Jim Hall was born on the 23rd of July, 1935 in Abilene, Texas, the 2nd of three sons. Hall spent his early years growing up in New Mexico where he first caught the four-wheel bug. While still only fourteen he acquired a 1929 Model A Ford which he modified and rebuilt into a hot rod.
At 17 he was married and soon had two children of his own. Just a month before Hall was to enter the prestigious California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, his world was turned upside down when his father, a Texas oilman, along with his wife and daughter were killed in an airplane crash. It was decided that Hall would continue with his schooling while his brothers would run the business.
Initially majoring in geology he changed his focus to mechanical engineering, finally graduating in 1957. In 1954 Hall’s older brother Dick was also interested in racing and together they went to a race in New Mexico. On a lark Hall entered his brother’s car in the Novice race. Though he dropped out Hall was bitten by the racing bug. The brothers vowed to buy a proper racing car and the following year they traveled to Dallas, to noted sports car dealer, Allen Guiberson intent on buying a Porsche 550 but instead they left with a 3-litre Ferrari Monza 750S. It soon became obvious that within the Hall family it was Jim that had the racing gene.
In 1957 Hall, along with his brother Dick, joined fellow Texan Carroll Shelby in running his Dallas sports car dealership. Shelby at the time was an avid racer and the business definitely took a back seat to his racing activities. The dealership never made a lot of money but it did expose Hall to a wide range of European sports cars, many of which had raced on the tracks in Europe. One that particularly caught caught his attention was a Maserati 450S that Hall bought.
Once he had the crankshaft balanced the car was a joy to drive according to Hall. In 1958 Jim Hall met John “Hap” Sharp who would go on to be his partner at Chaparral. Sharp and Hall were both racing at a local race in Fort Worth, Texas. Hall took the opportunity to sell Sharp two sports cans and Sharp became a regular visitor as well as customer at the Shelby dealership. His nickname came from the fact that he was born on the 1st of January and thus was a “Happy New Year” baby. Sharp was indeed a successful oilman and owned Sharp Oil. He had started racing boats before moving to dry land. Hall ended his partnership with Shelby in 1958.
“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!” Jim Hall – As told to Gordon Kirby at Racemaker Press
In 1961, asked Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes, who had built Scarabs for Lance Raventlow to work with him on a new American made sports car like the ones raced in Europe, Hall was by then an avid racer, having driven a wide range of cars in SCCA events and knew exactly what he wanted, European handing but American powered, preferable a V8.
The result was the first Chaparral 1, a front engined car with a a tube frame, independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and powered by a small block Chevy engine. The car was small and light: weighing in at just 1,479 pounds, and 15 inches shorter than the Scarab. Their initial idea was that they could sell the car in quantity to other privateers but soon gave up on this idea, not wanting to have their efforts diluted by having to support customer cars.
McLaren would later solve this problem by licensing Trojan Limited to build their customer cars. It was a difference in the two teams approach that would always effect the Chaparral’s success but perhaps it’s just as well. Jim Hall never again built a simple car.
Hall tested the prototype at Riverside in 1961 and came within three seconds of defeating Dan Gurney’s lap record, it was a promising start for the new race car. At Laguna Seca in June, his first actual race with the car, Hall finished 2nd overall and would’ve finished first if a valve rocker hadn’t failed on him. After some moderate success Hall decided to build his own car.
In 1962 Jim Hall, his other brother Chuck and Hap Sharp formed Chaparral Cars, Inc. in Midland Texas, Sharp’s hometown and a former construction camp on the Texas and Pacific Railroad. The small team with chief mechanic Franz Weis, ace fabricator Troy Rogers and engine man Gary Knutson immediately began the design and construction of the Chaparral 2. Hall’s design ideas were fed by several outside influences. He was a big fan of the race cars coming out of Lotus if not Chapman’s business practices.
Hall was also intrigued by the new Corvair coming from General Motors. He decided that his new car would be mid-engined as well with an aerospace inspired semi-monocoque fiberglass chassis. The Chaparral 2 was one of the first race cars to be built on a lightweight, torsionally stiff, fiberglass unit-body chassis. The creator of this remarkable chassis was Port Arthur-born structural engineer Andy Green, who was working with pioneering applications of composite materials on airplane and boat structures. Green received the request to build the chassis from Sharp who knew of his work from racing boats.
Sharp and Hall asked Green how much lighter he could make the chassis, and he set a 150-pound goal. Next, they asked him if he could make the chassis as stiff as the Cooper’s. When Green asked them how stiff its chassis was, they didn’t have an answer. Green’s solution to determine the chassis’ torsional rigidity was a simple but revolutionary test — an automotive industry-first approach, essential in the engineering of today’s passenger cars.
“I told them they had to bolt one end to a wall and twist the other end — apply torque — and get the spring rate,” he said. The result was about 750 foot-pounds. Green said he could improve that number by four times. Sharp and Hall wanted him to use aluminum in the process, but Green said construction with epoxy resins and woven glass cloth was more feasible.
