Day-Care Dropouts: Family Haulers on the Tire Rack One Lap of America


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Story and Photos by Alan Cesar

Some things aren’t supposed to make sense. Minivans are made for hauling people. SUVs are made for, well, hauling image-conscious people. It’s absurd to make these vehicles any faster than the Prius they’re trying to edge out in the Whole Foods parking lot. They’re not meant for racing, and there are better ways to go fast. Why handicap your competition effort by starting out with something inferior?

Because it’s fun. Duh. It also gives owners of lesser, street-going versions something to aspire to—even if the most hands-on attention their soccermobile gets is a spritz of carpet cleaner and a wipe-down after little Linda barfs up the Gerber Exorcist Pea Soup. Every dad wearing a polo shirt tucked into his khaki shorts and black socks with brown shoes will be cheering you on from the stands.

We love a good underdog story, whether it’s a Jeep Cherokee miraculously hitting the fastest autocross time at our $2012 Challenge or the legendary “Dad’s Turbo Mini Van” Dodge Caravan that nailed 12-second quarter-miles—or machines that weren’t manufactured by Chrysler subsidiaries, like Andy Hollis’s Corvette-chasing, 250-horsepower One Lap CRX.

When we saw a pair of bright-white, two-box homages to the absurd pulling into registration at the 2012 Tire Rack One Lap of America—among Godzillas and Vipers and Vettes, oh my!—we were drawn in. The first was a Honda Odyssey minivan that was clearly much more than two sliding doors of practicality. The second was a Hemi-powered Jeep with a black grille and a roll bar.

These two vehicles are phenomenally different in build philosophy, street presence and style, but they ended up side by side at the 2012 Tire Rack One Lap of America—in the SUV class.

Springs Too Stiff to Swagger

Chrysler broke the station-wagon mold for a family runabout with their Caravan and Voyager, but it wasn’t exactly a rumbling, manly alternative to the status quo. When the minivan arrived (we’re ignoring those flower-powered, air-cooled ones from Germany), it was the practical, utilitarian choice: better fuel economy, similar cargo capacity and a smaller footprint than the day’s sedan-based land barges. Hey, little minivan, you’re going to the children’s museum. You, little minivan, are emphatically not a swagger wagon.

With almost no exception, the minivan has stayed the fuel-efficient, practical, staid solution to family logistical problems. Most go-fast minivans have been made by crazy enthusiasts or as one-off promotional tools. Case in point: the Renault F1 Espace, the occasional GLH-powered Caravan, a handful of Mazdaspeed5s, and this thing.

At One Lap of America, this insane 2012 Honda Odyssey was slotted into the SUV class, with Steve Manley and Paul Street in the front seats. They arrived at One Lap representing Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, a factory employing 4000 people to build Honda Odysseys and Pilots.

Paul and Steve work in paint maintenance and powertrain maintenance, respectively, and are dedicated to the machines they build every day. They have two Odysseys with well-used SCCA Club Racing logbooks, a Pilot that’s built for rallycross, and a passion for what drives out of their plant. Some of the people who built this van are plant employees who volunteered their time outside of their normal duties. The team started this build with no budget; Honda cut funding to its motorsports programs when the recession hit, and these Alabamans lost their official support.

Determined to have a go of it anyway, they took a 2012 shell that was heading to the scrap heap due to damage on one of the doorjambs. They began building on that unpainted foundation, picking up more scrap parts as they became available. “We built most of it out of recycled and scrap pieces,” Paul said. “All the glass is scratched.”

The bare, galvanized shell was a good place to start. Honda had redesigned the chassis for 2011: The van is wider than its predecessor, and the roofline is lower. Its engineers didn’t skimp on dynamics either; the modern minivan customer doesn’t want a tool that drives like a truck. Honda’s handling benchmark was the 7 Series BMW.

