Return of the Texas Ranger
Jim Hall. It may only comprise seven letters but that name represents one of the biggest in motorsports. Born in Texas, in 1935, he contested 11 Grands Prix as a driver in the early ’60s, finishing sixth at Silverstone then fifth at the Nürburgring in 1963, despite driving an outclassed Lotus-BRM.
Back home on the sports car scene, his magnificent all-white Chaparral cars were amongst the elite, winning many USRRC and CanAm events as well as the 1965 Sebring 12 Hours (Hall sharing with Hap Sharp), the 1966 Nürburgring 1000 kms (driven by Phil Hill and Jo Bonnier) and the 1967 BOAC 500 (where Hill teamed with Mike Spence). Thanks to him, the aerofoil really came to Europe.
Later came a trio of SCCA Formula 5000 championships with Brian Redman, followed by CanAm titles for both Patrick Tambay and Alan Jones. After that, his cars were pacesetters on the Indycar scene.
In 1978, Al Unser used a Hall Lola to become the first man to win all three 500-mile events (Indianapolis, Ontario and Pocono) in a single season, while Johnny Rutherford took the 1980 Indy 500 and USAC/CART series driving a Pennzoil Chaparral 2K designed in conjunction with John Barnard.
Rutherford’s mount was the first ground-effect car in oval racing and it is for such engineering innovation that Jim Hall is best known. Besides pioneering work on aerodynamics it was Chaparral who fielded the first lightweight ‘plastic’ chassis as a precursor of today’s composite creations, albeit of reinforced fibreglass. Chaparral had fully automatic transmissions in race cars 25 years before their semi-auto siblings became fashionable in F1 , cockpit-adjustable rear wings too. And it was Chaparral which introduced the ‘sucker’ car long before Brabham tried a similar thing in F1 in 1978.
These technical advancements have not come without penalty: Hall considered himself victimised to such a degree that he stayed away from the sport for three years before returning, to F5000, in 1973. He retired again in 1982, having achieved just about all he could at that time in lndycars.
Now he’s back, teamed once again with Pennzoil, Lola and Chevrolet. In the very first race of his latest venture Hall was again a winner, John Andretti taking the honours in the controversial lndycar race at Surfers Paradise last March. This was followed by fourth at Indianapolis and second in a historic Andretti family one-two-three at Milwaukee.
Recently Hall spoke exclusively to MOTOR SPORT. Not so much about the past, but how he sees the present and future of motor racing, both in America and worldwide. “I felt I was regulated out of the business,” he says. “We made the effort to get into the International Championship of Makes and, at the end of 1967, at very little notice, they (the FIA) changed the prototype regulations for the following year whereby to run over three litres you had to produce 25 cars. We weren’t capable of that, so it put us out of the business.
‘In 1969 they dissallowed our basic aerodynamic design of the last few years, the hi-matic wings. Then we went ahead with the 2J project (the ‘sucker’ car) which was disallowed at the end of 1970. A lot of what I had contributed over the previous five years was no longer allowed in racing, even though it was legal when we started!”
Hall was talking about some of the factors which led to him having a break from the sport in the early ’70s. Not bitter, just matter of fact, he had paid the price of the innovator, one which others of his ilk, such as Colin Chapman, had been required to endure from time to time.
“We had done a lot of work on the aerodynamics of sports cars in those days and were the earliest to do that. I think the cars definitely had some advantages that other people did not recognise at that time, back in 1966 and ’67. We ran high-mounted wings which weren’t adopted by F1 until 1968. It took them a couple of years to quit laughing and realise that it was a pretty serious performance advantage.
“How did we get started down that route? In the first rear-engined car that I built, in 1963, I used some data from a wind tunnel test that GM had done on a sports car, I shaped the bottom of it rather like the top of a wing to try to produce negative lift, because that is what they were trying to do in the wind tunnel. It had a rounded nose underneath and it just did not work as they presumed it would from their tests. The front wheels actually came off the ground at over 130 mph. It was really bad! We had to fix that and in doing so got involved in the aerodynamic shape of the car and what it needed to do.
“I thought that if we were dealing with all these big aerodynamic forces then we should make them work for us rather than just trying to eliminate the lift, make it into a positive thing which would help the car. So we started applying it downwards on the car and it just got faster and faster. When we did that we realised it was a real key to racing at that moment. The more download we put on, the faster lap times they would turn. But they got more drag. That’s when the (movable) flap we used on the back of the cars evolved, so we could eliminate the drag down the straightaway and still have the downforce for cornering and braking.
“Once we did that then we loaded so much downforce on them that we thought about all the springs and suspension. And rather than go to the very high spring rates which people have done today because of the regulations, we decided to mount the wing on the wheel hub itself. Just to take that load off the bodywork. It made more sense to us and really turned out to be a good idea. If you put the aerodynamic loads on the hubs the car can ride nicely over the bumps and have good road contact all the time, be enjoyable to drive, have normal kinds of spring rates, yet you have the download you want right on the wheels. “But the FIA saw fit to disallow that wing mounting after accidents in 1969” most notably the Lotus 49s of Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt at Barcelona. “They deemed them unsafe even though we had been running them since 1966. It depends on how you installed it as to whether it was unsafe or not…”
Older and wiser in the ways of the world than when his seven-litre monsters thundered around North America and Europe, he admits to not following the current sports car racing scene especially closely, being very busy with his own latest project, but there is no doubting that the quiet talking Texan still favours ‘big bangers’ over turbochargers and/or small capacity screamers.
