The Way It Is/ Appreciating Jim Hall and his Chaparrals

by Gordon Kirby, Racemaker Press. Reprinted by permission. Photos from the Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas by Gary Smith.

For me, the highlight of the Long Beach Grand Prix weekend in recent years has been the Road Racing Drivers’ Club dinner on Thursday night. RRDC president Bobby Rahal hosts the evening with proceeds to assist Jeremy Shaw’s Team USA. Bobby’s first guest three years ago was Dan Gurney followed the past two years by Parnelli Jones and Roger Penske. This year’s man of the evening was Jim Hall and this week’s column is dedicated to Jim’s discussion about his great career as a driver and his legendary Chaparral Can-Am and Indy cars. Those who want to read my short race report from Long Beach please go to Motor Sport’s website.

Jim Hall’s Racing Career

Jim Hall started his racing career in 1954, first driving an Austin Healey followed by a collection of Ferrari and Maserati sports cars. He quickly established himself as one of America’s top young road racers and then started racing his own cars called Chaparrals. Chaparral 1 was a front-engined, Chevrolet-powered sports/racer built by Troutman and Barnes but the world woke up when the first rear-engine Chaparral 2 appeared at the end of 1963. Hall and his partner Hap Sharp immediately started dominating the big sports car races of the era, winning the Sebring 12 hours together in 1965 while Hall won that year’s United States Road Racing Championship. At Long Beach last weekend Big Jim talked about the first Chevy-powered sports/racer he drove.

“Brian Lister built some cars in England and Shelby and I went over to look at them,” Hall said. “My brother was in business with Shelby and I worked with Shelby for a while. So we went over and looked at some cars and decided to buy some Listers with Chevy engines instead of the Jaguar engines they were using.

chaparral_9073“Lister put together some cars and sent us a kit to put the Chevies in. It was a pretty reasonably-priced car and I was already into hot rods and race cars and I decided that’s what I wanted to do–put a Chevy in one of these Listers. I got all the hot rod stuff–the Edelbrock manifold and an Iskenderian cam. We hopped it up, ground out the heads and went over to a little racetrack in Monte, Texas for an SCCA regional.

“I got the car off the trailer and warmed it up and got going pretty quick. I was getting around there as quick as anybody and about the tenth lap the engine started spitting and banging. So we loaded it on the trailer and were sitting around thinking about what to do. We were just about ready to leave and I said, ‘You know guys. What do you think of taking the engine out of the pick-up truck and putting in the race car?’

“So that’s exactly what we did. We pulled the engine out of the Lister, swapped the intake manifold and put the Chey pick-up truck engine in the Lister, and I went out and won the feature. Then after the race we put the engine back in the pick-up truck and drove home!”

Formula One

In 1963 Hall raced in Formula One driving a Lotus 24-BRM run by the independent British Racing Partnership where he was teamed with Innes Ireland. Hall enjoyed some good races, finishing fifth in the German GP at the Nurburgring and qualifying on the front row for the non-championship Austrian GP.

“When I got asked to drive Formula One I spent a lot of time making that decision,” Jim remarked. “That was a tough decision. I talked to Sandy and my brother and Hap and we all thought here’s an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up. So I did it.

“We had already started Chaparral 2 in 1962 and we were pretty well along. I was excited about it and I wanted to finish the car and race it. The team that I was driving for in Formula One had run out of finance at the end of that year. We didn’t go to the last race and nobody was beating on my door making offers. So I felt like the thing for me to do was to come back to the States and finish Chaparral 2 and get ready for the fall races.”

Rahal asked Hall to describe the thrill of racing against the likes of Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham. Bruce McLaren and Dan Gurney.

“It was a privilege to race against those guys,” he said. “There were a lot of wonderful drivers and a lot of good guys. I was a Southwesterner and I bet I hadn’t run four races in the rain and when I went to Europe that year it rained a lot. It rained some time during every race weekend. It might have rained during practice and before qualifying. At some time it would rain and some of the races were run in the rain and I’d have to say that for me with my experience level that really was tough.