Suspenders, but Not for Your Pants

A standard Odyssey leaves the Alabama plant with four-wheel disc brakes, double-wishbone suspension up front and a multilink arrangement with coil springs at the rear. This one didn’t leave the shop that way. H&R dampers were fitted all around, with—brace your kidneys—1600 in.-lb. springs at the front and 1950 in.-lb. springs at the rear. SPC Performance rear control arms allow independent adjustment of the rear camber and toe.

One of the more trick touches: To reduce unsprung weight, the team installed aluminum front lower control arms. They’re not custom; they’re original-equipment pieces from a 2007 Odyssey. The guys scored 19x10-inch Enkei wheels with 275mm-wide Yokohama Advan Neovas, and their two spares fit neatly in the floor compartment where the third-row seat normally hides.

They set 1.8 degrees of camber at the front, 0.8 degree at the rear, and just a little toe-out at both ends. This more conservative setting reduced tire wear for the event. Steve, the driver for the race portions, said the car doesn’t really push under throttle, but “it has lots of lift-throttle oversteer.”

That must be entertaining indeed.

Take Out That Baby Seat

The whole chassis has been lightened aggressively: Lexan side windows, gutted doors, no interior trim and no HVAC, even. The dashboard is merely a decorative cover over some remaining wiring—and a bit of a surprise. To keep the windshield fog-free, they installed a small refrigerator fan from an RV parts company; they used an RV waste tank valve to control the flow of air to the windshield.

Ducted separately and electrified by a hard-mounted power inverter is a purple-and-gray hair dryer duct-taped to some orange brake-cooling hose. It directs a modicum of heat to the center vents in the dashboard. The thoroughly stitch-welded minivan weighs in at 3180 pounds.. Compare that to a fully dressed showroom model at roughly 4500 pounds.

Most of that weight, though, came out of the back of the van. “The weight distribution sucks,” Paul said. “It’s still really heavy on the front.” Honda eventually took notice of the project, and the team was able to grab some corporate support for building this machine. The Odyssey’s lead styling designer, Catalin Matei, put together the graphics package. They also scored sponsors for engine work and for the piece de resistance: absurd amounts of boost. No, not booster seats.

The standard J35-spec V6 engine has seen a thorough reworking. ERL Performance built the internals with Darton sleeves, JE pistons and Crower rods, lowering the compression ratio from 10.5 to 8.5:1. The heads stayed stock, but the exhaust did not.

A single Garrett GT35R crams as much as 19 psi into that Wilson intake manifold. They used a stock Acura TL transmission with a clutch-type limited-slip differential to put that power to the ground—as little as 400 wheel horsepower in transit tune on 93-octane gas, and 532 horsepower at max boost.

To match the thrust, they grabbed Brembo’s Gran Turismo brake setup for the front. Those have four-piston calipers and 355mm rotors, and the team slipped in EBC Yellow Stuff pads all around. Cargo capacity aside, the only nod to comfort in this build is the cozy-looking pair of Momo seats.

The team towed this machine to South Bend, Indiana, where they were an instant hit with the other competitors.

Born in the Mud

Maybe it was the minivan’s inherent lack of testosterone, the appeal of four-wheel drive, or a simple unwillingness to admit to being a youth-soccer-centric adult, but the sport utility vehicle eventually supplanted the role of the minivan in many driveways. These crude, truck-based vehicles were as good at sucking down fuel and being cumbersome to pilot as they were at looking like you could drive right over a neighbor’s Jetta. Lithe they were not. Jeeps, starting with the Wagoneer, wore this trail for decades, until suddenly, Explorers forded the mainstream.

As with minivans—which have evolved to feature dual sliding doors and seats that disappear into the floor—a competitive marketplace has bettered the modern SUV. Today they have improved steering, aren’t as prone to rollovers, and ride better on the street thanks to fully independent suspensions and unit-body construction. These are no longer your stick-axle XJ Cherokees (and the off-road crowd groans with disappointment).

