Innovation and unbridled success don’t always go hand in hand, but still it’s strange to rediscover that jim hall’s team scored just one can-am win. Phil Hill remembers it well .
Joined Chaparral to do both the Can-Am series and the endurance races in Europe in 1966. I’d just had it with the Ford Le Mans programme. The politics were terrible. Jim Hall’s operation seemed a lot less cumbersome than Ford’s. I did not realise at the time that it was a front for General Motors. But Jim was very much in control.
I enjoyed the Chaparral the first time I drove it. In fact, I don’t remember a single Chaparral that wasn’t a pleasure to drive. But what really impressed me about the high-wing Can-Am car, the 2E, was that they put the down force directly on the wheel, through the suspension, rather than on the body. I had been at Ferrari, and they had been putting down force on the body with an air dam on the rear deck. With that rear wing, the Chaparral felt like it was really planted.
The 2E was very easy to drive left foot on the brake and right foot on the go pedal. There was no clutch, just a two speed fluid torque-converter. When you weren’t braking, you kept your left foot on the fail-safe pedal. This kept the wing fiat. When you took your foot off the pedal, the wing automatically flipped to the high-downforce position. You could feel the difference immediately. It lowered the top speed by at least 25mph.
My first race in the car was at Bridgehampton. I flew off the road when a bolt sheared and a locating arm for one of the vertical struts supporting the wing punctured my tyre. So Jim told me to go out in his car and the same thing happened again. A little off-putting. Then in the race, I was chasing Dan Gurney for the lead, but he left me in the dust when my wing locked in the high-down force position. I finished fourth.
Mosport was another disappointment. My car had a weird twitch to it, and there never was any explanation. I don’t know if it was a duff tyre or a bad shock or what, but the rear end gave me trouble all weekend. I was lucky to finish second.
Everything went right at Laguna Seca, though. Jim and I were fastest in practice. In the first heat, I passed him early on and that’s the way we finished. We didn’t have team orders;there was no messing around. We were racing the whole time.
In the second heat, we were leading when Parnelli Jones came up behind us. We thought he had been black-flagged for passing Surtees under the yellow, so we just let him by Afterwards, there was a big fuss. Parnelli, a big fusser, came ran up to us claiming we’d protested him, which we hadn’t. Jim said, ‘Just hold on there, Parnelli,’ and calmed him down. It didn’t matter to us whether he was disqualified or not. Either way, I was overall winner.
It’s hard to believe that that Laguna Seca was the only Can-Am race ever won by a Chaparral. The car had tremendous potential, but it didn’t manage to finish often enough. Obviously, I had more success with Ferraris in my early years, but the Chaparrals are right up there at the top of my list of favourite cars. They were tremendous engineering feats, full of surprises and innovations. It was tremendously disappointing to be fastest in so many races and not have it last.
Interview by Preston Lerner