Today, to make a name in the turbulent world of sports car racing, a man must be able to forget yesterday and think constantly of tomorrow. He must be willing to leave his comfortable old ideas behind and wander boldly into the forbidding land of trial and error, where the latest Fords and Ferraris howl and little Porsches shriek in the night. In the far-out province where these futuristic creatures abound, the living is hard and the odds are poor, but the fruits of victory are very sweet.
In the short time that he has been contending with the monsters of tomorrow, James Hall (see cover), sports car designer, builder and driver of Midland, Texas, has fared quite well with his own rare breed of car called the Chaparral. Hall has survived among the monsters because he not only has the nerve to take giant steps but also has the brains to recognize an inch of progress even when it is well hidden in the rubble of failure.
In Mosport, Ont., two and a half years ago, while racing one of the first Chaparrals that he conceived, built and cared for in sickness and in health, Hall hit an oil slick and committed a slight pilot error. The car he was driving at the time, like all Chaparrals, was designed, hopefully, to hold the road—indeed, the name Chaparral derives from the little desert bird that runs lickety-split and seldom takes to the air. Despite its name and the ambitions Hall had for it, at Mosport the Chaparral sailed off the course into the air, taking part of the guardrail and leaving one of its wheels behind. After doing a loop and flying about as far as the Wright brothers' plane did on its first try, the Chaparral came back to earth, on top of Hall.
Fragments of the Chaparral body were scattered about. The engine and the ancillary guts of the throbbing beast were a tangled mess. Hall's left arm was broken. It was a costly failure on the part of Hall the driver but, in a strange way, quite a triumph for Hall the designer. Although most of the car was a shambles, the chassis, the one bold, new concept that Hall had incorporated in that Chaparral, was hardly damaged at all.
April 30, 1967
The unique chassis of the Chaparral is a multiple-box fiber glass affair that defies description using accepted design terms. Stripped bare, the chassis looks like the handiwork of a mad shipwright who could not decide whether he was building a catamaran or a swimming float. The Chaparral chassis was in fact made by a Fort Worth boatbuilder named Andrew Green, who has had considerable experience producing improbable-looking configurations for high-speed planes. Before the Mosport crash there were automotive engineers who considered such a light, boxy structure inadequate for a racing car that might run amuck. Anyone still having doubts about the torsional rigidity, the strength-to-weight ratio and whatnot of the Chaparral chassis need only look at its record. Although the other parts of the car have long since traveled their last mile, the chassis that flew at Mosport is still going. The same chassis was used in the Chaparral that won the 12-hour ordeal at Sebring two years ago. It was in the car that won the 1,000-kilometer run at N√ºrburgring a year ago, and it ran again at Sebring this year.
It is said that, deep down inside, many of the folk who flock to car races are thrill-seekers. At the annual Indianapolis car-bashing this may be so. At sports car events, probably it is not. Sports car enthusiasts do not love disaster. They love sports cars. They love foreign and domestic cars, production models and prototypes, front engines and rear engines. They love every sports car from the lowliest little one-liter Humbug to the biggest full-throated Webley-Vickers that Walter Mitty and Jimmy Thurber ever drove. James Hall of Midland, Texas is a special hero on the circuit not because he sails off the track now and again but because he is forever doing something different and exciting to the bodies and guts of his racing creations.
It is hard for a real buff to keep up with Hall and his shifty Chaparrals. The engines of the Chaparrals keep getting bigger and the suspension trickier. From one model to the next, the auxiliary components keep changing and moving around. In the latest Chaparrals, crammed into the space of an ordinary street sedan, there is enough wiring, ducting, plumbing and linkage to operate a mechanized brontosaurus. The bodies of Hall's cars, like women's fashions, change frequently and outlandishly. The Chaparral that won at Sebring in 1965—a modified sports car designated Model 2—looked like a wide, low hospital bed with a small steam calliope mounted aft. The most recent Chaparral, a prototype that will be troubling the Fords and Ferraris in Europe this spring and summer, is slick forward and dumpy behind. This prototype Chaparral is the oddest looking of Hall's creations, since it carries a wing up in the air over its after section. Hall calls his winged prototype "Model 2F." Wags at trackside call it "the Surrey-in-a-Hurry with the wing on top." When the esthetics of his cars are picked at, in smiling defense Hall says, "I do not see how you can call a thing ugly if it does what it is supposed to do." To be sure, many funny-looking creatures—chimpanzees, for example—are very acceptable simply because they have winning ways. When it first caught sight of a Chaparral, the French Journal de L'Homme du XX[e] Si√®cle called it le monstre. After the Chaparral had won a few big races, l'Homme referred to it as le petit oiseau. True beauty, as the old saying goes, lies in the eyes of the man who knows a winner when he sees it.
