Back in the 1960s Jim Hall’s Chaparral Can-Am cars captured many imaginations and revolutionised racing as Hall and his small Texas-based team dabbled in aerodynamics – without the use of a wind tunnel but with invaluable assistance from General Motors Research & Development’s ‘skunkworks’.
“We started building Chaparral 2 in 1962,” Hall recalls. “I was running it complete with bodywork pretty early in ’63. It took us a little while to make the body and once we got it on the car it made terrible lift. So we cured that by putting a snowplow-looking thing on the nose for Riverside and that’s the way we ran the car in the first races at the end of ‘63.
Hall (left) with Innes Ireland, 1963
“During the winter I did a lot of testing to try to figure out the aerodynamics and that’s where that whole thing started. By the time we started the ‘64 season the body was working pretty good. I’d made the radiator air inlet come right off the bottom of the car and exit in front of the windshield. That made a tremendous difference in the front-end lift. We re-shaped part of it and by the time we started ‘64 it was a pretty darned good car. By ‘65 it was good and reliable and I pretty much had the measure of everybody.”
Hall and his partner Hap Sharp scored a dominant win at Sebring in 1965 leading almost all the way from pole to win by four laps. They also dominated that year’s United States Road Racing Championship, winning eight of nine races between them. Hall won at Riverside, Laguna Seca, Bridgehampton, Watkins Glen and Seattle. Sharp won at Castle Rock and Mid-Ohio and they drove together to win the 500-mile race at Elkhart Lake.
Hall’s relationship with Chevrolet began with him doing some test work for GM’s skunkworks. “They were building a little monocoque chassis out of steel for a Corvair development project and they wanted to show me that,” Jim recalls. “I had already started our Chaparral 2, which was a fibreglass-reinforced monocoque sports racer, so I was interested to see their Corvair project.
With Phil Hill
“They wanted to do some test work in the winter. So they started using our race shop and test track, ‘Rattlesnake Raceway’. That’s the way we actually started the relationship with Chevrolet. I did quite a bit of test driving in the Corvair for them and that’s how I got to know a lot of people at Chevrolet.”
Hall’s relationship with Chevrolet helped pay for the Chaparral racing operation. “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. They liked us and we liked them and we worked hard for them.
“I think we showed them some things and I put in a lot of miles over 1964 and ‘65 on their test track and on our track. I think that really made me a pretty good development driver and helped me race better.”
Hall leads Bruce McLaren home at Mosport, 1965. Find this and other rare racing shots from the 1960s in
our special collectors’ edition, available from the Motor Sport shop
Further technical and financial support came from Firestone. “We got involved with Firestone at about that time,” Hall relates. “We were doing a lot of test work and they started supplying tyres for us to go racing. It was a great deal and helped us with our budget. We started going to wider tyres. In one year we went from a 6in wide tyre to running 12in tyres on the rear and 10in tyres on the front.”
As the Can-Am arrived in 1966 the Chaparrals also sprouted high wings before Hall began to explore ground effects with the help of GM’s R&D department resulting in the 2J ‘sucker car’ – the first true ground-effect car. The team also successfully tackled long-distance sports car racing in Europe in 1966 and ’67 with the 2D and high-winged 2F.
“We were a little isolated down where we lived in Texas and I was fortunate to find some good guys that were loyal and stayed with us,” Hall observes. “Troy Rogers, Franz Weis and Gary Knutson were a pretty tight bunch for quite 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. That makes a lot of difference.
Jackie Stewart in the 2J at Watkins Glen, 1970
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I learned an awful lot and I enjoy learning things. We accomplished a lot. It was a really interesting time and I think it’s just one of those things that happens during life, or history. Those kinds of things come together in a certain way. As I look back on it, it was amazing the way those cars developed during those seven or eight years.”
In 1966 and ’67 Hall and Sharp ran a team in Europe’s long-distance world championship sports car races against factory teams from Ferrari, Ford and Porsche. In 1966 they won the Nürburgring 1000km with Phil Hill and Jo Bonnier driving a 2D, and the following year a high-winged 2F driven by Hill and Mike Spence won the Brands Hatch 1000km.
“I’m really proud that we were able to pull off those wins at the Nürburgring and at Brands Hatch,” Hall says. “That was a really fun deal. Somebody told me after we won at the Nürburgring that it was the first American car to win a major European road race in 40 years and I thought, ‘Wow!’”
The Jo Bonnier/Phil Hill 2D at the ‘Ring, 1965
In addition to winning for Chaparral at the Nürburgring and Brands Hatch, Phil Hill scored Chaparral’s only Can-Am series victory at Laguna Seca in 1966. “I really had a good time with Phil,” Jim remarks. “He was a wonderful man and a real talent. I think he had more ability than a lot of people gave him credit for. He was plenty quick and he knew how to take care of the car. He was a car guy and he knew what you needed to do to get to the end.
“Phil was a really good driver and a gentleman and he was also a wonderful guy to be around. I’m proud to say that not only did I see Phil win the first major race I watched at Pebble Beach in 1955, but he drove my car and won in the last race he drove at Brands Hatch in 1967. That was nice.”
Hall always says he got the most enjoyment from racing when he partnered with Carl Haas in the US Formula 5000 championship from 1973-76. During that time Haas/Hall Racing won F5000 the title with Brian Redman three years in a row.
Photo: Jutta Fausel
“Brian Redman drove for us and he did the best job that I could imagine,” Jim declares. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Brian. He can drive the car. If it isn’t right he can do a good job with it, and if it’s right, he’ll really do a great job with it. We finished so many races and won so many races during those four years that it’s hard for me to imagine that we were able to do that.
“We had good reliability and Brian took care of the equipment and was quick enough to win. I’ll guarantee you the last 10 laps of the race I wouldn’t have traded anybody for him. He might not have put it on the pole but it wasn’t because he didn’t want to. He didn’t have to.”
Hall went Indycar racing for the first time in 1978 and showed everyone a few things by winning all three USAC 500-mile races with Al Unser driving a Chaparral/Lola powered by a Cosworth DFX. It’s the only occasion in Indycar racing’s long history that any driver and team have won three 500-mile races in one season.
Al Unser at Indy, 1978. Photo: Ford
Two years later Johnny Rutherford won the 1980 Indy 500 and CART championship driving Hall’s Pennzoil-liveried Chaparral 2K while Gil de Ferran scored his first two Indycar wins driving Jim’s Reynard in 1995 and ’96. Hall retired from running a race team at the end of 1996 after a career spanning 40 years.
Roger Penske won aboard a Chaparral at Laguna Seca and Nassau in ’64 before retiring from driving managing the team the following year when Hall and Hap Sharp swept the USRRC series. In 1966, Roger founded his own standard-setting team.
“We recognise today that the Chaparral Can-Am car was one of the finest American racing cars,” Penske observes. “It was designed and built in America and Jim drove it. I got the opportunity to drive the Chaparral with the automatic transmission in 1964 and Jim had many successes with that car. And then for him to win at Indianapolis with the ‘Yellow Submarine’ Pennzoil Chaparral – I think that car changed the world.”
There’s no question that Jim Hall stands among America’s greatest racing men of all time, in rare company with his friends and former rivals Roger Penske and Dan Gurney.
Johnny Rutherford lines up next to Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser at Indy, 1980. Photo: Ford