“For a road race car it’s very nice to have good throttle response. If you are trying to drive a multi-turn, multi-speed, maybe hilly circuit, like a real road course, then having good throttle response is important from a driving standpoint. So I’ve never been all that enamoured by turbocharged road-race cars because I have always felt like they really did not have it. And there were a lot of compromises made to get the most out of turbocharged road-race cars.
“It’s an odd thing for a car anyway, when you stop and think about it, as it is a kind of constant speed device rather than a multi-speed device. You’d like the torque to vary with what you do with your foot. That’s the way a driver looks at it. And certainly the car is more driveable if that’s the way it is.
“Fully aware that you cannot please all of the people all of the time, as a founder member of CART (back in 1979, when the team owners split from the autocratic USAC) and having suffered the acrimony of those contentious times, Jim Hall appreciates the repercussions which could still emerge from the simmering controversy of the vested interests of Indycars versus F1 , especially as CART ignored threats from FISA about staging a race around the streets of Australia, the event his nascent team won.
Describing himself as a “nuts and bolts sort of person” and definitely not a politico, he is nevertheless astute enough not to want to be drawn too deeply into expounding his thoughts on FISA claims of encroachment in that particular case for fear of his comments being misinterpreted by the inhabitants of the Place de la Concorde.
What he is happy to go on record about, though, is the general possibility of Indycars getting back to basics and widening their horizons still further if the right circumstances can be found. And be it at home or abroad, that means ovals, not more temporary street circuits.
“Indycars have basically evolved around oval tracks and one of the problems we have right now is that we don’t have enough of them (only five of 1991 ‘s 17 events were held on ovals). Since coming back into it, it’s a little frightening to me that we run as many races as we do on the streets, because if street races go out of fashion then the sport is looking hard pressed for places to race.
“If we could go to some oval races around the world I think it would be very interesting but, that said, I don’t think anybody really wants to go to compete with F1, I don’t think that is what they are looking for. CART could stand some races overseas but there have to be the tracks for it.
“If the Europeans were to build some ovals for us that would be really wonderful. I don’t know whether they can do it or not but there may be some other places in the world which can. I think the Japanese are seriously looking at it and there may be some emerging countries that are willing to do that (Brazil is one). We’ll just have to see.”
Jim Hall’s vision of the perfect world sees the two formulae existing side by side, complementing rather than fighting one another. Indycars doing what they do best on ovals, Formula One ditto on road race courses.
“If you put us on the same (road race) track with a F1 car we are not going to be all that impressive, because there is a lot of difference in the specifications of the cars. For example, an F1 is a lot lighter for its tyre size. It has a lot of things we don’t have. We are optimised for a different kind of racing and I would like to see that go on, because it is a good kind of racing in a lot of ways and the spectators get to see a lot more of it. They can see virtually the whole track in some cases, get to see every pass that is made if they want to, whereas in road racing you just get to look at a limited part of the track.
“Another way in which the differences really show up is when it comes to accidents. While a 160 mph shunt in a Grand Prix machine is dire enough, the fact is that much of the speed has usually been dissipated by run-off areas, catch fences, tyre walls and so on. At an oval, the only thing there to stop you is the concrete wall immediately at the track’s outer edge. It’s hard, it’s immovable it’s unforgiving. And it is often contacted at a full 220 mph.
“They are different kinds of cars. We hit walls at horrendous speeds and these cars have got to be quite a bit stronger to protect the driver. There is no question about that. F1 people tend to poo-poo the lndycar and say how it does not do some things all that well. They have got to realise that if you start comparing Indycars to F1 they are not going to do so very well for a lot of reasons but if you put the F1 cars at Indy or Michigan they are not going to look so sharp either! At the Michigan 500 last August, Indycars which had already run double a Grand Prix race distance were still turning laps over 224 mph. It is doubtful whether an F1 car has ever been that fast, certainly none has ever lapped or crashed at such speed. The same applies there as to the velocities and potential hazards of Indianapolis.
“Right now Indy has a very peculiar situation in that it is virtually flat out, which doesn’t make for a lot of the things which racing is about. It’s good from a standpoint of how close the cars can run to each other, for the spectacle of the racing, but to show the skill of the drivers and designers and the race team I’m not sure it is a particularly good thing. A driver with a lot of experience at Indy can find out that with certain wing settings and so forth his car will run around there flat out. He can tell an inexperienced driver, who, if he has enough guts, believes him and just goes out there and stands on it. He can go just as fast as the experienced driver. I think experience ought to account for more than that. So I am against rules which slow the speed down without making it a driver’s decision about what he does on the race track.”
The last remark is a reference to NASCAR, where the sanctioning body elected to install carburettor restrictor plates at the superfast speedways of Daytona and Talladega. According to most Winston Cup drivers all that it has done is made overtaking more risky, accidents more likely.
Commenting on how Indycars are far more competitive now than during his previous venture into the sport, with the technical sophistication and know-how always increasing, where does this great innovator see the next major breakthrough coming from?
“There probably is one but I don’t know where it is, don’t have one in my back pocket. But that is what you are always looking for. There are now more minds working on it than there has ever been so as you reach the pinnacle it is going to be slower and slower. So we are probably looking for smaller and smaller areas to improve on. And you want to be damn careful you don’t innovate such a big step that everybody decides it is not legal. It’s happened to us before!” Which is where we came in. . . KW