“I lived in England for six months and people would ask me about it. I’d say it rains some every day and most days all day. So the Englishmen know how to race in the rain. They were actually much better than I was in the wet, I have to say that.

“I had a couple of good finishes. The race I enjoyed the most was in Austria. At the end of the season the team was running out of stuff and my engine gave up real early in practice. They only had one spare engine left and mine had carburetors and Innes’s had fuel injection and the spare engine was injected. So they finally put an injected engine in my car. I got to go out and practice and qualify and race with it.

“Well, I qualified on the front row and I couldn’t believe the difference. The injected engine would really pull off the corners much better than the carburetted engine. It was really an eye-opener.

“Austria was a smaller race that year. It wasn’t a championship race and not everybody was there. But it turned out to be Jack Brabham on the pole, me in the middle and Innes on the outside. So it was fun. Those kind of things you remember.

“But I really did want to get back home and finish the car. We were building some good cars and having some good races in this country in those days.”

chaparral_9102Roger Penske Fills in for Hall

Roger Penske drove for Hall in 1964 and served as team manager when Hall and Sharp won at Sebring in ’65.

“Roger and I have been friends a long, long time and we raced against each other in a way that made us understand something about each other,” Hall observed. “I think we had a mutual respect. Certainly I had it and I think he does. He’s a wonderful competitor and a great racing man. He’s achieved an awful lot and I can always say I taught him everything he knows!

“Roger actually filled in for me at the end of the ’64 season. We had a really good car and were running quicker than most everybody in the USRRC. I got off the road and into a ditch at Mosport and broke my arm. I couldn’t compete for at least a couple of months so Roger came in and filled in for me and did a great job for us. I think he enjoyed it and won some races in the car. I really enjoyed working with him. It was not a difficult task at all. It was easy and Roger finished the season really neat for us.”

Hall’s Relationship with Chevrolet and Bill Mitchell

Hall then described how his relationship with Chevrolet took shape.

“It was a long relationship and it changed as time went on. It was not the same all the time. I got to know Chevrolet up at Elkhart Lake when Bill Mitchell brought his special cars up there. I saw him at dinner at Seibkens and he asked me if I wanted to drive the StingRay which was brand new. We had never seen it at that point. He said, ‘Meet me at six o’clock out at the track tomorrow morning.’ He drove the car for a little bit and scared me to death. I said, ‘Is it okay if I drive?’ And I did and enjoyed the car.

“So Bill asked me to come down to Detroit to see his ‘skunkworks’ where he had a lot of projects going on. I went there and he introduced me to a fellow that ran a small division of General Motors called Chevy R&D and his name was Frank Winchell. They were building a little monocoque chassis out of steel for a Corvair project and he wanted to show me that. Well, I had already started our car which was a fiberglas reinforced monocoque sports/racer. So I was interested to see their Corvair project and that’s how I got to know the people at Chevrolet.

chaparral_9105Chevrolet Testing at Rattlesnake Raceway

“When I went to Europe in ’63 Hap went with me and Frank said to Hap, ‘You know, we’ve got some weather problems up here in Detroit and you’ve got the test track down there in Texas.’ They were working on this Corvair monocoque car and they wanted to do some test work in the winter where it wasn’t open to the public.

“So they started using our track. We had a customer who was coming down, renting the racetrack and using some shop space to do some test work. That’s the way we actually started the relationship with Chevrolet. When I got back I did quite a bit of test driving in the Corvair for them and I got to know a lot of people at Chevrolet.

“In the meantime we were building Chaparral 2. We had mocked-up a Corvair transaxle upside-down and backwards with a convertor in it. I always give Hap credit for that because the first time we put the car together we had a Chevy V8 in it and a manual transmission. I was testing it without any bodywork and Hap said he wanted to drive it. So he got in and drove it and came in and said ‘It’ll spin the wheels in any gear you put it in.’

