If you’re familiar with Jessi Combs’ life, then you’re likely familiar with the term “the fastest woman alive,” as Combs posthumously earned the female land-speed record after a tragic accident in the Oregon desert in 2019. However, before Combs’ massive speed runs, Kitty O’Neil was setting records in the 1970s and was even outrunning the men of her time. Today, Google honored O’Neil with a Doodle, so it’s time for a short history lesson on the original “fastest woman alive.”
O’Neil was born in Texas in the mid-1940s, and though she fought multiple childhood diseases, which caused her to lose hearing, she became a competitive diver as a teenager. She had great success, but a training accident during prep for the 1964 Olympics led to a broken wrist and spinal meningitis, which could have taken her ability to walk.
She went on to swimming events but eventually lost her spark for water sports and moved on to faster activities like water skiing and skydiving. Amazingly, she faced another medical setback in her late 30s when she underwent cancer treatment.
Seeking increasingly dangerous thrill rides, O’Neil turned to racing in the 1970s, competing in the Mint 400 and Baja 500. From there, she moved on to stunt work and became the first woman to work with Stunts Unlimited, a major talent agency. She was involved in “The Bionic Woman” and “Smokey and the Bandit II,” leading Mattel to create a Kitty O’Neil action figure.
In 1976, O’Neil took to the southeast Oregon desert to set the land-speed record for female drivers. She reached an average speed of more than 512 mph and a peak speed of 621 mph and later said she’d only used 60 percent of the car’s available power, believing she’d have passed 700 mph at full blast. However, her contract with sponsors prevented her from outrunning male driver Hal Needham, though he never even got behind the wheel to record a speed.
In her later life, O’Neil slowed her stunt and driving career after seeing colleagues killed in action. She ended her career with 22 land and water speed records. She died of pneumonia in late 2018 at 72, and in 2019 she was honored during the In Memoriam portion of the Oscars.