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Racer Jessi Combs dies in land-racing record attempt crash

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Just over a year after the North American Eagle land-speed racing team lost one of its two co-drivers, Ed Shadle, and vowed to continue his quest to set a land-speed record, its other co-driver, television personality and racer Jessi Combs, has died in a high-speed crash at the Alvord Desert in Oregon.

The crash took place Tuesday afternoon as the team conducted what was described as a test session on the desert. The test session was the team’s first since last year, when Combs ran the North American Eagle to 483.227 MPH, but a piece of debris damaged the turbine.

According to a statement that Harney County Lieutenant Undersheriff Brian Needham made to KTVZ, the sheriff’s office and the Bureau of Land Management are investigating the crash. A member of Combs’s team, Terry Madden, confirmed on Instagram Wednesday morning that it was Combs that died in the crash. No further information about the crash has been released.

Shadle, a Bonneville 200 MPH Club member, initiated the North American Eagle land-speed racing project not long after Andy Green set the current world land speed record of 763.035 mph in 1997 at the Black Rock Desert. His plan called for removing the wings from a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and installing a 42,500-hp J-79 jet engine good for about 19,000 pounds of thrust, dubbing the three-wheeled jet car the North American Eagle. Unlike other land-speed record competitors gunning for 1,000 MPH, the North American Eagle team aimed simply to bring the world land-speed record back to the United States.

After several years of testing, Shadle managed a best speed of 515 MPH. By 2013, he also brought on Combs, a WyoTech graduate, metal fabricator, and television host who had also competed in off-road and desert racing events, to not only chase after Kitty O’Neil‘s women’s land-speed record but also to take the wheel for the world land-speed record attempts. In a statement to Wired magazine earlier this year, North American Eagle co-founder Keith Zanghi called Combs “the most qualified person in the world” to drive the vehicle.

While the team, based in Washington state, regularly used Alvord – where O’Neil set her record in 1976 – as a test site, Shadle had secured the Diamond Valley alkali flats in central Nevada for testing and record runs. In 2016, Combs came close to crashing at Alvord during an attempt on the women’s land-speed record after veering off course at 477 MPH and ending up partway off the lakebed.

The North American Eagle team and Combs’s family intend to issue a statement later on today, according to Madden.