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Landspeed Women of History

Image Via: Photography The Bonneville Salt Flats: Two Decades of Photography by Peter Vincent
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What is the pursuit of speed but the unparalleled thrust of girth into the void where noise is last and fear is first – where you don’t come to meet your demons but to run with them.

Those who willingly throw themselves into this void, we salute them and remember them. They are legends made from the salt dust that trailed their streak into oblivion—speed, the record holder of history, and the women that broke them.

When primed with a picture of Bonneville salt flats, most people in the industry don’t just see the location of an Instagram filter, or the barren line of evaporated wasteland. They see history – history that was made, and made to be broken. The Bonneville Speedway (also known as the Bonneville Salt Flats Race Track) is an area specifically designated for motorsports land speed records. Many vehicles, categories, and classes have been set on the Bonneville speedway, the epicenter of the great American race for records. Whether on two-wheels or four, the only thing more immortalized than the salt on the ground is the people that rode through it.

Image Via: Photography The Bonneville Salt Flats: Two Decades of Photography by Peter Vincent

Though a historically male-dominated event, the Bonneville Salt Flats races have paved the way for over 300 women who have blasted into the coveted clubs of 200mph, to 300mph and beyond, riding anything from special vehicles, series-produced automobiles, drag race cars, and two-wheel vehicles (all validated by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, or FIA). Whoever records the fastest average speed with two runs in opposite directions wins – but only if the runs are within one hour of each other.”. you can’t just run once – you must double-up your efforts  to prove you are the fastest.

Respectfully, the FIA does not gender-specify record holders, but almost ironically, the Guinness Book of Records does.

Amidst this all, one thing remains certain: regardless of how the public may view gender roles in a vehicle, the machine herself couldn’t care less  – and rightfully so. As author and racer Louise Ann Noeth says, “Never has any race car, truck or motorcycle operated differently due to the operator’s gender.” 

Time and speed is the dance for supersonic achievement – and as we look at the many who have come to pass the blitz into history,  we can look to a few women who ventured to break the salt in land-speed racing.

Take Dorothy Levitt, for instance.

Dorothy started racing in 1903 and grabbed the world’s-fastest-woman title by 1906. She was driving a six-cylinder Napier motorcar to 96 mph for the first time and, though her start was small compared to the record holders we have today, she opened the door of possibilities  – all while moving the game from English soil to American salts.

Half a century later, a ‘60s race to the moon took place in the sky while land records continued the march into history. In the race for the fastest female, giant conglomerates sponsored ladies vying for first – among these, Goodyear and Firestone.

Goodyear’s Paula Murphy raised the stakes in an unholy jet dragster: The Avenger. With a speed of 227.36 mph clocked at Bonneville Salt Flats, Murphy set a hard act to follow – one that Firestone quickly overthrew the following year using their own “First lady of Firsts,” the indomitable Betty Skelton. Driving her jet car, Cyclops, Skelton archived a two-way average of 277.52 mph in September 1965.

As if that weren’t enough, Goodyear broke down Firestone’s figures with Lee Breedlove, who entered the 300s club on the turbojet engine of Spirit of America at 308.506 mph just five weeks later.

Kitty O’Neil

Most notable of her time was Kitty O’Neil, a prominent stunt woman, desert racer, and water speed record holder who surfaced to  engrave her name on Oregon’s Alvord Desert. In 1976 O’Neil drove a jet-powered, three-wheeled hydrogen-peroxide-fueled SMI Motivator to a two-way average of 512.710 mph; more impressively, she did it with only 60 percent of the power of her car – and she didn’t just break a land speed record. She held it for four decades and was embellished in the culture as the world’s fastest Woman. Undeterred by being deaf, she confirmed that if you want to beat fear, you keep it in front of you.

Photography by the San Francisco Chronicle Kitty O’Neil, deaf stuntwoman, and speed racer

So where can we imagine people like this go when entering into this wormhole where sound is irrelevant?

How does a person forget their gender, status, and disabilities and go where there are no limits?

Through the race for speed, we see it; it’s a place where the only thing past the word “fear” is “faster.” The machine built for the journey is only as driven as its driver, and the prospect of breaking into supersonic land speed is not just a challenge for these women, but a dream.

One person that openly pushed the line past red was Jessi Combs: an American desert racer, builder, metal fabricator, and professional racer. Jessi was a lightning strike through the racing world from Baja to the Alvord desert – a metal fabricator and garage buff that held no fear of breaking limits.

And break limits she did.

She started with Kitty’s record, and was the first to surpass O’Neil in four decades. Combs was part of the North American Eagle Project, which converted a jet starfighter aircraft into a four-wheel bullet. The craft called Challenger was initially hoped to reach 800 mph, or Mach 1.