The chassis clearly met the weight requirements, but when it was mounted for the torque test, Green said he began to “crunch up.” He had not tested it and had only performed an analysis based on what he knew. “We wound it up and it was better than promised,” he said. “It was 3,100 and some odd — over four times stiffer.” Hall put the Chaparral through rigorous tests, and there were no chassis problems.
The Chaparral 2C introduced in 1965 used a semiautomatic transmission with the clutch replaced by a three-stage torque converter. This transmission — a well-kept secret — was Sharp’s idea, and implemented by engineer Frank Winchell of Chevrolet research and development. This allowed for an integrated spoiler/wing that was operated by the driver’s left foot. Jim Hall’s relationship with Winchell had been a fruitful one for both parties with Chaparral assisting the GM engineer in testing several of his classified projects including the Corvair mid-engine car as well as giving Hall’s team access to GM’s wind tunnel.
While this was going on Jim Hall had what could only be called a Formula 1 interlude. The Formula 1 stint came after he had bought a Lotus 21 from Jack Brabham and entered the non-championship Mexican Grand Prix.
He qualified 10th and placed 4th. A call from Ken Gregory, ex-manager for Stirling Moss how had set up his British Racing Partnership with Alfred Moss, Stirling Dad.
The offer was for a Formula 1 seat next to Innes Ireland which Hall promptly accepted. Success did not come to Hall in Formula 1. Coming from America he was never fully accepted by the F1 fraternity and never was able to develop his car. Innes Ireland for his part made sure he kept the best engines for himself except for one race in Austria. There Hall had access to one of Ireland’s fuel injected models with which he promptly qualified 3rd ahead of his more experienced teammate. It was the last time Ireland allowed the American to have one of his engines. Jim Hall left after one full season in Formula 1 and returned to America and his Chaparral sports cars. Hall was never one to dwell on what could have been, he looked at his time in Formula 1 as a valuable experience but now it was time to get serious.
Jim Hall was a founder and charter member of the West Texas Region of the SCCA in the 1950s. He was a competitor in club races which lead him to become an international competitor of some note. His early involvement led him to later become an entrant and constructor where he brought great attention to SCCA by becoming the leading innovator in race car designs, first in USRRC and later in Can-Am.
People remember the single win during all the years that they competed in Can-Am but they forget that Hall’s Chaparrals were the cars to beat in the USRRC series from 1964-65. We all think of his innovations primarily as aerodynamic but it’s so much more than that: materials, ground effects, tires, transmissions and data acquisition. Putting this all together to make for some really fast cars. During this time he built a two-mile road course just outside his shop in Midland for testing purposes and made the track available to the regions for club races. The track was named for the slithering reptiles that infested the track, Rattlesnake Raceway.
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. Racing in Europe took some of the resources that could have been applied to their Can-Am effort but as Hall would later remark that Hap Sharp wanted to compete against the Fords and Ferrari’s of the world and that Sharp was his partner as well as his friend.
“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!’” Jim Hall – Motorsport Magazine
For all Jim Hall’s racing endeavors; in the Can-Am Series, European endurance racing on tracks from Le Mans to the Targa Florio and even to Indy Cars. Chaparral never lacked innovation.
What may have been lacking is the firm hand of someone like a Teddy Mayer who understood to be successful in racing you needed first to be successful in business. After the banning of the Chaparral 2J Jim Hall turned his back on Can-Am. His innovations outstripped the ability of the sanctioning bodies to keep up. He stepped away for a few years but came back as a driver in some Trans Am events.
In 1974 He was asked by Carl Haas to manage and prepare a car for the Formula 5000 series. The car was a Lola 332 to be driven by Brian Redman. Being relieved of having to finance the effort and the strain of building a car Jim Hall flourished in his new role.
“Jim was very conservative,” Brian told me recently, “and he hated to change anything before a race.” By contrast, the team’s co-owner, Lola distributor Carl Haas, had an approach that relied on magic: He had a ritual of touching each corner of the car just before the race. “It was a little strange…but the Lola almost never broke down.” Hall’s longtime chief mechanic, Franz Weis as told to R&T
The Haas / Hall partnership produced three straight F5000 titles and a lot of fond memories for Jim Hall. The competition in F5000 was fierce with Mario Andretti their main rival but F5000 did not have the prominence of the Can-Am series but after the F5000 series ended he returned to limelight as a team owner in CART and Champ Car Racing winning the 1978 Indianapolis 500 with a Chaparral prepared Lola driven by Al Unser.
For 1979 Jim Hall decided to build its own Indy car, the John Barnard designed Chaparral 2K. The car had a conventional bonded and riveted aluminum monocoque chassis. The new Chaparral was powered by a Cosworth-built 2.65 litre V8 engine. Equipped with a single turbocharger, it produced in excess of 700 bhp. Following Chapman’s Lotus ground effects the car was fitted with full length moveable skirts.
The narrow engine and gearbox allowed the ground effect tunnels to run all the way to the integrally mounted rear wing. Al Unser lead that year’s Indianapolis 500 from the outside pole until the Chaparral’s transmission failed. In 1980 Johnny Rutherford won both the Indianapolis 500 and the USAC and CART National Championships in the 2K.