While SUVs have an ugly reputation among environmentalists, they win on street credentials. Legitimate, high-performance versions of SUVs have been aimed at the enthusiast market—whether those enthusiasts stay on paved surfaces or not. Anyone whose tastes haven’t been tainted by the bitterness of foreign oil will agree that the average Tahoe looks better than—wait, Chevy and Ford don’t even make minivans anymore.

Our Italian-owned Americanos still do, though the Dodge Grand Caravan doesn’t really compare to this beastly Grand Cherokee. Marco Diniz, a vehicle dynamics engineer for Chrysler’s Street & Racing Technology division, and John “Hammer” Palazzolo, who works with the SRT Track Experience, came to One Lap of America to prove that this SRT8 was more than just a mall queen.

These guys were both a little surprised to be there, too. The idea was intended to get a chuckle rather than a full-blown track test. At an event on their proving grounds, Marco jokingly suggested to SRT Vehicle Dynamics Engineer Erich Heuschele and SRT President Ralph Gilles that the Grand Cherokee should compete in One Lap of America. The two big cheeses agreed immediately but with the caveat that the truck stay mostly stock—no engine swaps, no radical suspension or aero.

Not Fresh From the Toy Box

Marco and John’s behemoth stayed true to that request. Its brake pads and huge Brembo calipers are stock. The dashboard, heat, air conditioning, nav system and so on are all stock. Suspension settings are simply maxed-out stock adjustments, and the truck’s trick—but OE—Bilstein Adaptive Damping Suspension does shock duty. In spite of removing all the interior bits aft of the B-pillars—nearly 500 pounds. worth of stuff—it still weighs a brutish 4700 pounds.

The stock Hemi is a powerhouse, with all the specs that make old-school V8 guys elicit a Pavlovian response: 392 cubic inches; an iron block with cross-bolted mains; hollow valves on the intake side, sodium-filled on the exhaust; hydraulic roller lifters; and a 10.9:1 compression ratio inside aluminum heads. It makes 470 horsepower, 465 ft.-lbs. of torque, and a noise that you wish would never stop.

All-wheel drive means it’s not a burnout king like the Hemi-powered Challenger or 300, though. The torque split is selectable in two settings: 50/50 for snow, 35/65 in sport mode. There’s no “rock crawl” mode, but the transmission is geared for paved twisties anyway.

That transmission—the only one available—is a five-speed, paddle-shifted automatic, which is so quick that it makes you wonder about the term “slushbox.” We’ve seen those paddle shifters on the go-fast Chrysler 300; made of solid aluminum, they’re impressive to look at and cool to the touch.

Hauling Unobtanium

That doesn’t mean this Jeep is fresh off the showroom floor. It’s a former development vehicle, and you can’t buy a 2012 model in white. When testing was completed on this chassis, the guys sent it to get painted—but wanted the grille left black. After it was done, someone said it looked like a “Star Wars” Stormtrooper. Being guys with a sense of humor, Marco and John bought some masks on Amazon.com and wore them to registration.

SRT fitted just a few things, but they’re mostly high-performance parts in development. One of them is a Corsa exhaust system, which Marco described as “really loud.” He added, “They’re great on track, but I regularly wore earplugs on the transit stages.”

To help Jeep meet its government-mandated CAFE standards, the SRT needed a minimum 8-inch ride height so it would still be classified as a truck. For the One Lap version, the guys overcame the compromise with a different set of springs—also dubbed “in development.” They lowered the Jeep about an inch.

A little extra style was on the order form, too. The SUV has a subtle carbon-fiber wing at the back and a custom Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel. Custom 20x11-inch Taneisya wheels received Pirelli P Zero 305/35ZR20 tires, each slightly wider than stock.

The seats are standard equipment in a Dodge Viper. For safety, they made a roll bar to bolt into the factory mounts for the rear seat. They also ran Team Tech racing harnesses to those Viper seats.

All the development pieces may or may not become available through the Mopar performance catalog, but there is one thing you can get for sure: that paint. There’s a limited run of Grand Cherokee SRT8s in Alpine White for the 2013 model year—with a black grille even. The spoiler is a decent possibility. That roll bar, though? Fat chance. Fire up your welder if you want one.

