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Grand Runner - Custom 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ

Built to Race in Baja California

Christian HazelPhotographerPete TrasborgPhotographer, Writer

If we ever laid our hands on a ZJ and had a month or two of no deadlines, this is probably what we'd come up with at the end of it.

OK, OK, with our AADD (Adult Attention Deficit Disorder), we'd end up with a cut-to-shreds but totally unusable Jeep that used to run and drive. But we like to think we'd come up with something that we could compete in a SCORE Baja 1,000 race with.

This 1994 Grand Cherokee was built by Dan Fresh at DXR Motorspots and then run in the '05 Baja 1,000, where it was the first-place finisher out of a field of 10. From there, George Kane of Long Beach, California, picked it up and wheels it around the Southwest whenever he gets the chance.

Not only was this the only entrant that survived the 1,000 for the Sport Truck class in '05, but it survived a much less strenuous half day of flogging out in the Truckhaven hills near Salton City, California.

Chassis and Driveline

The stock H.O. 4.0L six-cylinder engine looks like it belongs there, but inside there was a ton of work done. It was stroked with a 4.2L crank. The heads were ported and polished with stainless steel valves added, which are driven by 1.7:1 roller rockers. With 9.7:1 compression, 24 lb/hr injectors, and a Clifford Performance cam, this engine is about as far as you can get from stock and still use Jeep parts.

Power moves from there through a TCS torque converter to the 42RE automatic transmission, which was otherwise left stock, to the stock NP242 transfer case with a slip-yoke eliminator. The real work begins after that.

The custom-trussed front Dana 30 runs 4.88 gears with a Detroit Truetrac and is suspended by a custom five-link suspension that imitates the Jeep design. Springs and shocks are modified 16-inch-travel, 212-inch King coilovers and triple bypass shocks. All the steering and suspension links are custom-made DOM tube.

Out back is a Currie 9-inch with 4.88 gears, Detroit Locker, 35-spline axleshafts, and a 35-spline pinion in a nodular third member. The housing is trussed across the rear and top for maximum resistance to tweaking. That is hung off a custom three-link suspension with 16-inch travel, 212-inch King coilovers, and triple bypass shocks.

Body and Interior

The first thing you notice looking inside is the extensive rollcage. All the tube used is chromoly with the main tubes being 1 1/2-inch, 0.120 wall, 1 1/2-inch webs and gussets, and 0.095 wall tube. The unibody is plated in key areas and tied into the cage and suspension points to keep the chassis from tearing apart.

After the cage, there are three Beard Super Seats with five-point harnesses. The driver's seat is, of course, for driving, while the passenger seat is for navigating, using the GPS-4000 Lorance system, 110-watt Kenwood FM race radio, and monitoring the Auto Meter gauges in a custom aluminum panel located above the glove box. The back seat passenger sits with the relocated windshield washer fluid pump, PCI fresh air system pump, battery disconnect switch, and a huge tinted Lexan panel that separates the cab from the rear cargo area.

In the cargo area, where the groceries used to reside, sits a fullsize spare tire, 32-gallon Jaz fuel cell, remote-mounted engine oil cooler and transmission cooler, and bright amber light for use in races to avoid being hit. The shocks, coilovers, reservoirs, and air bumps all share this space too, thanks to holes cut behind the wheels for clearance. While the stock hatch still bolts on, it is removed during races.

Not all the stock stuff has been stripped out of the interior, however. The stock A/C and heater still work, as do the power windows, door locks, air bag, power mirrors, and rear defroster (whenever the liftgate is on). Additionally, there is a Pioneer AM/FM/CD head unit with XM Radio added on. If you wanted, you could roll up the windows and run the Baja with the A/C and tunes cranked up.

Outside, in place of the rear passenger-side cargo area glass, is an aluminum scoop, which feeds the oil coolers. Also, there is a pair of 6-inch fiberglass fenders bolted on up front for clearance and painted black to match the Jeep.

Under the hood, the cage continues from inside and provides torsional rigidity to the front end, as well as providing mounting locations for the massive King shocks. That required ditching the inner fenderwells and relocating the battery and windshield washer reservoirs to the interior. From the engine bay, the chromoly tubing continues out to the front of the ZJ through the grille, forming a prerunner bumper and light mount.

Speaking of lights, there are three XT80 PIAA lights with super white bulbs and a pair of Light Force HIDs with adjustable beams.

Tire and Wheels

The Grand Cherokee is still running a set of 35x12.5 R15 BFG Baja T/As on Eagle Alloy 15x8 rims with the holes drilled out to 11/16-inch for 5/8-inch lugs.

Good, Bad, & What's it for

This is a well-built Grand Cherokee that was made for one reason: desert racing. That's what it does -- and does well. While you could get away with daily driving, why would you? With the massive King shocks and custom-designed suspension, this thing would be a blast in the desert.

But even with all the hard-core desert race stuff in it, the wipers still work, the power windows still roll up, and it could be driven comfortably on the street if you were so inclined.

What we think

Holey Moley racing is George's racing concern, and we understand having those stickers on it. Also, he wants to preserve its heritage by keeping the numbers that the Grand Cherokee was entered in the Baja 1000 with. That said, we still think it'd be way better to strip all the stickers off and run it as a sleeper. Paint the aluminum window panel and no one would ever look twice at a world-class desert race Jeep.

The only thing that would freak us out with something like this is buying into a killer race rig like George has. Without the trial and error of slowly learning about the vehicle, there is a much better potential for spectacular disaster through overstepping limits. That said, the limits of this Grand Cherokee are probably out beyond where we'd feel comfortable pushing it.

As much as we'd love to put our hands on a Jeep like this, the upkeep would kill us just in shocks alone. We also like that so many of the stock creature comforts are intact.

We'd swap the race BFGs off the Jeep for something more streetable, and then we'd be able to drive it well in more places. And if we weren't aiming to meet class-restricted regulations, we'd build this Jeep around a 5.9 Limited ... as long as we're pipe dreaming.

Hard Facts

Vehicle:'94 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Engine:4.6L I-6 stroker
Transmission:Stock 42RE automatic with TCS converter
Transfer Case:NP242
Suspension:Custom front four-link with panhard bar in front and three-link rear
Axles:Dana 30 with trussing, 4.88 gears, Detroit Truetrac (front);Currie Enterprises 9-inch with 35-spline shafts, HD 35-spline pinion, 4.88 gears, Detroit Locker, custom trussing (rear)
Wheels:Eagle Alloy 15x8
Tires:35x12.5-15 BFG Baja T/A
Built For:SCORE Baja 1,000 and other desert flogging
Estimated Cost:$50,000