More than a dozen years ago there were a few large, sporty cars—notably the Cadillac-Allard—that lumbered around road courses with automatic transmissions. But over the years the stick shift has so dominated road racing that in 1964, when Hall won the fourth event of the American Championship series at Laguna Seca, nobody noticed anything unusual about his Chaparral. A week later, in the fifth race of the series in Kent, Wash., before the fuel pump of the front-running Chaparral failed. Driver Dave MacDonald, the eventual winner, did realize that rival Hall never took his hands from the wheel even when coming out of the slowest turn. MacDonald died three weeks later in the Indianapolis 500, but not before spreading the word. A week after Indianapolis, while the Chaparral was going through prerace inspection in Mosport, Ont., a rival driver, Dan Gurney, was stooped over at the rear end of the Hall car, trying to have a look.
"Are you using an automatic gearbox?" Gurney asked.
"I'm not going to tell you," said Hall, smiling.
During prerace practice, drivers and mechanics gathered at the hairpin turn on the Mosport course, listening as Hall accelerated up the straight. "What is it?" they asked after practice.
"You ought to be able to tell by listening," said Hall, smiling.
Drivers sidled up to the Chaparral mechanics, asking, "How does it work?"
"It works real keen." the Chaparral mechanics replied.
Curious fans pumped Driver Roger Penske, who often drove another Chaparral that year. "Can you downshift the Chaparral manually?" the buffs frequently asked.
After taking a deep and thoughtful breath, Penske would reply, "You don't have to downshift manually when it isn't necessary. But, of course, if it were possible, you could."
There has been much written about Hall's mysterious transmission, about how it used switch-pitch vanes and about how it does not use switch-pitch vanes, and so forth, but after three years of speculation and rumor, for all anyone really knows, the Chaparral gearbox may be full of nonhardening peanut butter. "Some write what they think it is," Hall says enigmatically, "and some write that they know what it is, but nobody has written down what it is." Using the automatic transmission, Hall won the U.S. Road Racing title in 1964 and had the best overall record again in '65, although he lost the title that year on a quirk in the scoring system. Despite the record he has made with the transmission, there are rivals who pooh-pooh it. They dismiss it with a wave of the hand, but it bugs them. When the Chaparral transmission is mentioned in their presence, some of the pooh-poohers sprout ears like Pinocchio.
In the dictionary of platitudes there are only two kinds of Texans. There are tall, thin-waisted, soft-spoken, good-looking Texans and there are flamboyant Texas oil millionaires. Thirty-one-year-old Jim Hall is everything that both kinds of Texans are supposed to be except flamboyant. While he has no objection to being known as the heir of an oilman who insisted that his three sons continue successfully, Hall grieves that his wealth is often considered the all-important ingredient in the Chaparral. Because the three shareholders of Chaparral—Hall, his brother Chuck and his crony James (Hap) Sharp—are all oilmen, published stories about Chaparral begin, typically: "Jim Hall, his brother Chuck and their buddy Hap Sharp have money. Lots of it. They also love motor racing, and because they have money..." Both Hall and Sharp are sensitive about the implications, sometimes protesting too much rather than simply letting the feeble fact crawl off into a corner where it belongs.