Are We There Yet?

The camaraderie was instant. Paul, Steve, John and Marco were quickly scouring the details of each other’s big, white One Lap toys, trading jabs, laughs and stories.

Though everyone present mentally pitted the two hulking white boxes against each other, the SRT guys had one practical competitor in mind: The blue BMW X5-M driven by Matt Farah and Mike Musto. With 555 horsepower and 5400 pounds, it was the Jeep’s more direct competitor in the SUV class.

Besides, the Odyssey was the obvious winner on paper and took off to an easy lead. It beat the Jeep by 2 seconds on the quarter-mile oval at South Bend Motor Speedway, then stretched the lead by another 5 seconds at Autobahn Country Club, the event’s first circuit.

Meanwhile, the BMW and the Jeep traded positions and battled for second place. “I’ve been tweeting about this during the event,” John said. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the BMW, but guys back at the office keep teasing us that we’re getting beat by a van.”

Compared to the non-SUV contenders, the Honda was running within a half-second on either side of a 2011 BMW M3 and a 2002 Corvette Z06. The Jeep similarly split a Porsche Panamera and a BMW 1M coupe. This put the Honda and the Jeep in 25th and 37th place, respectively.

But then the equation changed. Somewhere between the Mid-America Motorplex and Hallett Motor Racing Circuit, the van’s six-speed transmission decided it didn’t like all that horsepower and fired a warning cry.

Third gear became as useful as a set of Pogs, and lap times suffered. A strong lead turned into near parity at Hallett.

Steve and Paul were determined to complete the event, though, and kept going without that cog. Steve’s lap times were straddling Marco’s, but the Honda maintained a lead through the road course and autocross events at Motorsports Park Hastings—and Marco began posting consistently better times than Matt in his BMW.

Then the Odyssey’s Acura transmission went into a full tantrum. Fourth gear failed before the long track at Brainerd, and they completed the course 30 seconds slower than the Jeep.

Consistent launches and good reaction times put the minivan at the top of the bracket drags, which cooled the sting of such a heavy loss.

But not for long. An abused fifth gear failed on the first session at Road America, so the boys from Alabama did the only sensible thing: They changed the transmission fluid, skipped the afternoon session, and headed to Tire Rack headquarters in South Bend, Indiana, for the final skidpad test while they still had sixth gear to cruise in.

The stock Jeep proved durable and fast. Marco and John finished One Lap of America with a first-place trophy, 20 points ahead of Matt and Mike’s heavier, pricier and more powerful BMW. Having completed a paved analog to the Rubicon Trail, this Jeep deserves a track-rated badge to flaunt to the standard version’s Trail Rated branding.

Don't Make Me Pull Over

We saw Marco later that year at the 2012 Tire Rack SCCA Solo Nationals with his personal Chrysler Crossfire SRT6. Marco mulled bringing his Crossfire for the 2013 One Lap of America, but neither he nor John will be at the event this year. (At Solo Nationals, Marco trophied with ninth place in the Road Tire RWD class.)

Paul and Steve were happy to get to the finish line, but they still finished third out of five competitors in the class. As of this writing, the J35 engine has been rebuilt and a transmission with straight-cut gears is being assembled for One Lap 2013.

We don’t care who thinks it’s a dumb idea. It very well may be, but we’re excited to see that minivan come back anyway—and more high-powered SUVs, too. They’re a beacon of hope for those of us who can’t rationalize selling the van to buy a sports car, no matter how much our bald spot grows or how far south our back hair migrates.

Vehicles like these give us something to dream about in that rare moment of peace. You know the one. It’s after you strap the toddler into the child seat: the seconds of silence that come once you slide the door closed and walk around the kid-hauler to your own door.

Any time we see one of these machines, we’ll be smiling in the stands, cell phones clipped to our belts, cheering loudly in our spit-up-stained shirts.


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