Photography by Graham Suorsa & Christopher Otwell

Theresa Contreras, Jessi’s business partner, and a best friend, tells us of this woman’s tenacity:

Obviously, there’s a drive in her, in that ambition that not everyone quite has. But at the same time, we’re all humans that are capable of these types of things and she wanted others to see that….And sometimes it’s helping people along that trail because a lot of people from the outside see it and think, oh, well, they [Combs] can do that because they’re special.”

“There’s something different about them [Combs]. But really, we all have that inside of us. It’s just a matter of finding it and figuring out what excites us or gets that passion for us.”

In June 2020, Combs’ passion surpassed  the limits, and the Guinness Book of Records credited her with the record at 522.783 mph, finally earning Combs  the more well-known title of “Fastest Woman on Earth.”

Photography by Graham Suorsa & Christopher Otwell

Just as paramount as her victory was the cost paid to achieve it. Jessi Combs was fatally injured and tragically taken from us while her land speed record in the woman’s four-wheel. Her passing was a shadow that accompanied the gleam of past triumphs . Revered by many in her community, it was apparent that Comb’s perseverance to fly into the face of danger was a venture even more significant than the numbers on the speedometer – and the high stakes afforded in record-breaking is a constant that continues in the stories of females that broke the barrier and landed a place among legends.

Contreras touches on this and what Combs and women like her did.

We live by what those stereotypes are. We’re surrounded by that. She [Combs] wanted to change the world and do things like this, to break those stereotypes and barriers we all see and perceive… And this is her way of doing that.”

“Get your ass up and come with me! That was her thing…This wasn’t ever just to be about her. The more all of this is in front of people, the more it can be. It’s not to say make it mainstream, but so we realize it’s an inclusive thing, not an exclusive thing. It’s things that we’re telling all these women out there.”

“You are capable of doing this. That’s what her message was like. I’m no different from any of you.”

Photography by Graham Suorsa & Christopher Otwell

A multitude like Combs have come to create dust in the pages of the mile far club. The Breedloves, Combs, and O’Neils of a new generation fuel, not engines, but the boldness of other women who want to race – not just in four-wheel history, but also the ones who were willing to get shit done on two.

Today, Valerie Thompson is one of those present day brilliant women that chooses dust and glory over the perceptions of labels. Clocking in as one of the fastest females on two wheels, Thompson’s resolve is met with a stunning amount of victory. Thompson is the present holder of the World’s Fastest Female Motorcycle Racer, as well as a ten-time land speed record holder with eight 200 MPH Clubs and one 300 MPH Club title to her name. She is consistently ranked as one of the World’s top 10 fastest motorcycle racers and has held her crown for over a decade. Five records alone were set at Bonneville with her BMW S 1000 RR at a top speed of 217.7mph. Thanks to her insane skills, she is also the designated rider of the famed BUB 7 – a motorcycle streamliner that set a new best speed record of 328.467 mph in 2018 during the Dry Lake Racers Australia (DLRA) Speed Week, landing her as the official two-wheel queen of speed.

Valerie Thompson photography

We see Thompson’s accomplishments like the rest of those that broke past the timeline: Deliberate in the fever to carve tracks in history;unimaginable, but now, undeniable.

Even with all of this, land speed women are not just the ones credited with these records; it’s the ones who put themselves into the driver’s seat to try and do the same. New amateurs, entrepreneurs, and rebels looking to become the thunder put themselves into the driver’s seat to try and do the same as their foremothers. Many classes of record holders now exist in Bonneville, and many more are made each day. As I looked through many of these new names that put themselves out on the salt, I learned there are only two kinds of people: The people that do / don’t, and the people that do / do everything. It’s the mastering and conquering of the mind and the body that, in some people, burns beautifully bright.

Part of being a woman is adopting the necessity of breaking the odds.That’s why so many love it; we love to conquer. Grit gives us the ability to feel different, alive. It makes us feel like what we should be instead of just what we are. To speed past fear into oblivion and – to novices like Vanessa Jackson, who made her first sidecar record in 2021 – to do it scared.

“If you want something bad, continue working for it and set goals and your mind to it. You don’t let anything stop you,” states Jackson. 

“No matter what gets in your way, no matter who you talk to, no matter what they say about you. Just keep going. Do it. Do it scared.”

The long stretches of road ahead are not forgiving, but are available to those willing to dare with instincts of resilience that bypass the stereotypes of sex. Landing first among the race, you leave the noise of naysayers and fear of death behind you in a cloud of dust. As we listen to the sonic boom across the distance, we see that women are not an addition to the game but the force to watch.

This article features The Jessi Combs Foundation, a scholarship program for women to pursue their dream of a career in the trades. The program’s mission is “To Educate, Inspire and Empower the next generation of female trailblazers & stereotype-breakers.”