The Automatic Transmission

“So we thought about it and I always credit Hap with the idea. We decided let’s go for a single speed with a torque convertor to get it off the line. We were doing that when Frank Winchell showed up one day. He looked at it and said, ‘Did you guys know I was a transmission engineer?’ He said he was at Allison for ten years before he got his job with Chevrolet. He said he thought what we were doing was a pretty good idea and said he’d like to take a look at it.

“So lo and behold, about six months later they showed up with a car they called the GS2 which was the sequel to the Grand Sport with this transmission in it. I drove the GS2 and helped develop the suspension. We ran that little transaxle and when we got to 1964 we had run it enough that I thought it worked good and had some pretty good confidence in it. So I said, ‘Can I borrow one of those?’

“So I got one and we ran it for the first time at Laguna Seca in 1964. It was a single-speed and somebody asked what is it and I said it was an automatic transmission. Well, it was. You put it in gear and away she went!”

Hall and Firestone

Hall and Sharp also helped Firestone develop the new concept of low profile, wide tires.

“We got involved with Firestone at about that time and were doing a lot of test work and they started supplying tires for us to go racing. It was a great deal and helped us with our budget. They would send us tires and we decided we really didn’t know how big the wheels ought to be. So we started making these wheels that you could put a spacer in. The wheels were about five or six inches wide and the rubber was about that wide.

“We started going to wider tires and Firestone would build them for us. We went from a six-inch wide tire to a seven-inch to an eight-inch. The first thing we would do was run it round the skid pad to get a feel for it. Then we’d go out on the track and run it.

“So we showed up for the next race with the car on seven-inch rims and by the end of that year we’d gone to running twelve-inch tires on the rear and ten-inch tires on the front. Well, for one thing you couldn’t spin the wheels all the time anymore. So we put another speed in this gearbox. We were actively shifting it. It was just a dog-clutch gearbox with a torque convertor in front of it. You just backed-off the throttle and shifted it.”

Meanwhile, Hall’s relationship with Chevrolet was developing rapidly.

“We did a lot of test work for Chevrolet and they paid us for doing it. 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 and I think we showed them some things. I did a lot of test work on CERV2. That car actually had that transmission in it and I drove it.

“Frank Winchell was smart enough that he didn’t want to put one of his young engineers in the car and get one of them hurt. So he decided the thing to do was to hire somebody that was a professional and I got to do it. I probably put in more miles over 1964 and ’65 on a test track and on our track and I think that’s what really made me a pretty good development driver and helped me race. If you just put in the miles it really makes a difference.”

chaparral_9061Hall praised his friend and partner Hap Sharp.

“Hap was a wonderful partner. We were equal partners in Chaparral. He was running his drilling company and he’d come out after lunch sometimes and we’d go over what we were doing. Hap had a lot of ideas. He was a smart guy and a talented driver. We talked cars all the time. If you could bounce something off somebody and they’ve got an interest like you do there’s a lot of BS that goes on but you can critique each other and a lot of times you’ll come up with something. It really worked good for us and if it really came down to it I said, ‘We’re going to do it this way.’ And that’s the way we did it. So it was a perfect partnership!

“We went to Riverside in 1965. I had the new car and it was quicker. I was out there putting it on the pole and the rear suspension broke. I was lucky not to hit anything and we did what we thought we ought to do to make it work and I’ll be darned if it didn’t do it again in Sunday warm-up. So I wasn’t going to take a chance on it and I parked it. Hap went out in the older car and I’ll be damned if he didn’t beat Jimmy Clark and all the rest of them.”

Homemade Rain Tires

With Sharp acting as team manager the little Chaparral operation ran the World Sports Car Championship in 1966 and ’67 with the 2D and 2F. Phil Hill and Jo Bonnier won the Nurburgring 1000Ks in 1966 aboard the 2D and the following year Hill and Mike Spence drove the high-winged 2F to win at Brands Hatch in both cases beating factory teams from Ferrari, Ford and Porsche.