Building and racing Chaparrals is costly, but for every $10 spent today the Chaparral company is getting back about $9 in prize money, design royalties, consultant and test fees, advertising and merchandising. Someday there may be Chaparrals for sale to lovers of the breed who can afford $10,000 for one. For those who cannot wait, there are already Chaparral T shirts available for $1.50. Anyone with a cash-register mind who is dismayed by the present fiscal state of Chaparral should realize that losing is a common habit in the racing game. Both of the sports car kingpins, Henry the Second of Ford and Enzo, Lord of Ferrari, lose money at the track.
Hall also grieves because Chaparral Cars of Texas is often linked with General Motors, a Michigan outfit that puts out its own line of cars. The harshest published accounts suggest that Hall and Sharp are only front men who come downstairs every Christmas to find a new, gift-wrapped Chaparral with all the latest doodads engineered by General Motors. For sure, in every Chaparral there is some of the genius of General Motors, notably the Chevrolet engine. But then Hall and Sharp depend on more than 30 established suppliers and fly-by-nighters. Sandra Hall, pretty wife of Jim Hall, makes the Chaparral seat paddings, so quite literally it can be said that Driver-Designer Hall has been riding all this time on his wife's efforts. Even Hall's dog, a Doberman pinscher named Mark, supposedly earns his living guarding the Chaparral premises in Midland. Although he is the size of a quarter horse and awesome-looking, Mark, the noble Chaparral watchdog, has badly jangled nerves. To get past Mark, all a trespasser has to do is make a noise like a soft-drink machine. The Coke dispenser in the Chaparral workshop sets Mark on edge. At the first roar of a Chaparral engine, he takes off for El Paso. If General Motors had a very large stake in Chaparral, you can bet your life there would be an emotionally stable human watchman around who would not try to crawl under sofas during thunderstorms. Indeed, if any large corporation had a consuming interest in Chaparral, there would be not only a watchman on the Chaparral premises but also a Division Chief, an Assistant Division Chief, several Subdivision Chiefs, Section Chiefs, Executive Assistants and all kinds of human deadweight. At Chaparral, including Jim Hall, there are 15 workers, who all seem to know what they are doing 25 hours a day. At Chaparral you can tell the relative importance of each man on a given day by the amount of dirt on his clothes and the size of the bags under his eyes.
Automotive know-it-alls suspect that General Motors is the hidden genius of Chaparral largely because it seems improbable that a car of such international distinction could be produced by oilmen in Midland, Texas. The city of Midland is certainly an improbable place. Eighty-six years ago it was a construction camp on the Texas and Pacific Railroad. The town might have died when the Texas and Pacific gandy dancers left, except that it happened to be situated on good groundwater, almost dead center in what turned out to be one of the largest oil basins in North America. Travel folders recklessly describe the Midland topography as "gently rolling." If the late Queen Isabella of Spain had ever passed that way she would have exclaimed, "That boob Columbus! The world is flat." To reach the Chaparral car company, you take State Highway 349 south from Midland. After you pass a cotton field the size of Rhode Island and the Cotton Flat Baptist Church there is nothing left except the horizon and Chaparral Cars, a quadrangle of small buildings that looks like an outlying defense against Comanches. There is a sign on the gate that brags, "Beware of the Dog." Inside the Chaparral plant there is a dynamometer as well as milling, grinding and cutting machinery and plastic-fabricating equipment—all in all, little more than there is in many small, nondescript mills and motor shops around the country. Many parts of the Chaparral are made there, and, more important, ideas are born there and tested on a two-mile road course that winds behind the buildings.
In 1912, before there was oil or any big industry in Midland, a local blacksmith named John Pliska built and flew an aeroplane. Pliska used a motor made, not by General Motors, but by a Sandusky, Ohio firm called Roberts, and he used benzine fuel shipped to him in five-gallon cans, not from Detroit, but from a now-forgotten alchemist in New York City. There is no Pliska Plane Company in Midland today, because Blacksmith Pliska was too much a borrower and not enough of an innovator. By the time he got his mid-engine biplane pusher into the air, it was a dodo. The Wrights and Glenn Martin were already flying two-seaters, and Blériot, the doughty Frenchman, was hopping the English Channel in a front-engine, mid-wing speedster.
