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Jim Hall made sure his cars stuck to the track

November 20, 2006|by MALCOLM GUNN / Wheelbase Communications

Jim Hall found out the hard way that if the rules of racing can't be broken, they can certainly be used to thwart creative thinking.

This axiom applied to one of lanky Texan's most ambitious - and controversial - race cars, the Chaparral 2J. This was one of a series of cars he designed and constructed over a 20-year period, most of which broke with the conventional wisdom of their day.

With the Chaparral 2J, Hall had devised the ingenious way of creating downforce by adding two rear-mounted fans. These were connected by an auxiliary snowmobile engine that ingested air from underneath the car, just like a vacuum cleaner. As a result, the "sucker car," as it was nicknamed, was able to corner at much faster speeds than anything else on the track, despite the fact that it resembled a brick on wheels.

The 2J appeared in a few Can Am races in 1970 and was slowly being sorted out when series officials declared it to be illegal. The car was banned from competition.

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It always bothered Hall that his creation, as well as other engineering innovations he developed, were similarly outlawed. To his way of thinking, racing was as much about innovation and experimentation as it was about simply driving fast.

Hall, a native of Abilene, Tex., had taken up racing as a student at the California Institute of Technology and began driving his brother's Austin-Healey at age 19 in local club races. After graduating with an engineering degree, he returned to his home state to work in the family oil-exploration business. Hall also continued to hone his skill as a racing driver to a point where, by the early 1960s, he was competing in some pretty sophisticated machinery, including the famous Maserati Tipo 61 "Birdcage."

Hall also dabbled in other types of race cars, and in 1960 cobbled together an older rear-engined Lotus and competed in his first Formula One event. He finished seventh. Hall would eventually compete in the full 1963 F1 season, but by then he was already building and testing his own Chevrolet-powered road course cars and he decided to devote all of his time to that pursuit.

Along with partner Hap Sharp, Hall developed his first front-engine race car in 1962. In his inaugural year as a constructor, he and the Chaparral (named after a bird commonly found near his home town) managed to win some big races, beating some equally big names in the process. The next season, Hall was back with a new Chaparral 2, a beautifully designed mid-engine machine that proved to be even more successful than the original.

It was while testing the Chaparral 2 that Hall discovered the importance of downforce in keeping a race car glued to the track. As a result, he designed the front end of the car with a prominent lower scoop that worked to reduce lift and keep the car planted in the turns and more stable in the straightaways.

By 1966, Hall came up with the outrageous-looking Chaparral 2E to compete in the no-holds-barred Can Am series. The 2E sported a giant adjustable wing perched high above the rear wheels. In a straight line, the wing was left in a neutral attitude, but for cornering it could be angled downward so that the air pushed on it, adding weight for more grip (and speed) in the corners.

The wing adjustment was activated by a floor pedal positioned where the clutch would normally be. The Chaparral's automatic transmission (another Hall innovation) freed up the driver's left foot for this duty.

Soon, wings began to sprout up on all kinds of race cars, including some of the silliest-looking of all in Grand Prix competition. Unfortunately, many of these poorly attached appendages began to fail and snap off with disastrous consequences, resulting in their ultimate banishment. But the effectiveness of downforce as an integral part of a race car's aerodynamics had been proven, and Jim Hall had shown the way.

Following an accident in Las Vegas, Nev., in 1968, Hall eventually retired from active racing, but switched to the role of open-wheel car builder and team owner. In 1978, with Al Unser handling the driving duties, the team won a number of races, including the 1978 Indianapolis 500. In the off-season, Hall returned to designing ground effects, although not of the vacuum cleaner variety that had been tried earlier. This time, downforce was created through the aerodynamic shaping of the underside of the car. The concept had been introduced earlier by Lotus designer Colin Chapman, but Hall made improvements and went on to dominate the Indy car series, including another Indy 500 victory, for the next few years.

After the 1982 season, Hall retired from racing only to be lured back by one of his former corporate sponsors in 1990. But by this time, it wasn't Chevy-powered Chaparrals, but a Reynard chassis with Honda power he was working with, and the rule book had been rewritten to exclude the weird, the unusual and the experimental. Six years later, 60-year-old Jim Hall called it a day.

In one form or another, many of the ideas pioneered by this talented driver, engineer, designer and boundary-buster have made auto racing not only faster, but, with more inherent vehicle stability, safer as well.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and automotive history writer.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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