Fifty years ago Jim Hall and his Chaparral team dominated American road racing. Hall and partner Hap Sharp won the Sebring 12 Hours in March aboard their Chaparral 2-Chevy and went on to sweep the United States Road Racing Championship, winning eight of nine races between them. Hall won at Riverside, Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen, Bridgehampton and Seattle, Sharp at Castle Rock and Mid-Ohio. They drove together to win the 500-mile finale at Elkhart Lake.
The Chaparral 2 evolved quickly, sprouting high wings in both 2G Can-Am and 2F long-distance sports car configurations before becoming the sport’s first ground-effect car, the 2H. The Chaparral story remains a remarkable chapter in racing history and includes an epilogue in the beautiful 2K Indycar, which Johnny Rutherford drove to win the 1980 Indy 500 and CART championship.
Hall and Hap Sharp, oil men both, were equal partners. “Hap was wonderful,” Hall says. “He had lots of ideas. We talked cars all the time. He was a smart guy and a talented driver. At Riverside in ’65 I had a problem with our new car and Hap went out in our older car and I’ll be damned if he didn’t beat Jimmy Clark.”
Chaparral Cars was based in Hall’s hometown, Midland, on the west Texas plains, and the little team comprised no more than five men – Hall and Sharp, chief mechanic Franz Weis, ace fabricator Troy Rogers and engine man Gary Knutson.
Next to the shop Hall and Sharp built a test track called Rattlesnake Raceway, a key element in building powerful working relationships with Chevrolet’s R&D department and Firestone. “We did a lot of test work for Chevrolet and they paid us for doing it,” Jim says. “It was a great thing for us to have. It was a business relationship that didn’t have much to do with racing. We got to know a lot of people who were shakers and doers in Detroit. We worked hard for them.”
Hall tested a variety of experimental GM cars at Rattlesnake and his relationship helped foster the Chaparral’s automatic transmission and rapid aerodynamic development. Further technical and financial support came from Firestone as Hall’s team played its part in a design revolution as wider, low-profile tyres arrived. “We started the year on six-inch tyres and by the end we’d gone to 12-inch tyres on the rear and 10s on the front,” Hall says.
In 1966 and ’67 Hall and Sharp ran a car in Europe’s long-distance world championship sports car races against factory teams from Ferrari, Ford and Porsche. In 1966 they won the Nürburgring 1000Kms with Phil Hill/Jo Bonnier driving a 2D and the following year a high-winged 2F driven by Hill and Mike Spence won the Brands Hatch 1000Kms.
“I’m really proud that we were able to pull off those wins,” Hall says. “That was a really fun deal. Somebody told me after that race at the ’Ring that it was the first American car to win a major European road race in 40 years and I thought, ‘Wow’.”
Hill also scored Chaparral’s only Can-Am series victory at Laguna Seca in 1966. “Phil was a wonderful man and a real talent,” Hall says. “He was a really good driver and a gentleman and he was also a wonderful guy to be around. I’m proud that he drove my car and won his last race [Brands Hatch ’67].
“I’ve been lucky in a lot of the things we did,” Jim adds. “You can’t just think you did it all yourself. It’s the people that help you and the talent that you have working for you. That’s what it’s all about. I’ve got an awfully strong feeling for people like Franz Weis and Troy Rogers, who helped make it all work.”