Like Pliska, Jim Hall started as a borrower, racing foreign cars. Dissatisfied both with the machines and the service he got from abroad, Hall decided to have his own car designed and built in California. The first model Chaparral—now known as Model 1—was trustworthy but almost a dodo by the time it got on the track. As Hall described it two years ago in a talk before the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, "In the creation of Chaparral 1, there wasn't a single major innovation. It was a relatively light, large-displacement V-8 in a lightweight space frame with all-independent suspension. When it had been sufficiently developed to be reliable, it was somewhat obsolete"
There is a Chaparral car company in Midland today because Hall and Hap Sharp wanted something they could not get for love or money: a car good enough for tomorrow. In their determination to build a car that was light, powerful, clean and structurally sound, they rejected many conventional automotive ideas and wandered afar, specifically into the realms of aeronautical engineering and pure aerodynamics. (It is worth noting that General Motors men were among those who were at first skeptical about the lightweight chassis co-designed by Hall, Sharp and Fabricator Andrew Green of Fort Worth.) The original body used with the revolutionary light chassis of Chaparral Model 2 was a borrowed design that purportedly had been tested in wind tunnels by Detroit experts. With this design, the Chaparral 2 tended to take off the ground when traveling a mere 120 miles an hour. Thereafter Hall and Sharp stopped borrowing. The elevated wing of the present cars is merely the latest of many steps Hall and Sharp have taken to give the ever-faster Chaparrals a better hold on the road. Spoilers, air brakes and wings have been tried on racing machines before, but the present adjustable Chaparral wing, elevated so that it is not trammeled by the boundary layer of air boiling over the car body, is by far the most efficient. It is an asset, not a chancy gimmick, largely because it does serve as a wing, not merely as a spoiler. It also helps for another reason that has so far eluded rivals, although any engineer of Hall's competence could catch on quickly if he read the right books.
The most valuable asset of the Chaparral today, without any doubt, is Jim Hall, who has an engineering degree from Cal Tech and has also learned by driving thousands of hot and uncomfortable miles on the roaring road. Hall is both a competent theorist and a man with a practical eye. In the 12-hour race at Sebring this spring Hall expected to manage the Chaparral campaign from the pit, while veteran Phil Hill and Mike Spence of England drove the new Chaparral 2F. When Phil Hill was hospitalized with appendicitis the day before the race, Hall took his place. For seven hours Spence and Hall played chase-tail with Mario Andretti and Bruce McLaren in Ford's big, yellow Mark IV. Alas, alack, in the eighth hour, the mysterious, magical gearbox of the Chaparral started smoking like a damp campfire, and the villainous yellow Ford went on to win. But before their Chaparral went out, both Spence and Hall were lapping faster than Andretti and McLaren. Whatever other distinctions it deserves. Chaparral of Texas is certainly the only motor company in the world that has a combined President-Chairman-of-the-Board-Executive-Director-Design-Chief-Production-Supervisor who can also get behind the wheel and outscorch Mario Andretti.
This year for the first time there will be two of the latest Chaparrals in the 24-hour race at Le Mans and at least one Chaparral in each of the remaining races in the international series. Like the Fords and Ferraris, in any race the Chaparrals can be plagued by all the ordinary gremlins. Assuming that in each international race there are at least four Fords and four Ferraris of equal competence, the Chaparrals do not have much of a chance. There is more than simple mathematics involved in the odds. A four-car team can send out two fast "rabbits" and let its other two entries hang back. The small Chaparral team has to run with the rabbits and hope to last to the checkered flag.
Recently, contemplating how the Chaparrals might fare in Europe this season, Hall said, "We have got to rebuild the car someday so that it is as durable as the power plant it now has. It looks as if the brakes are going to make it, but we are having some transmission trouble and some axle trouble. The design approach was advanced enough so that it has maintained a certain advantage to this day. But we have carried over a lot of mistakes, so that there is now a lot of useless weight and waste. What we really need at this point is a new design based on what we know now. It is time for us to step back with a new piece of paper and start over." For Hall of Chaparral the present is merely a necessary pit stop on the road to tomorrow.