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1979 Jeep Cherokee - Retro Racer

Desert-Prepped Cherokee

Pete TrasborgPhotographer, Writer

If you've been in a coma the last four or five years, let us clue you in on something: In the automotive world, what was old is new again. Another way of saying it is that retro is cool. So it should be no surprise we hunted down this race Cherokee from our coverage of the '05 Trucking Nationals in Phoenix ("Truckin' Nationals," Mar. '06) so we could find out more.

OK, to be honest, after seeing Tim Wiley take off like a shot from a gun and stay in it through some pretty demanding whoops, hills, and unbanked turns, we were halfway to writing this feature. When we found out he had a fire-breathing 401 in it, we were drooling. Once we saw he was racing the rig with the leaf springs still under it, we wanted to know more and figured you would too.

Aside from the race-prepped engine, this is a racing SJ you can duplicate at home for around the same coin your friends are building all those go-slow Jeeps for. The difference is this Jeep is a lot more fun. And if you race it in Jeepspeed like Tim does, you could possibly win some coin back.

It might be a dirty secret, but we'll let that cat out anyway: Right now, in the Currie Enterprises Jeepspeed Cup (aka Jeepspeed 3: The Pinnacle), the key isn't really who is faster or has the ber-unobtanium parts, it's who can keep their race Jeep together until the end of the race. We think Tim and Stephen Moe have the parts combination to go the distance-and they do it in full-on, old-school Jeeper style.

The chassis itself is largely untouched. Go buy a '79 Cherokee, do some (OK, a bunch of well-thought-out) boxing and plating to the frame and suspension, and race it. This Jeep is really cool for just that reason.

Tim and Stephen really built this, raced it in SCORE, broke it, fixed the problems, and raced it some more. Do that for three or four years, and you'd end up just where they are-with a fullsize Jeep ready to take the Jeepspeed community by storm. Still, it's a Jeep you could build. Build it, beat the snot out of it, break it, and fix it. Do that till it won't break, race it in Jeepspeed, and you'd be a serious contender.

The big problem, as most of you fullsize guys know, is the durability of the Quadratrac. Yes, this Jeep is still running the full-time transfer case behind that fire-breathing 401, but this team swaps the chain out every race or two, and it's sporting a MileMarker part-time conversion kit. Sure, they have a small mint in stock of transfer-case chains, but from watching this thing go, it's well worth it.

Oh, and by fire-breathing, we're talking a 13.25:1 compression ratio with Venolia pistons and Total Seal rings in a balanced and blueprinted AMC 401ci V-8. While we weren't able to pry the cam specification out of either of these guys (regardless of the number of beers we plied them with), we did find out the intake valves are 2.25 inches and the exhaust valves are 1.65 inches, while an Edelbrock Torker II intake passes the mixture into the motor from the Holley 750-cfm 4150 carburetor. The 401 got a set of Hedman Headers with 131/44-inch tubes and a 211/42-inch dual side-exit exhaust wearing Dynomax mufflers.

Spark is fed to the beast with an MSD 6A ignition, and an auxiliary oil line ran from the distributor to a spot in the galley between cylinders number 7 and 8, which mostly solves the famous oil-starvation issue of the otherwise solid AMC V-8 at higher rpm.

All that power goes through a 2,500-rpm stall speed B&M torque converter with gear selection by a complementary B&M reverse-pattern, ratchet-style shifter controlling the stock-ratio AMC Turbo 400 transmission. Sure, it got heavy-duty clutches and a B&M Super Cooler, but other than that, Sun Transmission of Peoria, Arizona, didn't do anything other than a stock rebuild on this slushbox. And we're happy to report it has held up to years of racing just like it is.

Meanwhile, the 108-inch wheelbase works great off-road, and the custom front and rear leaf springs give about 6 inches of total lift, while the Bilstein 9100-series shocks in the front and Bilstein 7100 shocks out back control those custom sproingers.

Beyond that, they added a Rancho steering stabilizer to complement the stock steering box to direct the rear BFG Mud Terrains and the front BFG All-Terrains. Even with the 6 inches of lift, the Superior Industries BFG-wrapped race wheels still have some rubbing issues at full compression and sharp turns.

The front axle is a Dana 44 that's custom-built with 5.38 gears, but it's still open running the stock disc brakes. The Dana 60, however, is running complementary 5.38 gears and is custom-built by Henry's with a spool and disc brakes. Both axles have been converted to run old-school, 5-lug rims. The top end of the brake system consists of a Corvette dual-pot master cylinder and a hydro-boost for that extra oomph.

With the Jaz Fuel Cell poking into the back of the Jeep through the cargo-bay floor, a set of black cloth Renegade race seats, a 2-inch DOM custom Wiley Moe Racing-built rollcage, full accompaniment of Auto Meter gauges, and a Grant steering wheel to control those BFGs, these guys got it going on. After that, they added the obligatory set of five-point race harnesses, a VHF radio, an in-cab intercom, a GPS, a fire extinguishing system, and window nets (to keep limbs in and debris out) complement the full race interior.

Other body modifications include removing the glass. Tim was telling us they raced with the windshield in it for a while before pulling it out, and the added airflow keeps them cooler and keeps dust down in the cab. The fuel filler was mounted in a custom aluminum panel on the driver side, where the rear side window used to be. The hood got a series of holes cut into it to help with cooling, while the front inner fenders were removed completely for tire clearance. As it is, the tires still kiss the firewall occasionally.

The red, white, and blue colors were put on with Corvette paint, while the graphics were applied by Sam Broslin at StreetGraFX.com in Peoria, Arizona. A custom-made front bumper and light bar put the light down the course with a quartet of KC daylighters.

This is one Jeep that we were really having problems finding what was bad about it for this section of the feature. Fortunately, with the miles in the cockpit, Tim did it for us: "Reconfigure the bumpstops, put bypass shocks in the rear to combat the fading problem, put a bigger fuel cell in it to feed the hungry 401, and dial some compression out of the motor so we could run just super unleaded instead of full-on race gas." As for us? If we were left to our own with this Jeep, we'd just run it till we hurt ourselves.

Some of the Jeeps running this Unlimited class of Jeepspeed are built to the hilt with all the gee-gaw gadgets and widgets going. Most often, they never cross the finish line. Sure, this might not be the most built-to-the-hilt race Jeep in the class, but it's been there, done that, and consequently, it has what it takes to go the distance. In off-road racing, that's so much more important than a quintuple bypass shock and full-on, double-super-whammy, full-hydraulic steering with hamster assist. Plus, a version of it would be attainable to even this lowly magazine editor on a beer and Spam budget.-Pete Trasborg

Vehicle:'79 Cherokee
Engine:'77 AMC 401ci V-8
Transmission:'79 AMC Turbo 400
Transfer Case:'79 full-time Quadratrac
Suspension:6-inch lift with custom leaves
Axles:Dana 44 (front), Dana 60 (rear)
Wheels:15x8 Superior Industries
Tires:35x12.50R15 BFG ATs(front), 35x12.50R15 BFG MTs(rear)
Built For:Off-road racing
Estimated Cost:$20,000

Check out www.jpmagazine.com for some videos of this thing tearing past in a silt bed. Look, I'm a mud guy who likes exploring forests on fire roads. There's no secret I can get bored by rocks. But regardless of what your bent, a high-performance 401 tearing ass past a video camera deserves a click of the old mouse. It's vintage iron with a lead foot, and it's only at www.jpmagazine.com.