2016 EMC win with her long-time co-driver Martin Castro. She then went on to take first place in the Stock Class in a gold-hued race vehicle, #18, specifically built for her by the president of Savvy Off Road, Gerald Lee. She and her new co-driver, Chris Rea, also took third overall in that vehicle in 2018.
That specific vehicle, #18, is most commonly known as Goldie Rocks, though she and Rea had nicknamed it “Little Ms. Daisy” while racing at KOH because she said it was so easy to drive.
“There are very few drivers I’ve ever felt as comfortable with,” Rea said, referring to his time with Combs at the helm of Goldie Rocks. “There was never a time that I ever was like, ‘oh, hey this is going to be bad.’ Jessi was one of the most calm, cool and collected people when she wanted to be.”
Rea added that he had every faith Combs was a “good enough driver” to get them out of every potential problem they’d encounter when racing the King of the Hammers.
However, in 2019, Combs suffered an event-ending mechanical failure that took her out of podium contention. She timed out of the race and Goldie Rocks sat idle until it was carefully resurrected for this year’s Easter Jeep Safari.
The Next Chapter
In the wake of Combs’ passing, the Jessi Combs Foundation, JCF, was formed in 2019 to carry on her spirit and everything she stood for. “Our mission is to educate, inspire, empower the next generation of trailblazers like Jessi,” said Dana Wilke, JCF’s co-founder and board member. “Jessi was a pioneer and a trailblazer. One of the pillars of how we bring the mission to life is through our scholarship program that is targeted towards women who want to go to trade school,” she said. “Jessi got her start in trade school and that was the beginning of her trajectory.”
“We’ve got 21 [scholarship] girls,” Wilke explained. “We started that in 2020 and we’ve given over a hundred thousand dollars to 21 deserving women who are the next generation of trailblazers. The scholarship program has been the launchpad for bringing our mission to life.”
Lee, who custom-built Goldie Rocks for Combs, graciously donated Goldie Rocks to JCF in 2023 to help pay it forward. With the exciting news announced at this year’s King of the Hammers event, several JCF scholarship winners, including Heather Holler, Taylor Keller, and Kirsten Williams, worked tirelessly on the famed Ultra4 race rig for eight weeks to bring it back to operable form. The plan? Get it ready for its trail-ready debut for the Jessi Combs Foundation’s first-ever Trailblazers Run at the 2023 Easter Jeep Safari.
Other women, like Amber Turner and Serena Pruett, along with the support of multiple companies and many others, were instrumental in bringing the notable 4×4 back into tip-top shape. Logbooks were written, and a wide array of photos were taken to document the restoration progress carefully. Nothing was thrown away.
“I was just amazed at how those girls diagnosed the problems, and then the methodical way that they took things apart and diagnosed it all the way to fixing it,” Wilke said. “They just dug in.”
Wilke said those girls worked their asses to prepare Goldie Rocks for the trail ride. Wilke said they had a remarkable sense of knowing their skills, working hard, and is dedicated to fixing something while not having a checklist of what was wrong. Everyone who touched Goldie Rocks cared for each bolt, weld, and part. Everyone came together to bring a piece of Jessi Combs back to life. Goldie Rocks symbolizes what Combs stood for and translates into what we should all carry on for the future.
The First-Ever Trailblazers Run
Goldie Rocks is an important piece of motorsports history for the collective team. “This a historical artifact and we want to take care of it,” Wilke explained. “We also want to use it.”
Gerald Lee was elated to see his and Combs’ rig back on the trails, especially after all the women had worked on it. “That’s one of the proudest moments to see that,” he said, “that the car is helping new women get into our field, getting into the off-road world.”
Lee wished he could’ve made it to the EJS event but was stoked to pay it forward and donate the rig he and Savvy Off Road built for Combs to JCF. “Goldie speaks of Jessi,” he said. “That was her car.” To him, the Jessi Combs Foundation maintains, and using that vehicle, keeps Combs’ memory alive, which he loves to see.
The first-ever Trailblazers Run at Easter Jeep Safari meant many things to many people. It brought folks together from all parts of the industry, including some of Combs’ family members.
We celebrated a major milestone: Goldie Rocks was proudly driven on the trail for the first time in years, fixed up and piloted by the women inspired by Combs – the future trailblazers.
The first-ever Trailblazers Run enveloped those who attended with Combs’ incredible never-give-up attitude and the determination to help future generations.
Not only did we band together to celebrate Combs’ spirit and strengthen our bond as a united front for the future generation of the automotive trade, but we also had fun doing it! We explored Moab’s popular Seven Mile Rim trail and had an informative winch and vehicle recovery demonstration from Andy Lilienthal at Warn Industries and Justin Andrews at Factor 55 during our lunch break.
It was a day for the record books, a day of remembrance and celebration while keeping Jessi Combs’ spirit alive.