Jessi Combs Attempts Land Speed Record

By AR on Oct 20, 2015

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Jessi Combs’ Attempt at the Land Speed Record
September 2015

Words and Photos: Michael Plunkett

After receiving an invitation to the Alvord Desert dry lakebed in southeast Oregon to witness Jessi Combs’ attempt at breaking the women’s world land speed record, a record that was set by Kitty O’Neil back in 1976 at a speed of 512.70 miles per hour, there was no doubt in my mind that I needed to be there for the full experience. I had less than a week to figure out a plan and make it happen. There was no way I was going to miss my friend attempt such a historical moment… it’s a world record for crying out loud!!

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Jessi had mentioned the plan of making speed runs over September 23-25th. Upon my arrival to the massive lakebed in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, the North American Eagle (NAE) was in the pits and I assumed they were just going over the car from the day’s run. I was quickly informed that Ed Shadle (co-owner of the NAE) had attempted to make a couple of test passes during the day, but the car was not steering properly, though they seemed confident the issue figured was out.

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I wasn’t sure about Jessi, but I hardly slept a wink that first night at the lakebed. Never having been around anything of this nature my mind was racing with thoughts. How was I going to shoot something traveling over five hundred miles per hour? Where was I going to shoot from…the start line or the finish line…or maybe the the mid point of the 9 mile course? I didn’t even know where the starting line was yet! There were so many things to think about and morning was going to come quick! As I laid there taking in the whole scene of being out in the middle of a lakebed with the stars beaming down upon me, my mind was exhausted and I finally drifted away.

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Before I knew it I was awake but it wasn’t even daylight yet. It wasn’t long before the team was filtering into the pits and going over the car one more time. Once all were satisfied it was doing what it should be doing, they lowered it onto the trailer and was headed for the starting line. I noticed Ed out front picking up several loose little rocks from in front of the car’s path. He informed me it was to prevent them from being sucked into the jet engine and potentially creating any damage to the J-79 jet engine. A few short minutes later he was geared up and inside the vehicle as it appeared to be all systems go. I put in my earplugs and anxiously waited to see how this all went down. As the jet engine ignited and began to wind up, Jessi pulled the tire chucks and everyone moved off to the side and out of the way. Ed and the crew exchanged thumbs up and the car headed down it’s path. It appeared everything was going as it should, though how was I to know with the giant dust cloud it kicked up. Still trying to keep my eye on the race car, I noticed everyone was already loaded up and on the chase to the finish line.

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I wasted no time and was on hot pursuit following everyone towards the finish line 8 miles away. It’s quite a sight seeing all the chase cars struggling to stay outside everyone’s dust at that speed, much like an off road race for the win. Approaching the NAE I could see Ed had made it most of the way down the course and was already being interviewed by the awaiting film crew. Someone called out the speed of which he was, which clocked at roughly 270 mph. Ed replied that he had fought the wheel the whole way down the course, to which the car continued to steer to the left and was therefore going to have to take the car back to the pit and continue to be worked on. Once in the pits, the crew went right back to work, bleeding all the lines again to make sure there wasn’t any air in the system.

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While all of that was going on, there was another discussion between Ed and Jessi. They were concerned with the amount of test runs they were having to make and not having enough fuel to complete their mission. So they loaded up three 50 gallon drums and sent two of their men to head out for more fuel. At this point, the decision was also made to pull more steering components and disassemble them for inspection. After the inspection, which didn’t reveal an obvious problem, they all agreed upon what appeared to be a scratch in the valve diaphragm plate could very well be allowing enough fluid to bypass into the wrong portion of the system causing the vehicle to pull to the left. They made some changes and bled the system free of air one more time, and after a few tests they could see right away that it was acting worse then it was before.

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Ed quickly located a new pump out of his home state of Washington and had it shipped via UPS to a town named Burns which was 78 miles away from the lakebed. With a couple of guys staying at a motel in Burns, it made sense that if the valve arrived there by 10:00am Friday morning, the guys should be able to have it on the lakebed by noon. That would give them enough time to install, test, and make one or two runs in by dark. It was a lot to ask of for everything going smoothly and still get a couple of solid runs in by Friday night, but since most of the crew had to pull out on Saturday it was the only option they had.

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The next morning, as I sat in the hot springs taking in the whole idea of being on a lakebed in Oregon about to witness history, I could not think of a better place I would rather be! It is a very peaceful place that carries an epic energy of its own. The NAE team started to filter back in around 10:00am preparing themselves and the car for when the part arrived. The wind was beginning to pick up as we were forced to secure things down around camp. It was approaching 1:30pm and we saw a vehicle coming from the north which indeed turned out to be the boys from Burns with the new valve. As Ed pulled the new part from the box, we could see immediately it was not the same as the original part. They were able to make some adjustments though, and like most innovative situations, give it a shot.

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While fighting the extreme wind and dust the whole time, the crew still managed to get it installed. After bleeding the lines and running a few tests, they found out the new pump was not putting out enough volume to move the wheel! The dust storm was horrible and things seemed to not be working out, but the team was not giving up. It would have been easy to throw in the towel and call it a wrap, but this team just wasn’t willing call it quits. As everyone continued on, they tested the steering thoroughly and everything finally seemed to be working properly. There was still one potential steering issue, but both Ed and Jessi discussed this in depth and agreed that neither of them have ever had to steer that far one way or another, so this issue should never become a problem. At that point they decided to give Jessi her turn in the cockpit.

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The wind had calmed down quite a bit by then and we all headed for the start line. I said a few prayers asking that things would go smooth and that she would remain safe. You could feel the excitement in the air as the team prepared the bird for her run. I caught the photos I wanted at the start line, then raced towards the six mile marker. After getting ourselves in position we waited for what seemed like forever! At one point we saw a large plume of dust pop up, though it did not appear to continue our way as expected. We waited and waited but nothing happened…then we saw part of the crew heading back towards the starting line. They informed us that the steering was still a problem and she had to shut it down. The flow of emotions were strong, yet Jessi was still in high spirits and agreed she will hold that record one day soon.

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The North American Eagle team plans on taking the girl home and completely rebuilding the entire steering system to try it again at another date… that’s what we racers do! I had met some incredible new friends in those few days, and I couldn’t be more proud of the guys for how hard they worked in their commitment to breaking that record. I could not thank Jessi Combs enough for the experience I had that will stay with me forever! Hopefully I will be present once again when they set out to conquer the records they aim to break. Godspeed my friends, Godspeed!

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…thank you for the memories.

Here’s a preview into Jessi’s first attempt behind piloting the North American Eagle Supersonic Land Speed Challender vehicle to an average speed of 394mph on October 9, 2013.

Words and photos by:
Michael Plunkett


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