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Jim Hall Blew ‘Em Away In Paddocks, On Tracks

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 11 2012

Vic Elford races Jim Hall's Chaparral 2J during a Can Am race in the 1960s.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Jim Hall remembers the first time he saw “the look”. The one on the faces of fellow road racing competitors and race officials when he would first roll out a race car that was so thoroughly innovative that it would obviate just about everything else in the paddocks.

“The first time I saw it,” Hall said during a telephone conversation Tuesday evening, “was when we brought the high-winged 2E car to Can Am races in 1966. People looked at it and went, ‘Wow’. And then they would start to kind of grumble.”

Hall, one of the co-founders of Chaparral Cars, was confronted by that reaction a lot during his days as a sports car designer. He produced so many innovative – now iconic – machines during the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, that the way it sounds now, he almost got used to “the look”.

And the grumbles.

But apparently any hard feelings generated in the paddocks and on the tracks during those days have long-since dissipated because on Thursday night, Hall, as part of pre-race festivities at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, will be honored by his peers in the Road Racing Drivers Club by way of the RRDC Evening with Jim Hall.

No doubt the subjects of moveable wings mounted on suspensions, ground effects and the “vacuum car” will all be brought up that evening.

Hall, now 76, was formally trained as an engineer. At Cal Tech, no less. But his first interest in racing cars was the driving part. The part, he said, that was “the most fun.”

And from the sound of it, Hall kind of wishes he would be remembered more for a driving career which encompassed running everything from sports cars at places like Sebring to Formula 1 cars at places like The Nurburgring. Hall says he thinks of himself as “a pretty fair driver”.

But it was the engineering – albeit married to his experiences in the driver’s seat – that has defined Hall’s racing career.

Hall was one of the first to formally study the physics of speed and then incorporate massive amounts of engineering into the cars that he and Chaparral co-founder Hap Sharp built in the second half of the 20th Century.

“The teams that we ran against in those days, a lot of times didn’t have development engineers,” Hall, who still lives in the Chaparral-base city of Midland, Texas, said. “They had people that designed the cars and built them, but the racing teams weren’t full of engineering talent so that (the birth of Chaparral) may be about when that started.”

But that all changed. Thanks to goings-on at Chaparral.

Then, “People recognized the significance of having somebody with an engineering discipline to help the team solve the problems. In my case, it was really a good system because I was a designer, I was a driver and I was a development engineer. What ya call that is a tight feedback group.”

The 2E slotted for the Can Am Series – with its huge wing that sloped for corners and straightened out for high speed in straightways and which was mounted high above the rear wheels – was the first of the hugely innovative Chaparrals.

It was the car that gave birth to “The Look”.

“They,” Hall said of fellow competitors and officials, “would say, ‘Gosh, that may fall off an hurt us,’ or, ‘We can’t see to get around it’ or some things like that which were…interesting. The other thing we heard, and even from other designers was, ‘Well, that’s kind of a crutch that Hall must need because the car’s suspension is not very good.’ It took them a little while to figure out that that was an important system on the car.”

Really important.

“In fact, it surprised me that it wasn’t adopted by the Formula 1 people until 1968,” Hall said. “I was shocked that it took ’em two years to really absorb that and decide that they needed to do it.”

Shocked is what the paddocks were in 1970 when Hall pulled the covers off the the Chaparral 2J. Even by Hall standards, the 2J was massively innovative.

The 2J is the legendary “sucker car”. It had two engines. One to power the vehicle’s rear wheels and another, smaller two-stroke snowmobile engine to power two huge reverse fans at the rear of the car. When activated, the fans would suck air from the underside of the heavily-skirted car to create a vacuum. Sort of a hovercraft in reverse, the vacuum would suck the car downward and provide an estimated additional downforce of about 1,000 pounds.

Competitors and Can Am officials thought it just plain sucked.

“The 2J was, of course, a very, very different car,” Hall said. “It created quite a stir when it showed up. It was obvious to everybody to be quite fast because it would go through the slow turns so much faster than the other cars because it held its download through the slow corners.”

It had another characteristic, as well. One that produced the grumbles.

“It also managed to spew out some stuff out of the back of it,” Hall said. “Although I didn’t think any of it was very important – and the fans’ velocity were not such that it would pick up anything very big and throw it out the back; it would throw out dust and small particles out the back and sand and dust and small particles came off other cars, too – but I don’t think it was a huge thing.

