From Motor Trend's 'Truck Trend'
2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
Last Up Pikes Peak:
Driving the First Grand Cherokee SRT8 Up an Infamous Mountain for the Last Time
By Chris Walton
Photography by Evan Klein
Truck Trend, May 2006
Through a series of improbable, seemingly impossible, and loosely planned circumstances, I found myself behind the wheel of a handbuilt million-dollar prototype Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. Without a single journalist mile on the odometer, I stabbed the throttle a few times to clear its throat, and the echoes sounded like an octet of pissed-off 200-pound Rottweilers. Mile-marker seven on the Pikes Peak Highway, or a nondescript telephone pole, is the unremarkable starting line of the infamous, sometimes deadly Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (PPIHC). From this vantage point, one can see a series of switchbacks cut into the mountainside eight miles up the road, 3000 feet above. The mountain seems to be saying, "You reckon, do you?" What have I gotten myself into?
Because everything happened so fast, I hadn't fully researched the ramifications of agreeing to do this. Sure, I'd heard all the tales of how dangerous Pikes Peak is, seen the "Real Men Don't Need Guardrails" T-shirts, and read about the Unser family's legacy there. But now it was real: real big, real scary, and there would be real consequences for doing something wrong just once on any of the 156 turns. Postrun research revealed that since 1916, thousands of famous race drivers have made the 12.42-mile run up the 4720-foot ascent to the finish, literally in the clouds at over 14,000 feet. There's even a record for pushing a peanut up the mountain with your nose. In a four-wheeled vehicle, though, Rod Millen has held the overall driving record since 1994 with a 10-minute, 4.06-second blast--eclipsing the prior mark by 40 seconds. Also, better drivers than me have wrecked there; three have died, as did an inattentive corner worker.
Did I mention I was seated in a prototype vehicle intended for glamorous advertising shoots and there were no fewer than 15 other people waiting to get their hands on the one and only SRT Grand Cherokee that existed at that time? Photographers, videographers, ad-agency observers, and a vehicle-prep team were all clamoring for my temporary loaner as I waited for my walkie-talkie to announce, "The highway is clear. Go, go, go!" Oh, and I had two very brave, back-seat passengers: the freelance writer of the SRT Adrenaline Tour magazine insert (Motor Trend, January 2006) and this story's enthusiastic photographer.
I glanced at a sheet of paper handed to me just moments before. It was a course map of the Hill Climb. Trying to memorize it, even with enough time, would be like remembering every nuance of a foot-long spider-web crack in a windshield. "This is worthless to me," I thought. The Australian writer in the back seat urged me to keep in mind that I was the only one in the Jeep wearing a helmet. Doing my best to reassure him, I said that I too had a one-year-old daughter waiting for me at home and that I would only drive what I could see.
I pushed the start button on our GPS data recorder and mashed the throttle wide open. I heard my two captives fall back in their seats as the Jeep clawed into the wet pavement. Even at an altitude where the lack of oxygen reduces engine output, the 420-horsepower Hemi V-8 leapt off the starting line, chirping the tires. Knowing the stability and traction-control systems would refuse to allow the kind of high-speed sideways driving that would no doubt ensue, we'd already removed a certain pink fuse from the Jeep's brain to disconnect those buzz-kill functions as well as ABS.
The first few corners probed the tires' grip, which turned out to be quite a lot--over 0.80 g on wet pavement. Only after crossing into the dirt did the Jeep really begin its dance with the mountain. The steering was accurate and quick, and the sideways drifts came naturally. I could feel the all-wheel drive shifting power around as the tires hunted for traction. This was unlike any Jeep I'd ever driven--it felt more like a V-8-powered Mitsubishi Evo IX. The throttle response was still generous despite the altitude, but the transmission delayed its shifts the higher we climbed. I was warned about this possibility as brake and transmission fluids boil without the pressure exerted on them at lower altitudes. Luckily, there isn't much braking required on the way up the Hill.
I was beginning to feel comfortable when the Jeep crested a blind brow and the sunrise hit me straight between the eyes. I instinctively raised my right hand to shade the sunlight, but it was no use. I'd lost track of the road, remembered the cliff to my left, with a right-hander approaching. I had to slow down from about 50 mph to a crawl before I got my bearings back. I knew that would cost me time. Then, everything changed. I was no longer concerned with the well being of my Jeep and its occupants. "Once you run up the Hill, you'll want to do it again," warned our consulting veteran and PPIHC race director, Phil Leyton. "You'll be back." I'd caught the bug.
Between mile-markers 16 and 17, there's a left corner aptly named Bottomless Pit for its 1600-foot sheer drop. I heard somebody from the back seat report its imminent arrival, but from the look of it, I could tell that if I held the Jeep against the rock face to the left side long enough to straighten the corner, I could slide past the Pit without ever pointing directly at it. Like a charm, we zoomed past with a few feet of cushion to spare. Only later did I learn my passengers weren't quite as confident about that maneuver as I was. There may have only been a couple miles to go, but it was all new to me.
The day before, we had done a recce run to the summit, but it was so foggy then I could've been driving on the moon for all I knew. Peeking out over the top of a hill, one of the last of the dozen or so spotters the organizers had placed along the way came into view. His was a red flag, but I wished it were checkered to make it official. Flat-out past him, and I hit the stop button on our flight recorder. All three of us let out a collective sigh as I put the Jeep into park, jumped out, and took a deep lungful of the rare air depleted by 45 percent its normal oxygen content. Whew! I kissed the red dirt at my trembling feet. I had done it.
Not long afterward, Phil Leyton idled up in his pickup. "How'd you do?" A few keyboard strokes later, "15 minutes, 52 seconds!" I erupted. "Nothing to be ashamed of," he noted. "Like I said, you'll be back." Only after I had landed back home and watched Ari Vatenen in the "Climb Dance" film (do a Web search--it's breathtaking) a hundred times, did I learn that my pace would've been an overall record breaker in, get this, 1938. That is until Louis Unser made his 15:49.90 run that same season. Still, I can say I did it. I brought the Jeep (and all of us) back in original condition, and I have a T-shirt and these photos to prove it. But Phil was right. Just like the Baja 1000, one taste leaves you wanting more.
The End of an Era
At 6 a.m. on Saturday, August 6, 2005, only the first two miles of the course were paved--they'd been covered up in 2003. The rest of the treacherous two-lane route was a degraded granite road, conspicuously lacking guardrails that just might keep a misplaced tire from turning into a minute-long tumble down the mountain. That was, until 6:10 a.m. when the three of us roared past the construction crew at mile-marker 13, just above Glen Cove. The first guy in line waved a yellow flag and made the bobbing palm-down signal for me to take it easy. He didn't realize the rest of his crew, standing behind him, were all doing their impression of Pete Townshend's guitar windmill. Whom do you think I obliged? As I glanced in the rearview mirror, I saw the heavy machinery move into place, covering up my tire tracks and rooster-tail remnants.
Under pressure of environmentalists, the private-enterprise company that runs the Pikes Peak mountain park set into motion a paving project that will seal the entire sacred route by 2012. The mile-long section above Glen Cove, leading to and soon to include those famous switchbacks known as the Ws, is the first step in that process. Once completed, the race will never be the same. Ironically, the predictions are that times will get slower due to the difficulty to slide a vehicle rally-style through the corners. So by just a few minutes, I was the last person to have raced up Pikes Peak in its largely original state.