“I’m really proud that we were able to pull off the win at the Nurburgring and at Brands Hatch,” Hall said. “We had a lot to do to get it done. We raced over there the same as we did here in the States. We had white Chevy pick-up trucks and open, single-car trailers. We hauled the cars all over the country with these pick-up trucks and open trailers. If we had spare parts they were in the pick-up under a small camper top. And we went to Europe the same way. We shipped those rigs over there and that’s how we got around to the races.

chaparral_9082“We had a problem with the Firestone wet tires at the Nurburgring. They just didn’t drain well enough and the rubber compound wasn’t good enough to work that way and we decided one day to see if we could fix it. We just took a tire iron and cut a rib out of the tires so that they had less area on the ground and they drained better. It was taking a chance because you know you’re putting more energy into the rubber and you could overheat it. It hadn’t been fully tested but we did run them so we knew what they did.

“When I wanted to put them on for the Nurburgring I got a pretty good look from Phil but he finally said ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ And by golly that was the right thing to do because they worked. That was a really fun deal. Somebody told me after that race it was the first American car to win a major European road race in forty years and I thought, wow!”

Rahal asked Hall which drivers he respected the most among the great drivers he raced against in the big sports car and Can-Am races of those days like Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill, John Surtees, Parnelli Jones, Jackie Stewart, Dan Gurney and Mark Donohue.

“What would you say to a group like that?” Hall responded. “Those guys were the best. I respected every one of them and I was fortunate enough to have some really world-class drivers drive for us.”

Formula 5000

Hall then digressed into an appreciation of Formula 5000 where Haas/Hall Racing won three consecutive championships in 1974, ’75 and ’76 with Brian Redman at the wheel.

“Formula 5000 was so much fun because it was kind of an easy car to maintain and I didn’t have to raise the money. Carl Haas came in and said, ‘Let’s go to Indy.’ He said he’d raise the money and I would run the team and I said, ‘Okay, you’ve got a deal.’

“That as probably sometime in 1971 and he came back a little later and said he didn’t raise enough money for Indy so let’s do Formula 5000. And I said, ‘What’s that?’ So he told me and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’ And it really took the pressure off as far as being out there trying to put the budget together and doing two jobs at the same time. I got to run the race team without any distractions.

“Brian Redman drove for us and he did the best job that I could imagine. 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 job with it. We finished so many races and won so many races during those four years and it’s hard for me to imagine that we were able to do that. We had good reliability and Bran took care of the equipment and was quick enough to win. I’ll guarantee you the last ten 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.”

chaparral_9103Chaparral 2K Wins Indy

Hall also praised Johnny Rutherford who won the 1980 Indy 500 and CART championship aboard Hall’s ‘Yellow Submarine’ Pennzoil Chaparral 2K, and Gil de Ferran who started his Indy car career in 1994 and ’95 driving for Hall’s team.

“Johnny Rutherford did a great job for us at Indy and Gil de Ferran is a really good guy and a great racing driver also did a great job for us. Then there’s Dan Gurney who I raced against for a long time and boy, he was a gentleman on the racetrack and a hell of a race driver. And I’ve gotta say that Phil Hill was a big part of my racing life.

“The first major road race I ever went to was Pebble Beach in 1955 and Phil won that race in the rain in a Ferrari Monza. That was the first time I saw a race like that so he was immediately a hero of mine. My older brother Chuck ended up buying that car and I’ll be darned if they didn’t take it back to Pebble Beach in 1956 and Carroll Shelby won the same race in that car. So that car was suited to that track and Phil and Carroll won the last two Pebble Beach road races in that car and I still happen to have it today.

“I knew Phil a long time and when we decided to go endurance racing Phil was one of the first guys that we wanted to try to get to drive for us. After he won that Riverside race in ’65 Hap pretty much decided he wasn’t going to race anymore. I wanted to take two cars to the Can-Am races and I asked Phil if he wanted to do that and he said yes and I really had a good time with Phil Hill. 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.

