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Know Your Limits Before They’re Pointed Out to You

Posted in Features on January 16, 2019
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Everybody is the Stig until it’s time to do Stig things. Six years ago Jeep flew a bunch of ham-fisted magazine folk to Texas for a quick two-day program to review the new eight-speed transmissions going in the Grand Cherokee. After breakfast on Day One we shuttled ourselves from downtown Austin deep into hill country to go off-roading at a private ranch. It was your typical chilly, rainy Texas winter day and I was completely and totally in my element. I slid behind the wheel of a 5.7L Hemi-powered Limited, donned my automotive journalist hat, and automatically began noting the differences in drivability afforded by the new eight-speed transmission, monkeying with Eco mode, downshifting, upshifting, testing handling, quantifying passing acceleration, and so on. Each result was mentally logged without thought or impulse, the result of years and years of evaluating vehicles of all sorts in a wide variety of conditions later to be passed through my fingers into pages and pixels.

We got to the ranch and I did a quick vehicle swap into a 3.6L Laredo. As I shifted the T-case into Low, I was still operating on off-road magazine guy autopilot: throttle tip-in, gearing, traction control interference, ground clearance, four-wheel-drive system operation—it all went seamlessly from experience to memory without so much as a waking thought on my part. I had done this so many times in so many vehicles in such a wide variety of conditions that my complacency was well earned. I watched other journalists not as versed in dirt two-track struggle and flail and lose composure with the same calm of a parent with five kids watching other parents get flustered and frazzled by their first newborn’s crying. I was Zen, deep in a world of which I was master. Until …

On Day Two we climbed into SRT Grand Cherokees, plugged directions into the GPS for the Circuit of the Americas racetrack, and headed out through a torrential downpour. At the track we were issued helmets, safety instructions, and a very serious and strict warning about not driving past our limitations. I thought, Phbthththpth, I’m a professional automotive journalist. I know what I’m doing. As it turns out, I really didn’t. Hours spent watching Top Gear on TV is no match for actual racetrack experience. And a past of drag-racing muscle cars in the quarter-mile is by no means the same as piloting a 5,000-pound, 500hp, all-wheel-drive monster on a very three-dimensional Formula 1 raceway.

As our briefing ended and the rain subsided, the officials warned us that we might want to wait a bit for the track to dry before taking our laps. Not I, thought the foolish off-road immortal, plodding towards the waiting line of SRT Grands. I jumped in the lead vehicle and accelerated into the first hairpin like a bat out of hell. It was a bit unnerving, but I was a professional automotive journalist after all, so I soldiered on with an ever-increasing sense of invulnerability. Halfway through this particular course you hit a straightaway and I observed the speedometer scrape 120 mph before stabbing brake, hitting the apex of Turn 12 perfectly, and then accelerating into Turns 13 and 14. The cockosity level couldn’t have been higher.

But then a funny thing happened. Rather than banking into the track as I fully expected, these two turns bank you slightly away from the track, thereby unloading the chassis and, in my case, initiating a 55-mph four-wheel drift straight towards a rather significant drop to Turn 16. No fair, man. Game over.

So it was there, behind the wheel of an $80,000 SRT Grand Cherokee I couldn’t pay for, sliding sideways towards a 10-foot drop to the next level of track below with no guardrail to save me, that I felt my immortality evaporate like a fart in the wind. Somehow I remembered the racer’s mantra, “Never lift,” and matted the throttle instead of freezing up or hitting the brakes. The 6.4L Hemi roared to redline, and the front tires clawed and chewed the slick pavement, rescuing me from catastrophe by a Hollywood hair's breadth.

I drove the rest of my laps with a new sense of caution that still hasn’t left me. I’m not the Stig. I’m not even the Stig’s fat American cousin. It’s always best to know your limits before they’re pointed out to you. In hindsight I think I knew I was driving far above my abilities. Thankfully in this case my ego didn’t write a check my body had to cash. Listen to your inner voice. It’s usually the one you wish from your hospital bed you had paid heed.

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