At 73 Jim Hall is still as sharp as a tack. Hall is one of America’s greatest racing men. He was an accomplished driver until he badly broke his legs in a Can-Am accident in 1968, and was also the father of the legendary Chaparral race cars.
Born in Abilene, Texas, Hall (right) studied engineering before embarking on building and racing the remarkable line of Chaparral sports-racers. His increasingly innovative Chaparrals were what Can-Am was all about. Hall pioneered the development of wings and aerodynamics in racing with the high-winged 2E and 2G and the famous 2J ‘sucker car’, a skirted ground-effect car that was phenomenally fast but was banned at the end of 1970.
“I’ve often thought, Christ! What do we do about downforce today?” Hall ruminates. “When you were one of maybe the first people to have a really good understanding of it you thought, ‘Wow! What a wonderful thing.’ But when you think about the time, effort and money that’s spent today on these minute aerodynamic details trading off downforce and drag… It makes you wonder, was that a good idea, or not?
“There’s nothing you can do to keep people from doing things that they know about,” Hall adds. “You can make all kinds of rules and limit them in certain ways, but the best-financed teams are going to spend money on whatever they discern to be the biggest gain they can possibly make under the rules.”
The 2J was the end of the line in great white Chaparral Can-Am and long-distance sports cars, but Hall’s racing career continued for another quarter of a century. A partnership with Carl Haas, called Haas/Hall Racing, resulted in three consecutive US F5000 championships in 1974-76, with Brian Redman driving the team’s Lolas. In 1978 Hall went Indycar racing with a Lola T500 in which Al Unser won the Indy 500, as well as the Pocono and California 500s. Then in 1980 Johnny Rutherford won the Indy 500 and CART championship aboard the Chaparral 2K, a Lotus 79-like Indycar designed by John Barnard. Hall’s career as a team owner finally came to an end in 1996 after running Gil de Ferran in the first two years of the Brazilian’s Indycar career.
Hall admits that he doesn’t follow modern motor racing very closely, but he strongly believes the sport needs a serious shake-up. He believes some first principle thinking needs to be applied, rather than futzing with the details of the regulations like the FIA is doing with Formula 1 this year. Hall thinks the focus should be on the tyres.
“The one thing we had back in the earlier days of racing that I really pine for is passing,” says Hall. “It would make racing a hell of a lot more interesting if you had some passing on the track. A lot of it has to do with the tyres and nobody seems to focus on that aspect of it. They try to define the characteristics of the cars to build a bigger passing zone, which is fine.
I don’t object to that. But I think the tyres are one of the major factors in the whole thing. They need to reduce grip, to reduce the contact area and make it so the tyres have got to last the race with no pitstops. There would also be a cost reduction in equipment by cutting out the pitstops.”
Refuelling has already been outlawed for 2010 in F1, but Hall believes tyre changes should go, too. It’s been done before, of course. In 2005 drivers faced the prospect of racing the full distance with tyres they’d qualified on. The racing was indeed better, with Michelin gaining the advantage over Bridgestone as Ferrari’s form declined. Funnily enough, tyre changes were back for ’06. All in the name of safety, apparently.
Hall believes running a full Grand Prix without pitstops would accomplish a number of objectives. The tyres would have to be more durable, which should reduce the problem of off-line ‘marbles’ and make for a wider racing line with more options. It would also create more of a test for the driver to get the best from his tyres over a long period of time, as seen in 2005.
“Back when I was racing in the ’60s and the ’70s, there was more than one line and you could pass,” says Hall. “I know they introduced the pitstops to try to level the field and make some interest for the crowd, but back in the days when we used to run two-hour races without pitstops we had tyres that didn’t trash up the race track that much. Once you have pitstops during the race and real soft rubber, where it wears and gets on the track, you can’t get off-line and you can’t pass.
“Of course, if you talk to drivers and tyre companies they don’t want to hear about it. It’s hard to go down that path, but if you’re the race organiser and you’re looking for a better show, then I think you’ve got to put your head into some of the things that the drivers don’t like.” And now with only one tyre supplier in F1, it could make the change easier to accept.
“Another thing that has happened since I got involved and we started putting downforce on the cars is that it’s been optimised,” says Hall. “We haven’t changed the configuration of the cars in a long time. They’re all mid-engined, rear-drive, ground-effect cars that have been optimised. Nobody’s thought of a better idea and they’ve fixed the basic design of the cars.
“I don’t like that,” Hall adds. “If you could have room for a different tack on it, a different strategy to design the car, maybe it would be more fun for everybody. But I don’t know how to do it, I really don’t. Even the NASCAR folk have made their car the same for everybody. Times have changed, and maybe I’m too old to have the vision that it takes.”
Despite his self-deprecation Hall may have the right ideas for an addled sport. Anyone out there listening?