“With that transaxle we had in those days you didn’t have a clutch. You just matched the rpm with the engine. The guys always used to say my transmission looked like it had never been used and everybody else’s transmission came in with chips out of the dogs and other damage. And one day they told me that Phil’s transmission looked like mine. Phil was really good and a gentleman and a wonderful guy to be around. I’m proud to say that not only did I see Phil score my first major race win but he drove my car and won in the last race he drove at Brands Hatch. So that was nice.”

Lola T500-Cosworth DFX

In 1978 Hall won the Indy 500 plus the Pocono and California 500s with Al Unser driving a Lola T500-Cosworth DFX.

“Al Unser allowed us to go to Indianapolis and win it the first time. I was able to put together a team that was capable of winning and Parnelli helped because they had been running Cosworth engines. One of the reasons I didn’t want to go to Indianapolis was because I didn’t know anything about an Offy or alcohol. I knew it was a whole new experience. Well, Parnelli had been running Cosworths and then Cosworth decided to make a turbo engine for sale.

“The year we decided to do it I was able to hire Al Unser and we could go buy Cosworth engines and I got Eric (Broadley) to build a car. It all came together for us. So I’ve been lucky in a lot of the things we did. You can’t just think you did it all yourself. It’s the people that help you do things and the talent that you manage to have working for you. That’s what it’s all about. I’ve got an awful strong feeling for the people in racing who helped make it work.”

chaparral_9116Hall’s Indy Experiences

Although Hall never raced at Indianapolis he thought quite a lot about it and once tested a Chaparral Can-Am car at the Speedway.

“I thought about it a good deal early on. I went there several times and back in the day when they were running those roadsters, boy, talk about brave! Those roadsters were made out of chrome moly tubing and it was like a big spring. When they hit something it would absorb the energy and then spring back. The car would go up in the air and flip over and get into the fence and you’d think, ‘My God!’ They went fast and they had some accidents when they didn’t have anything to do with them. They were driving along and everything was fine and something happened in front of them and blame! They were involved. So I thought, I’m not sure I want to do this.

“I did test there some and we thought about building a car to go there early on, but the rules changed. We were going to run a stock-block and the stock-bock rule changed right about the time we were going to do it. So we cancelled that project.

“I was offered a ride in one of those wedge Lotuses because it kind of drove like an automatic transmission car, but I turned it down. I think I made that decision after it broke a part and went into the wall.”

Rahal then brought Johnny Rutherford on stage to talk about Hall.

“The great thing about driving for Jim was that he had been a driver,” Rutherford said. “So you could come into the pits with a problem and say, ‘Jim, it’s doing this and this and a little bit of this.’ He’d think about it for a little bit and then he’d tell one of the guys to go change something and it was better. That was the great part of driving for JIm.

“I had an opportunity to do some testing at Rattlesnake Raceway and when I got in the car the guys said, ‘If you get off the road, don’t get out.’ Like a dummy I said, ‘Why?’ And they said, ‘Why do you think they named this Rattlesnake Raceway?’ So I didn’t get off the road and I didn’t get out of the car!

“But it was a lot of fun driving for Jim. I had just come off seven years with Team McLaren and won two of my 500s with them. The McLaren M16 was a great race car but the Chaparral was fantastic. It put you in a brand new realm. I had the good fortune to win a lot of races at Phoenix and the first time we went testing with the Chaparral at Phoenix we struggled a little bit in the morning making some changes to the car to fit me and by mid-afternoon we were something like two seconds under the track record!

“I couldn’t believe how much grip the car had. I could run down the front straightaway and just crack the throttle to transfer a little weight to the front as you turned in and then you could flat-foot it ’til you got back around to that point again. Going through the third and fourth turns at Phoenix, which is kind of a sweeper, it would make you grunt. I had to hold the thing and you were loaded against the side of the cockpit and you went, ‘Phew! Phew!’ That was a lot of fun.”

Rahal brought Roger Penske up for some final comments about Hall’s achievements in motor racing.

“Jim and I go back over fifty years,” Penske said. “I think Jim was at the Mark Thomas Inn when we put that rental car in the pool. We had some fun in those days.

