She lived for afterburners. Although her life didn’t start out that way. Jets had not been her dream, much less trying to set a land speed record with one. Racing, on the other hand, was an entirely different story. As a young girl, Jessi wanted to do anything and everything that involved speed and adventure, so naturally, cars and racing were at the top of her list. People told her she was not normal, that she should not try, and she would never be successful in those journey’s, although the support she needed and the reminders to never give up came from her family. They told her that no matter what, she should do what she wanted to, and not to listen to what others had to say. So she did exactly that; she grew up racing, building, and doing all her heart led her to.
Introduced to the North American Eagle team through a mutual friend, she first met Ed and Keith when they were visiting California with the Eagle on display. The opportunity was presented to her asking if she would like to become the fastest woman on earth. Without hesitation she responded with a clear “yes”. While she had been given a brief rundown of what they were trying to do, Jessi really did not know what to expect, yet she had been informed they might be interested in recruiting someone of her skill set. Supersonic land speed racing wasn’t exactly her area of expertise, though she wasn’t about to let that stop her.
Having researched as much information as possible about the team, as well as both Ed and Keith, Jessi was able to immediately able to pick them out in the restaurant for their first face-to-face meeting. As she walked towards them, Ed looked up and stood to shake her hand. He made a comment about her having a really strong handshake, to which she replied, “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body. One that likes men though.” From the grin that graced Ed’s face, and the guttural laugh that followed, it certainly seemed that he found her response rather amusing. They all sat down, and laid out the big picture of exactly what the North American Eagle was about, both as individuals and as a race team. It was certainly quite the story and she was extremely intrigued. By the time Ed and Keith had finished sharing the ups and downs, along with everything they accomplished, it was clear that she wanted nothing more than to join their mission.
It came to her turn to share, and share is exactly what she did. She told them about why she was so drawn to racing, how her father had been the one to inspire her, and how she had spent the last few years building up a platform demonstrating that women can do everything they set their minds to. From the very start, both Ed and Keith seemed enthralled in her story, wanting to take in every bit of it. By the time the evening was over, they mentioned their definite interest in having her join the team as a driver. Ed did ask her if she would be willing to do one thing first, to which she responded, “Name it”.
Not yet familiar with Ed’s true demeanor, Jessi wasn’t so sure about the reason behind his request. Before she took over the seat of a supersonic car, Ed wanted her to have some actual flight experience. Though the Eagle was never meant to fly, it would give her a taste of the acceleration, the g-forces and what the vibrations would feel like with the car rattling during a run. He set her up with an expert aerobatic flying friend of his, Dave Stevenson, who had an open cockpit Star duster 3 airplane. She still wasn’t sure it was a good idea. It was a given that she loved the feeling of going fast in cars, but upside down and loop-de loops in airplanes weren’t exactly her idea of training. Albeit, Jessi wasn’t about to turn down a unique challenge.
Climbing into the cockpit, she strapped herself in, preparing for what would certainly be one of the most unsettling flights of her life. As they lifted away from the ground, Jessi could literally feel her stomach drop. Dave was not the gentlest of pilots and proceeded to show her what the plane was capable of, in every flight position possible. Right about the time she was feeling a little green, he gave her the controls and taught her how to fly. By the time they touched down, Jessi could not wait to get back for another flight. If driving the North American Eagle was anything like the act of flying, she was going to be in heaven, or as close as she could be.
Her chance to experience the “real deal” feel of being in the pilot’s seat came only a few months later, during an engine test near the car’s headquarters up in Washington state. The engine tests allow the J-79 jet engine to fire up and proceed through all stages of throttle without the car rolling away, because it would be securely tied down. Ed conducted one quick startup to make sure the engine was functioning properly, before Jessi climbed into the cockpit for what was her first time ever seeing the car, nonetheless operating it. The heat of the confined space was at an extreme in the middle of a Pacific Northwest June, but that came with the territory of racing and did not deter her from lighting the igniters. Once the pre-start checklist was completed and the cockpit sealed around her, she slowly began what would surely be an awe inspiring moment. As the engine rumbled to life, it proved to be everything that she had imagined. Making it through her rookie session without any hiccups, reassured both her and the NAE team that the cockpit of this car is exactly where she belongs. Although for her, it wasn’t quite enough. Jessi couldn’t wait for the day that she would feel the roar of the engine behind her as she rocketed across the lakebed.
By the time October finally rolled around, she could barely contain her excitement. It seemed like forever and a day waiting for the speed runs to actually happen a few short months later. Jessi knew it would finally be her chance to take the Eagle off the leash and the idea of being able to put the car into afterburner and race down the Alvord lakebed seemed almost surreal; it was as if she could taste it.
When Jessi finished her first run across the desert, it was good, though it was a true practice run. Being her inaugural drive in the jet car, the afterburners were not allowed to be engaged and the drive was bumpy and “slow” (at 193 MPH), yet it was as straight as an arrow. Over the next few days, she would follow Ed’s lead taking a few more practice runs, each one getting faster and faster. Despite it being laid out like a jet, she found herself very comfortable in the cockpit. With each pass, she became more and more confident.
On her fourth test run, Ed walked up to the car just as she was about to begin the pre-start checklist. She figured he had a little advice before she got going. What came out of his mouth was the exact words she had been waiting for; it was time for her to finally push the car and put it into full afterburner. A feeling of pure excitement rushed over her as she knew it was her time to shine. She could have jumped out of the cockpit right then and there to give him a hug, instead Jessi gave Ed a smile, and confirmed she would do her very best. As the car pulled away from the start, Jessi knew that it would be like nothing else.
When the car finally rolled to a stop, Jessi was on cloud nine; it was like raw ecstasy. The pure joy of how much the extra thrust changed the entire feel of the car beamed through every fiber of her being. What was rough and bumpy became smooth. What was loud became quiet. What was somewhat fast became beyond thrilling. It seemed to have shifted her focus into another level and all this practice became very real.
One thing was for certain, afterburners changed her life. As she sat in the cockpit waiting for the engine to cool, there was only one real question left on her mind, when could she go again? The thoughts didn’t last long though. With the engine finally shut down, and the team having arrived, it was time the cockpit to open. The look on her teammate’s faces matched the feeling in her heart: pure joy. From the moment that she stepped out of the car, she was bouncing between people and it was hugs all around. The car drove beautifully, without even the slightest of hiccups. With the cameras rolling, Steve Wallace came up to her to give her the good news.
Whispering in her ear, Steve told her the verified number. She had just run over 440 MPH, setting a new record for women on four wheels at 398 MPH with the average of the 2-way measured mile. She could barely contain her emotions at this point; it was simply euphoric and nothing in the world could have kept her on the ground in that moment. With that, she excitedly yelled out that she had just driven 440 MPH. The people around her, which had previously been occupied by anticipation, burst with excitement. It was everything they had hoped for and more. Keith ran up to give her a hug, lifting her off the lakebed, though she had already felt high as the clouds.
As she looked around at everyone gathered around the car, the moment was not lost on Jessi. This wasn’t just her moment; it was clearly an accomplishment for the entire team. After having spent so many years working on the car, trying to tune it to perfection, they had all been worn down somewhat. Tiredness had slowly crept in, and had recently begun to rear its ugly head. This, however, was proof that they were more than well on their way to truly breaking the World Land Speed record. In a way, in that moment, it had lit a new fire and re-invigorated the entire team. It had reminded them of the dream that they all believed in, and fought for, for so many years. That moment gave each and every one of them a new reason to race.