Texan Jim Hall twice made waves in Europe – first in a promising but short-lived F1 career, then as a team owner in sports cars with his innovative Chaparrals
By Gordon Kirby
If there is one thing that Jim Hall is renowned for, it’s his revolutionary Chaparral Can-Am cars. For the best part of a decade, between 1963 70, a mind-blowing series of Chaparrals rewrote the book on closed-wheel sports car design, just as Colin Chapman’s Lotuses revolutionised Formula 1. And like Chapman, Hall was a quick driver — but he went further, not only racing his own creations with great success, but also managing a Grand Prix career in parallel. In the end it was a terrible leg-breaking accident in the Can-Am round at Las Vegas in 1968 which ended his driving exploits.
An oil man from the bleak expanses of western Texas — Midland, to be exact — Hall graduated from the California Institute of Eil? Technology (CalTech) with an engineering degree and made good money to pursue his passion for fast cars. With his friend Hap Sharp he founded Chaparral, and built Rattlesnake Raceway, a two-mile test track on a windswept Texan plain outside the factory shop.
Hall’s first race was in 1954 aboard his brother’s Austin-Healey. He ran a Corvette occasionally while he was at college in California, but began competing seriously in 1959 in a pair of ‘Birdcage’ Maseratis and a Ferrari Monza. Two years later Hall and Sharp raced the first Chaparral — a front-engined Chevrolet-powered car much like a Scarab, built by Troutman and Barnes. For the next two years Hall and Sharp ran a pair of Chaparral 1s, with Jim claiming third in the 1961 Los Angeles Times GP at Riverside behind a pair of Cooper Monacos driven by no less than Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren. Hall went one better in the following year’s Times GP, beaten only by Roger Penske’s Zerex/Cooper Special. Then there were victories in the 1962 Elkhart Lake sports car race in June and with Sharp in that September’s 500-mile race at the same track.
Hall also ventured trackside in a brace of Lotuses, contesting the United States Grands Prix of 1960-62 as well as a selection of SCCA and USAC Formula Libre races. He finished seventh on his F1 debut at Riverside in the 1960 GP aboard his own Lotus 18, and won a USAC event at Indianapolis Raceway Park in ’62 with the same car.
That led to Hall buying a Lotus 21 from Jack Brabham to race at Watkins Glen in 1962, but engine trouble kept him from starting. In the first Mexican GP — a non-championship race that year — he finished fourth behind Trevor Taylor/Jim Clark, Brabham and Innes Ireland. “I had quite a good run,” Jim recalls. “The car handled well and the engine ran good. After that Ken Gregory called and asked if I was interested in doing a Formula 1 season.”
Gregory, of course, was team manager of British Racing Partnership (BRP), which had run one car in 1962 — a Lotus 24 for Innes Ireland. At the time Hall and Sharp were embroiled in the design and construction of Chaparral 2, which they planned to race late in ’63. The new Chaparral-Chevy was a midengined car with a bonded plastic monocoque chassis, automatic transmission and a sleek shape that would evolve rapidly over the coming years. The car occupied plenty of Hall’s time and would define his career, but Jim couldn’t turn down the chance to try F1. “There was a bit of soul-searching because we’d already started the Chaparral 2 and had a plan to develop those cars for Can-Am-type racing. But I finally decided that if I had a shot at F1, why not? So I said yes.”
After doing Sebring in March 1963 with Sharp and one of the old Chaparral 1s, Hall moved to England with his wife Sandy for most of the rest of that year. They found a house in Surbiton near their friends Bruce and Patty McLaren, and about a 40-minute drive from BRP in Chelsea. The team had built its own monocoque car for Ireland to race in ’63, while Hall drove a year-old tubeframe Lotus 24. At well over six feet, Jim didn’t have an easy time fitting into those little 1.5-litre cars.
“I stuck out of the car a long way and had a hard time getting comfortable in it,” he says. “We had to put an extra piece of windshield on and I’m not sure the rollbar was really adequate. Luckily, I didn’t test it. The other thing was my feet were pretty close to the radiator and we didn’t have the airflow out of it sealed up well enough to keep the heat off my feet. That gave me a problem. I had some blisters that I shouldn’t have had, and I was pretty irritated about it, because it’s distracting.”
Hall struggled with a lack of torque from his carburetted BRM engines. “I did the best I could but I didn’t have a particularly good car,” he explains. “The engine didn’t have much bottom-end power. I couldn’t get it to run very good off slow corners, so I felt like I was at a disadvantage. Innes had fuel injection and I didn’t realise how big an advantage that was until the race in Austria.”
Jim’s usual engine wasn’t ready for the nonchampionship Austrian GP in September on the old Zeltweg airfield circuit, “So I got to run a fuel-injected engine there and I put it on the front row, which was fun. Brabham and I were on the front row and Innes was on row two. I understood after that race that there was quite a bit of difference in the way the injected engine ran on the bottom end.”