“They talk about Jim as a man of few words. But he was a true friend. We think about a true American racer and we’ve talked tonight about wide wheels and wide tires and downforce and you saw wings on Jim’s cars. Think about today thirty or forty years later and the genesis of everything that we’re doing today in racing might have come from Rattlesnake Raceway.

“There was always competition at Chevrolet and I’m glad that Jim mentioned Frank Winchell. We would go over to Frank’s house in Detroit and sit on his back porch and he was really almost like a father to us. We’d talk about racing and we’d talk about what we wanted to do as individuals. Both Jim and I were racing and then Jim started to build the Chaparrals and Zora Duntov was the father of the Corvette and they built the CERV2 and they wanted to bring it down to Rattlesnake Raceway to test it.

“Well, Winchell was a very competitive guy. He was the type of guy who would go through the wall because he didn’t have time to get to the door. But I remember one day we had the CERV2 there and the Chaparral, and Winchell said our car was lighter than theirs. We were worried about that back in the early days.

“Sandy should get a lot of the credit because she sat by Jim through thick and thin. I know many times it wasn’t the best day on the racetrack but the success that the Chaparral had was a lot to do with Sandy and her support of Jim. A good woman behind a man is very important.

“We recognize today that the Chaparral was one of the finest American racing cars,” Penske concluded. “It was designed and built here in America and Jim drove it. I got the opportunity to drive the Chaparral with the automatic transmission and Jim had many successes with that car. And then to win at Indianapolis and win with the ‘Yellow Submarine’ with Pennzoil on it, I think that changed the world.”

Penske is absolutely correct. Jim Hall transformed the racing world like few other men in the sport’s 120-year history. He’s a great man and we gave him a well-deserved standing ovation in Long Beach last Thursday night. Congratulations Jim on a superb career.


Check out other Dean’s Garage posts featuring Jim Hall.

  1. Gary,
    Thanks for putting the Hall story up on the site. I know there is a lot more to it. Dennis Wright , who I worked with in Overseas Studio worked with Shinoda, he showed me some sketches he had done there. One was the car that had the window in the side, no upper. He also told me about the wheel that was done for the first time that Hall used and mentioned in the article above.

    This is what he told me.
    Hall wanted a wheel that they could widen and change offset to experiment with wider tires. Larry’s studio was working on it, they had a pretty good one and were about to show the design to whoever was the intermediary between the studio and Hall in Texas. Bill Mitchell came in and saw it, before Larry could say anything Mitchel told him that Pontiac needed a special wheel and that they should send it up to Jack Humbert in Pontiac Studio.
    That turned out to be the wheel with the bolts around the outer rim with the exposed brake drum. They sold a jillion of them.

    Larry told Mitchell about Halls request and as he went out the door he said, “Make it look like a wire wheel”.

    So Larry followed Bill’s instruction and that is where the Chaparral cross laced wheel came from that was widely copied here and in Europe.on many production cars and by aftermarket manufacturers. In Chevy Two Studio we did several to successfully kill the fake wire wheel cover. The same in Cadillac Studio, we did a cross lace wheel that got them off of the fake wire wheel covers and into cast aluminum wheels. One day one of the wheel engineers came into Cadillac and told me that the wheel had been tested by the corporate wheel group that it was the strongest lightest wheel ever tested at the proving grounds.


  2. Wayne Graefen

    Highly recommend the Hall / Chaparral display room at the Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas !

  3. Norman Gaines Jr.

    As happens with so many brilliant designers, there were a few (too many?) times when too many new ideas were used at the same time, and they compromised the outcome. Talking to Phil about the 2F, he said “If we had used a manual transmission and regular batteries we could have swept the field in “67”. The automatic trans was a great idea for about three years but then became a liability that Chaparral never got past. I was lucky enough though to see the 2E, the ’78 triple Crown winning Lola, the 2K, the Trans-Am Camaro and also see Jim pilot a particularly attractive Ferrari 330LMB at Bridgehampton co-driving with Dan Gurney. Hall is quite a man, no doubt.

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