Without a doubt, this is the year of the Cherokee. The four-by that launched America's obsession with SUVs nearly two decades ago seems to have been rediscovered by off-roaders in the last few years, and they are now rebuilding them with greater abandon than ever. From backcountry explorers to hard-core rockcrawlers, everyone seems to have a plan.
When Mike and Tom Barnett, the owners of T&J's 4 Wheel Drive Center, first sat down with off-road racing guru Clive Skilton to lay out the plan for JeepSpeed -- the new XJ-only desert racing series -- what they envisioned was a dual-purpose Cherokee; one that could take the kind of punishment that rocks and washes can inflict at the kind of speeds it takes to be competitive in off-road racing (40-50 mph); yet, one that would have the kind of clearance, gearing, and strength to tackle the toughest trails. The two turned out to be more compatible than we thought.
As with any endeavor, experience counts. And since Mike and Tom have both been trail riding and desert racing since they were kids, they understood the dynamics of the project and knew exactly what it was going to take to build the Cherokee right.
They started with an '89 XJ Limited that they found in the paper for a couple grand, then took it to the shop and stripped it down to the frame. The drivetrain, the suspension and axles, the gas tank and interior, everything came out. Then the fun began. Both for protection and because of the amount of stress the Cherokee was going to have to endure, Mike and Tom used 1-1/2-inch DOM tubing to build a full-custom cage that incorporates the cab as well as the engine bay and front bumper. Fully welded in place, it continues beneath the floorboard where it connects to a chassis stiffener made of the same material.
After years of doing their own design and fab work, Mike and Tom looked at a number of different suspension options and then decided to go semi custom. The brothers combined Skyjacker's subframe assembly and control arm brackets with their own custom control arms. In fact, they have two sets of arms. One is for full-on racing, with Heim joints at the body and Johnny Joints at the axle. The other is for dual applications, with Johnny Joints at both ends.
Again drawing on their own experience, Mike and Tom then had Deaver Spring build a set of rear leaf packs according to their specs, while Eibach produced a set of front coils per T&J's instructions. Rounding things off at each corner are Bilstein 9100 race shocks and hydraulic bumpstops, both of which have become a common sight on rigs competing in extreme rockcrawling events.
For proven reliability, Mike and Tom had Currie Enterprises build them a set of 9-inch axles with the larger 5x5-1/2-bolt pattern, upgraded wheel studs, disc brakes, and Warn Premium hubs. Equipped with 4.56 gears, the XJ runs a Powerlok diff up front and a Strange spool in the rear. At each corner, you will find a BFGoodrich 33x10.50 Baja T/A on a 15x8-inch American Racing rim.
When the time came to drop the drivetrain back in, the brothers ordered a 4.0L straight-six crate engine from Mopar Performance, bolted it to an AW4 tranny that had been rebuilt by Mogi, and capped that off with an NP 241 T-case equipped with a Currie tailshaft conversion kit. With a ported throttle body from Turbo City and a header and exhaust setup from Positive Performance Headers, the stock I-6 has no trouble breathing. Rounding off the underhood additions are a new power steering box, pump, and reservoir from Howe Performance.
The final touch to the XJ's exterior came with a set of JeepSpeed fiberglass fenders. According to Mike, these bolt-on pieces provide an additional 2 inches of wheel travel to avoid any kind of rubbing while trail riding or racing.
Turning to the interior, Mike and Tom left the Cherokee stripped down to reduce weight as much as possible. What you'll find up front are two Beard racing seats with five-point harnesses from Crow Enterprizes, an Art Carr gate shifter, and a set of Auto Meter gauges that provide readings for oil pressure, water temp, tranny temp, and voltage. Directly behind the seats is a 32-gallon JAZ fuel cell.
Relocating the gas tank to the cab not only lightened the rearend considerably but also created a lot of extra clearance. Attached to the crossmember on the rollcage is a tranny cooler and fan, which came direct from Mopar. These are both fed cool air by a '64 Hemi hoodscoop that Mike and Tom fastened to the roof. And at the very back is enough room for two spare tires and a dual-battery setup.
Truck manufacturers like to talk about multipurpose vehicles, but none of them hold a candle to this Cherokee. From desert racing to trail riding to rockcrawling, it's a capable rig. About the only thing it's not good for anymore is getting groceries. Sounds just right.