Hall’s best results came in the British and German Grands Prix. “I did have two reasonable finishes — a fifth at the Niirburgring and sixth at Silverstone — so I got some points and it was a really good experience. But it was trying in some ways. It rained during a few of the races. When you’re having to learn all the circuits with no testing that made it hard. I was able to qualify at all the Grands Prix, I got that part done. It was good for me to see F1 from the inside and to recognise that those guys were just human like I was.
“Of course I got to know Bruce [McLaren], which was a wonderful thing because over the years we became really good friends. Sandy and me and Bruce and Patty palled around a lot that year. Bruce and I could have a hell of a race and then go out to dinner and talk about it and say, ‘Your car is kind of crappy through this corner’.”
Hall had similar respect for BRP team leader Ireland. “He was a real character, a wonderful guy. I really liked Innes, he was a real gentleman. I remember one day he really made friends with Sandy. We were at Reims and I was out running and it started to rain. Sandy climbed up on the pitwall, concerned that I hadn’t come around, when a gendarme reached up and grabbed her. Innes was standing there and he just grabbed the gendarme and threw him off the pitwall. He said, ‘Don’t you ever touch a woman like that again!’ It was the right thing to do and Sandy just thought it was the greatest thing because the gendarme had handled her improperly.
“Innes was fast and he was helpful to me. That was back in the days when the experienced guys would be your mentors. He was fun for us and he could be as wild as a March hare, too.”
Hall’s worst accident came at Spa, where he crashed amid a thunderstorm. “I was very fortunate,” he recalls. “Of course, us Texans are familiar with thunderstorms. I saw it building and coming towards me. It was just spattering with a little rain when I first came by there, but it’s a long lap and next time around I could see that it was definitely raining, so I thought I’d better be pretty damn cautious when I went over the top of the hill and started down the straightaway toward Burnenville. I stuck it in fifth gear and kind of cruised, but when I hit the water it was just a downpour, and bam!
“The car got waterborne and started spinning, so I put my foot on the brake to see if I could lock it up and keep it going down the road. I went around once, maybe twice, and it came around pointing in what I thought was the right direction. I thought if I took my foot off the brake I might be able to drive it out of there, but it caught an edge and shot off the road to the left near the corner.”
This was before the days of guardrails and run-off areas, and Hall’s car slewed into a stack of firewood and a pair of large oil drums next to a house where the resident was sitting on his porch, watching the race. “I took all four wheels off the car on these 55-gallon drums and knocked all the firewood out of the way. The wood was stacked about three or four feet above my head. Amazingly, I didn’t get hit by any of it and was just sitting upright on the ground in what was left of the car without any wheels on it.”
The Burnenville burgher helped Jim climb out of the wreckage. “I felt around to see if there was any blood or broken bones and this guy rapped me on the shoulder, shook me and said, ‘Do you want a beer?’ He helped me out of the car and I went and sat on his porch. His house was right on the road, and I drank a couple of beers with him until the race was over.
“Nobody knew what was going on because there were no radios or communication systems in those days. I think three or four cars left the road on that lap and nobody knew what had happened until the end of the race when the guys got in their lorry and came around looking for us. Sandy was with them and she figured I was dead or hurt bad, and there I was drinking beer with this guy. She damn near killed me because she didn’t know what was going on. That was the worst accident I had over there and I didn’t get injured. I was really lucky.”
Le Mans followed the next weekend where Hall was invited to drive a 4.1-litre NART Ferrari 330LM coupe with Dan Gurney. The experienced Gurney started the race and got the car into the top six before Hall took over, keeping with the leaders until a little after lam when the rear axle failed. Jim pushed the car to the pits but to no avail. “I always had a lot of respect for Dan’s ability and I was really pleased to run with him. It wasn’t very exciting at the end, but it was a great experience with Dan.”
In August, prior to the German Grand Prix, Hall spent the best part of a week learning the Niir burgring in his Mini-Cooper. “You could drive around the track for one Deutschmark. Sandy would find a sunny spot on the side of a hill and have a book to read, and I’d make laps until I got hungry. We’d go get a sandwich at the hotel and then come back, and I’d do laps for a couple more hours or as long as I could stand it. I did that for several days until I thought I had a darn good idea of where the road went. I worked at it hard.”
Official practice went well, Jim putting in many laps before going on to enjoy his best race of the year. “I didn’t qualify as well as at some of the other tracks because I think it’s just more difficult. But I did learn it pretty much by the time the race started, and I stayed out of trouble and picked up some places and ended up with a good finish. It was an exciting place to go and learn all those turns.”