“But that was the first thing we heard. “Oh, wow, it’s throwing all this stuff out onto the track.’ Of course all that stuff came off the track in the first place. I don’t think that was a legitimate complaint. I think that what the shock was to everybody was how fast it would actually run.”

The 2J was quickly banned because of pressure on the series from other teams and it never won a race.

That, more than 40 years down the road, still hurts Hall.

“I felt bad about it,” he said. “We put that much time and effort into it and they just immediately decided it was not legal…I had a ruling from the SCCA, who ran the American part of the Can Am Series, they looked at the rulebook, I brought them down there and showed it to them. And they looked at the rulebook and they indicated like I did, that it was legal under the rules.

“It was disappointing to me that they changed their minds with no notice. I think that bothered me more than anything. I can understand them saying, ‘You know, this is something that we think we may not want to get into and so we’re only going to allow this car to run one more season or something’ to at least give us a chance to try to make something out of our investment of time and energy and money before they banned it. But that’s not the way they handled it, so it was disappointing.”

The 2J fate was not the only disappointment Hall suffered as a designer. And North America was not the only place where he was disappointed.

“When it was disallowed at the end of the ’70 season in Can Am, I was discouraged. We did do articulated, suspension-mounted wings in 1966 and we ran ’em … for three years and we never had what you would call a catastrophic failure.  As far as I know, no one was injured, we didn’t have any real serious accidents. After the Formula 1 debacle of suspension-mounted wings, they decided it was dangerous and something we couldn’t do. I think it was a better solution than fixed aerodynamics.

“Then we went to a lot of work to get involved in international endurance racing. We took one car in 1966 and were fortunate enough to win The Nurburgring, which I’m very proud of. And then we decided to carry on and run that series. So, we built new cars and ran them in ’67 and we were quick everywhere and had we not had reliability problems, I think we would have won some more races. Toward the end of that year, I guess the Europeans decided  that they were probably mad at the Ford Motor Company (which backed the GT 40 program which won Le Mans) and took it out on us. Ford ran the big-block engines and we did the same thing (with GM power) and they changed the engine size so we couldn’t run stock-blocks anymore.

“We didn’t have a source in the United States where we could get double-overhead-cam engines so we were pretty well locked out of endurance races at the end of ’67. I felt like just about everything we’d been working on for the last five years was no longer legal. And I thought all of it was legal when we built it. So I decided it wasn’t the right sport for me and I took a couple of years off there and see if I wanted to do something else.”

Hall did return, of course. And more innovation followed. Even at the pinnacle of American racing when portions of the ground effects concept that he pioneered with the 2J found their way to the Indianapolis 500. In 1980, the first of the CART cars with ground effects – with a shaped underbody and side skirts – won the 500 with Johnny Rutherford driving.

He, and the renamed Jim Hall Racing, would compete until 1996, when he retired for good.

Clearly, Hall and his innovative mind would not be welcomed to sports car paddocks or, especially, NASCAR garages in these times. Today, with rules locked down but good and with innovation all but banned from racing, Hall would be a pariah.

And that, some people say, is a bummer. Those people say that innovation is one of the foundations which auto racing was built on and that innovation is what attracted some people into the sport in the first place.

Hall is one of those people. Obviously.

But, Hall also, reluctantly, admits that there are reasons that racing series have tightened up the rule book to the point of suffocation of innovation.

The first is the desire to keep the competition close. By doing that, those who run racing series seem to believe, the interest level will benefit.

The second is cost. Innovation does come with big price tags.

But while understanding that those are the reasons, Hall does not think the reasons are completely valid.

“That doesn’t seem to work,” Hall said. “The teams that have the money, spend the money. They’re going to spend it on something.

“I think that’s what they’re trying to do but it’s taken some interest away from it. The cars look pretty much the same and there hasn’t been any real breakthroughs in a long time. I don’t know if nobody’s thought of a breakthrough or whether that’s the way organizers decided to run races.”

Even if Hall was not going to be in Long Beach for the street races there this weekend, it’s unlikely he would be in his home state of Texas watching the NASCAR races at Texas Motor Speedway.

“I couldn’t get to excited about NASCAR,” he said. “It’s a bit like socialism in that if you build a little better car, they penalize you for it. I don’t think I’d like that.”

What many older fans do like is what Hall, Sharp and Chaparral contributed to the lore of automobile racing.

And what they contributed makes Hall rightfully proud.

“I think it is interesting that kind of a smaller team from the hinterlands could come up with some stuff and be competitive in a worldwide sport,”  he said. “And it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it a lot.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 11 2012
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