A light drizzle had begun to fall on the Circuit Of The Americas racetrack and the cow dung-strewn acres that surround it in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. At 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, the grounds were empty, save the occasional landscaping crew. I was in the pits, sitting in plastic chair in a cold concrete room alongside a couple of other desiccated car hacks while a guy from Jeep talked to us, his voice one octave below yelling.
“If you drop two wheels out there,” he said, “or punch a bunch of coals, we’re going to warn you. If you drop four wheels, we’re gonna cut off your wristband and send you home.”
I didn’t have much idea what he was talking about, but he sounded serious.
“This is the second wave out of six this week, and we don’t want to lose any cars,” he continued. “When your vehicle is stopped, take your foot off the brake. Have patience.”
“BE PATIENT!” he said.
We were about to drive the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, which can go 0-to-60 in 4.8 seconds, has a top speed of 160 mph, and carries a monstrous 470 hp, 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 engine under the hood — and we were going to do it on a very technical state-of-the-art Formula One track that’s only seen one major race. You can never urge too much caution on track days, but this particular circumstance required extreme care even by the usual standards. Car writers sometimes operate under the mistaken impression that they’re professional racers. With a couple of notable exceptions, we’re not. Without high-level babysitting from car companies, this gig would be The Deadliest Catch.
After we finished our dressing-down, we took a loping tour of the track in a Dodge Caravan. A couple of SRT hotshots were along, pointing out the important features of our soon-to-begin adventure. The track featured more cones than a Mackinac Island dessert emporium. The upright ones with safety tape indicated that hard braking was imminent. The ones laying on their side in an oval arrangement meant that we needed to avoid those areas of the track, which were for professionals or suicidals only. The small solo standalone cones were saying, “point your wheels toward me.” There were two big straightaways where we could take the SRTs full throttle, and a series of technical S curves where we could not.
“Just follow the cone cues, and you’ll be fine,” the Jeep guy said.
The first step to realizing that you’re powerless is to admit that you need help. I wasn’t about to take my first lap solo. Other writers, far more confident than I, had been driving around with someone from the SRT team in their cars, so I felt good with the concept. After I put on my head sock and crash helmet, I said, “Can I get some company?”
A grizzled-looking guy said, “I’ll go with you.”
He headed for the helmet table.
I got into a burgundy-red SRT, which looked like a regular Grand Cherokee but was making a sound like a lion that had just knocked down a gazelle.
An automotive journalist, who, like many members of his profession, considers himself the true measure of masculinity on Earth, leaned into the window.
“Watch the brakes on this one,” he said. “They’re running really hot.”
The SRT rep got into the passenger seat.
“OK,” I said.
“They were almost to the floor when I went through the second turn,” said the car writer.
“What’s that?” the SRT guy said.
“He says the brakes are hot,” I said.
The SRT guy looked at him scornfully. I rolled up the window.
“I was the chief engineer on this car,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
“It’ll be fine,” he said.
This gave me some confidence. Still, I took the course carefully the first time around. He told me when to accelerate, when to turn, and when to brake. Gradually, I got the hang. The SRT growled like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino and held the lines with balletic precision, a pretty amazing performance for such a massive machine. The second time around the track, I needed less coaxing, and began to accelerate through the apexes without nearly as much conversation. When I hit the back straightaway, I jacked the throttle.
“80,” he said.
“97, 98, 99, 105, 110, 115…”
He could all the way up to 125 before the braking cones manifested. I probably could have gone a little higher, but decided to play conservative. As a wise editor once told me, there are no heroes on press drives. Only chumps.
“You did great,” the SRT engineer said to me, like an encouraging dad.
About 15 minutes later, I hit the track again, this time solo. The drizzle had turned into a fairly substantial rain, but no one seemed particularly concerned. Who knew when I’d have the opportunity to take a 5,000-plus-pound car onto a wet professional racetrack again? I got my hand signal, and took off.
The goal was to survive, and also to test the braking and throttle and transmission. I’m alive today to tell you that all of those things worked in artful concert. I took the S section of COTA carefully, and I gingerly danced the SRT through the infamous turn 11. On my second lap through, I rocketed up the hill toward Turn 1, just like I’d seen Lewis Hamilton do on race day.
But by then, the track was pretty wet. I found myself challenged, especially because I couldn’t see through the windshield very well. At one turn, I put a wheel on the grass. My concentration was lagging. Three-quarters of the way through, I missed an apex, and there was no way to avoid it.
I ran off the track.
Fortunately, I did it at a huge spinout area, and was able to stop the SRT on a nickel. I waited for another car to pass, and got back on. The back straightaway approached. With no turns to distract me, I floored the sucker: 90, 95, 97, 99, all the way up to 125, which appeared to be my upper limit. Then came a few more turns, which I took carefully, and sunk down into the pits.
My shoes and helmet got soaked in just the few feet from the car to the garage. A few SRTs were still running out there, but it was awful slick. By then, most of the old car hacks were at the upstairs buffet, exchanging notes on the boldness of the day.
That Grand Cherokee SRT runs more than $60,000, and is about as practical as a home bowling alley. But it’s a real engineering marvel, a supremely strong Olympian of a car. If you ever drive one, I suggest hiring the chief engineer to sit beside you. He’ll teach you some patience.