Hall’s last F1 race was in Mexico, where he finished eighth. “After Watkins Glen BRP ran out of money and didn’t go to South Africa which was the last race. We did the Mexican GP and that was the end of it. Ken Gregory had been talking about not having enough money, they didn’t have any sponsorship that year.”
There were no offers from any other teams for 1964, and by now the Chaparral 2 was ready to race in the sports car rounds at Riverside, Laguna Seca and Kent near Seattle. Formula 1 had come and gone for Hall. “I was excited about the Chaparral. I thought we had a really good plan and I enjoyed life more in the United States than in England or Europe. There I was, a kid from the American southwest who had run maybe three races where it rained, and I was over there trying to learn how to be one of the top race drivers in the world at places where it rains most of the time.
“It was a tough year, plus there was the realisation that nobody walked up to me and said, ‘God, Hall! You did so good we’d sure like you to drive for us.’ BRP was underfinanced and they weren’t sure what they were going to do, so I just felt like the right thing for me to do was to get busting on the Chaparral project and get it finished.”
Hall gave the first Chaparral 2 its debut in the LA Times GP at Riverside in October, taking pole and running away with the race before an electrical problem intervened. In 1964 Hall and his Chaparral swept the United States Road Racing Championship, winning four races with Sharp adding a fifth. The pair kicked off ’65 by winning the Sebring 12 Hours, then dominated the USRRC again with Hall winning six races and Sharp two. They also combined to win Elkhart Lake’s 500-mile race, and overall scored 16 wins from 21 races.
“By ’65 the Chaparral was good and reliable, and I pretty much had the measure of everybody. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I learned an awful lot and we accomplished a lot. People ask why we were successful and I say because we worked hard at it. We tried to learn and not make the same mistake too many times. It was a great time in my life. It was fun too, because there were always some differences of opinion, and a small team like ours was really tight-knit. In those days we could have a major impact on the sport with just a few guys. Nowadays these teams have I don’t know how many engineers and management people.
“We were a little isolated down where we lived, and I was fortunate to find some good guys who were loyal and stayed with us. Troy Rogers, Franz Weis and Gary Knutson were a pretty tight bunch for a while and I don’t think that happens so much anymore. The teams are so big and people get offers to go someplace else and there’s a lot more money in it, and that makes a lot of difference.”
In 1966 Hall’s focus fell on the new Can-Am series, but the Chaparral team also raced in Europe from ’66-67, running the long-distance sports car races. Sharp managed the sports car team from Opel’s test facility in Austria, while Hall spent most of his time driving, testing and managing the Can-Am team, stretching the pair’s small operation to the maximum. Still, Phil Hill and Jo Bonnier won the 1966 Niirburgring 1000Kms aboard a Chaparral 2D, and Hill and Mike Spence drove a winged 2F to victory in the 1967 Brands Hatch Six Hours.
“We tried to do more than we could, really,” admits Hall. “I think that that did bring our finishing performance down, which was too bad. We were lucky to have had some good success, particularly at the Niirburgring. I’m real proud of that.
“We struggled a lot in ’67 because the transaxle was just not up to the big-block Chevy. We were way behind. We had to get a bigger bearing into the transaxle and there wasn’t one available to fit. The cars were plenty quick, and I think we had the rest of it pretty well figured out. We had enough tyre, we had enough brake. The car was pretty effective but we just couldn’t keep them going.”
Of course at the end of that year, following much success for the Ford and Chaparral teams, the FIA cut the engine limit to five litres. That brought an end to both sports car teams. “We would have continued for sure if they hadn’t changed the rules,” says Hall. “We put a pretty big investment into it, and Hap was sincere about it. He really wanted to do that series.”
It’s interesting that the ’60s spawned so many top drivers like McLaren, Brabham, Surtees, Gurney and Hall who were also car builders and development engineers — an era long gone from top-level motor racing. Hall remembers his rivals as friends who were eminently fair but tough competitors. “They were all guys you could stick a wheel right up next to, or vice versa, and you’d have no concern that they would take you out. Totally different than today. Dan, Bruce, John Surtees and Jack Brabham were fabulous people. So were guys like Phil [Hill] and Jimmy Clark. You respected them for the way they treated you as a human being. There was a lot of competition, a lot of camaraderie. It was a very enjoyable time.”
Let’s not forget that following the Chaparral era Hall went on to win three consecutive American F5000 titles as a partner with Carl Haas in Haas/Hall Racing, with Brian Redman driving. Hall also won two Indy 500s as a team owner with Al Unser in a Lola in 1978, and with Johnny Rutherford driving the Pennzoil Chaparral 2K in 1980. Four years later Hall retired, but Pennzoil brought him back to run an Indycar team in the early ’90s, first for John Andretti and then Gil de Ferran, who scored his first Indycar win with Hall’s team at Laguna Seca in 1995. In many ways, Jim Hall is one of racing’s true giants.