Jim Hall Visits Road America
by Don Anderson
If you’ve never heard of Jim Hall and his remarkable Chaparrals you’ve been really sheltered. He came upon the sports car scene in the early sixties with the fastest American sports racing car since the Scarab, and he called it Chaparral. We lucky pioneers of the Chicago Region saw him come to Elkhart Lake in 1962 and whip us good at the June sprints and the big Road America 500 beating our Ferraris, Maseratis, and even our beloved Augie Pabst and Harry Heuer. That first car was built for him by Troutman & Barnes in California. And soon Harry Heuer had to have one too. But Hall was not just a hot driver with a bank account but an astute mechanical engineer who didn’t look back, he looked forward-way forward.
The future called for rear-engined racing cars. From Formula One to Indy and even the sports cars. We needed an American challenger to British Coopers and Lotuses and the Italian Ferraris. (And this was before Porsche was an overall threat). So Jim Hall designed and built the first successful American chassis with an American Chevrolet V-8 to fight off the big foreign manufacturers. This was called the Chaparral 2. It was an all epoxy resin fibreglass tub, strong and light. So reliable that it was the first American car to win the 12 hours of Sebring in 1965. So innovative that it ran with a clutchless, so-called automatic transmission. That summer we saw it at our own Road America again and win the 500. The two car team of Jim Hall and his partner Hap Sharp was so far ahead of third place, timing and scoring lost track of which car won; car 65 or 66.
It was this car, restored perfectly back to its 1965 appearance that the 65 year-old Hall stormed around a lap of Road America Sunday. I only wish they’d have let him get a full chat run down the main straight though. He also brought us three other lovely and famous Chaparrals to gaze upon. Each one unique and innovative. The Chaparral 2E from 1966, the CanAm car that has a high wing mounted over the rear axle which moves in the airstream as the driver needs drag. Everybody started to copy this one. Even today, the big quarter-mile dragsters use a high rear mounted wing. The outlaw sprint cars have big ugly wings on top of their roll cages and probably the rear wings on all the formula one and Indy cars can trace their roots to that first winged Chaparral in 1966. Third on display was the 2F coupe. One of the cars that went to Europe to win LeMans in 1967. Ford got that one with Mr. Foyt and Gurney but this 2F won at Brands Hatch in the B.O.A.C. 500km. This car had a big aluminum 427. And it was so well preserved it still had the original Firestones from ’67. That’s what he told me. Thank God he didn’t drive that one!
Now the fourth car we admired that fine hot, humid day was the most controversial of all his Chaparrals, the 2J, affectionately known as the vacuum or “sucker car”. I call it the “fan car”. This was the ultimate in Ground Effects design. Even though it had a huge 427 punched out to 494 cubes to drive the rear wheels, you couldn’t see ‘em. The entire car aft of the front wheels was boxed in by Lexan skirts scraping the ground. This produced a controlled area for Mr. Hall’s little auxiliary snowmobile engine which powered fans at the back of the car. When it worked, it sucked the air out from under the car so well, The great Jackie Stewart (hired to pilot this beast) exclaimed it was the fastest cornering car he’s ever driven. Jim’s chief mechanic Troy Rogers was on hand and told me if they had a curved ramp to climb up, it could probably drive across the ceiling. Now that’s Down Force! Of course it scared the competition so much they voted to outlaw it. I guess those other CanAm drivers didn’t like the idea of having the track cleaned right in front of them. And that was before full-face helmets too.
The big CanAm race was won by George Follmer who was also announcing that day his retirement from driving these beasts. He didn’t miss the chance at the microphone to remind our guest Grand Marshall Jim of the 1965 USRRC upset when SCCA somehow gave under three litre cars the same points as overall winners and thereby knocking Jim from the big trophy that year. Jim said “I remember that very well. I remember that!” George pretended to apologize for bringing it up.
That was about it for the day. A few more vintage races were scheduled. A huge fierce rain cloud blew in and scared most everyone away. Jim Hall and George Follmer and Brian Redman and Augie Pabst and John Weinberger, all my favorite heroes in one day. I couldn’t take any more myself. Strike the tent.
Jim Hall is 66 on July 23 2001. Happy birthday, Jim. Thanks for making it so great! Come back anytime!