Petty Cash: The Greatest Road-Racing Jeep Cherokee in LeMons History
We’ve discussed the AMC products that have raced in LeMons, but we haven’t discussed much about how Jeep—which was owned by AMC from 1970 through 1987—has performed in our race series. You’d think that the XJ Jeep Cherokee, with its solid front axle, high center of gravity, and 1964-era AMC pushrod six engine would be even slower than even the fattest of comfy luxury cars. In the case of Petty Cash Racing and their 1987 Cherokee, you’d be wrong—this Jeep is quick!
Team captain Matt Adair, a Seattle-based rock-crawling enthusiast, had to convince 24 Hours of LeMons Chief Perp Jay Lamm that he could build a RWD Cherokee that wouldn’t wind up on its roof the very first time it tried to turn at a race track. That task accomplished, the Cherokee showed up to the 2009 Arse Freeze-a-Palooza at Thunderhill Raceway in California. The team painted their car Petty Blue, but found that King Richard’s number 43 had already been taken by another team (43 and 69 are the car numbers most sought-after by LeMons racers) and had to go with number 430 for the Jeep.
The team’s drivers came from off-roading backgrounds and weren’t quite ready for the wild elevation changes and challenging turns at Thunderhill Raceway, but the truck handled and braked better than anyone expected, the 4.0 six suffered only a harmonic-balancer failure (a LeMons team that has only one major mechanical failure its first time out is doing very well), and finished a respectable 63rd out of 156 entries.
The team returned to California for the 2010 season and began to get noticed. First, a P45 (out of 147 entries) finish at the first-ever LeMons race at Sears Point, then a Class C win at the 2010 Arse Freeze at Buttonwillow.
Apparently emboldened by the success of Petty Cash, and surrounded by junkyards full of Jeep parts, Martooni Racing of Colorado decided they’d race a Cherokee as well. Sadly, they suffered apocalypse-grade mechanical problems and managed a mere 13 laps at the 2010 B.F.E. GP at High Plains Raceway in their home state. Clearly, Petty Cash’s experience with thrashing rock-crawler Cherokees gave the team an edge.
The crucible of LeMons racing has done a good job of blasting holes in conventional wisdom surrounding allegedly bulletproof cars and engines, and it turns out that the AMC six isn’t quite as unkillable as self-proclaimed experts would have you believe. At the Sears Pointless 2011 race, the 4.0 a.k.a. 242-cubic-inch six in the Petty Cash Cherokee decided that it had had enough of this madness and tossed some connecting rods through the side of the block.
A big plus for the AMC six, however, is that just about every junkyard in the country has several in stock, and so Petty Cash had a spare engine on hand. Swap done, the team got back onto the track and finished the race. In fact, after 11 LeMons races, Petty Cash Racing has never had a DNF.
There’s nothing very tricky about the Jeep’s setup. The team runs an automatic transmission, which means that drivers don’t get distracted by heel-and-toe nonsense when they should be setting up the truck for the next corner, and the homemade shifter has evolved to suit the needs of road racing.
The Petty Cash Cherokee hasn’t shown much power on long straights, but its handling is very predictable and the team gets waaaaay fewer black flags than most of its competitors.
Another advantage of racing a Cherokee is that team Captain Adair (who was once an editor at Crawl magazine) can often convince suppliers of off-road gear to help out with sponsorships of the team; when you’ve got one of the fastest road-racing Jeeps in the country, you really stand out from the rest of the racers clamoring for sponsorships.
Another advantage of having a lot of off-road-racer connections is that the team members recruited for Petty Cash Racing tend to have a great deal of hard-knocks wrenching experience under their belts (this is also true of LeMons teams that come from the drag-racing world).
So, when the rear axle comes loose at 80 MPH—as happened during the extra-grueling, full-24-hour 2011 Goin’ For Broken race at Reno-Fernley Raceway—the team had the mechanical wherewithal to fix the truck.
The Jeep was in P7 overall when this setback occurred. At full 24-hour races, many teams just give up when some time-consuming repair knocks them out of contention, but Petty Cash fixed the truck and went on to finish a startling 14th out of 72 entries.
That performance was good enough to win the top prize of LeMons racing: the Index of Effluency.
By this time, the officials of the LeMons Supreme Court (including your LeMons correspondent) had decreed that the Petty Cash Racing Cherokee was too fast to be allowed to compete with the Volkswagen Squarebacks and Cadillac Eldorados of Class C. The team contended for the much tougher Class B in race after race, finishing second-in-class on at least three occasions. Here we see the Cherokee racing side-by-side with the Faster Farms ’67 Plymouth Belvedere sedan.
For the second Sears Point race of the 2011 season, the team nuked two engines over the course of the race . . . and was running when the checkered flag flew on Sunday afternoon.
It turns out that the AMC six doesn’t do so well at keeping the bearings oiled under heavy and repeated cornering at high rpm (although the rock-crawler guys swear it does just fine while running completely sideways under load). After much pleading from Petty Cash, the LeMons Supreme Court allowed the team enough residual value to install a used $80 Accusump, which seems to have solved the oiling problems.
Inspired by the success of the Petty Cash Cherokee, TGTW Racing in Texas put together this Border Patrol–themed Jeep using more or less the same formula as Petty Cash. In 2012, TGTW’s performance was good enough to put the team in 9th place in the Gulf Region standings. What’s next, Spec Cherokee?
The title of “quickest Jeep in LeMons” may pass from Petty Cash to the Organizer’s Choice–winning E=MC Hammered DJ-5 Mail Jeep, which features Ford 5.0 V-8 power and a stretched frame.
Or perhaps Petty Cash will stay ahead of the Jeep pack, thanks to some modifications for the 2013 season. The team managed to sell their Jeep engine and transmission for (what they claim was) enough to buy a GM Vortec 5300 V-8, which (allegedly) will be ready to go for the Sears Pointless race next month. The new box flares will make it even faster, too, right?