Honored and revered by the auto racing fraternity as he is, Jim Hall is the sort of competitor who is satisfied by nothing short of victory. When his rookie driver, Gil de Ferran, presented him with a win in the last race of 1995 at Laguna Seca, Indy car owner Hall felt not only satisfied but justified for the gamble he took by retaining the young, aggressive Brazilian driver.
Typical of Hall, he took no time out to reflect on the "rookie of the year" performance of de Ferran, as he was already immersed in plans for a better season in 1996. Hall elected to change engine manufacturers to Honda, a power plant that appears to have an edge over other makes. He began testing immediately to assure a successful year with a Pennzoil Indy car comprised of a Reynard chassis and a Honda engine. An important part of that preparation was the upgrading of the Hall Racing crew, which had already proven to be one of the best in the sport.
A year earlier, a panel of judges representing thousands of his colleagues in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers presented Hall with what amounted to a lifetime achievement award -- the Soichiro Honda trophy. It was one more sign of recognition that Jim Hall has been one of the significant innovators during the first century of American auto racing.
Recognition came in another form in 1990 when Pennzoil persuaded Hall to return to Indy car racing after an absence of eight years. After an auspicious re-entry into Indy car racing that began with a victory in Australia in 1991, Hall became one of the most competitive car owners on the circuit. Continuing into his sixth year of IndyCar action, he's determined to make the combination of a Reynard chassis, Mercedes Benz engine, sensational young rookie driver Gil de Ferran of Brazil and one of the circuit's finest mechanical crews into a factor in the 1995 championship race.
The man who made the name Chaparral famous from the winding roads of the Nurburgring to the high speed turns of Indianapolis still arouses the same excitement in the grandstands as he did as a driver and a designer — a veritable genius of speed.
Born in Texas in 1935 and raised in Colorado and New Mexico, young Jim Hall was a student at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., when he started driving his brother's Austin Healey sports car at weekend road races in 1954.
That led to the purchase of a state-of-the-art modified sports car from the best builders in the business in 1961, but the results didn't satisfy him. Hall set up his own race car building operation. Thus was born Chaparral Cars of Midland, Texas.
During the years from 1963, when the first Chaparral 2 was built, to 1970, Hall's engineering genius with enthusiastic help from General Motors technicians turned out a series of dramatic race car inventions that have left a lasting impact on the sport of motor racing.
First came the ultra-light chassis, which some called the all-plastic car, but which was a chassis built completely of reinforced fiberglass. Then Hall staggered his competition with a high-mounted wing that rode horizontal down the straightaways but was tilted down in the turns when the driver released a pedal, giving him extra downforce in the corners. That innovation was banned when the competition cried, "Unfair."
What followed was the fixed wing, which became Hall's trademark. Today's winged race cars are the evolution of Hall's design statement.
Hall had already introduced a competitive advantage so subtle that drivers didn't know what it was for half a season — an automatic transmission for road racing. With it, Hall and his team drivers could steer efficiently through corners without taking either hand off the wheel to shift gears. The most radical was yet to come — the "vacuum cleaner" Chaparral 2J, described by one writer as looking like it was still in its packing case. Boxy in appearance, it sailed at incredible speeds through the corners, thanks to an auxiliary motor that created a vacuum under the car to increase traction. While it never won a race, it too was banned in response to competitive outcry.
Hall, meanwhile, kept his best secrets to himself. He developed methods of testing at Rattlesnake Raceway that gave him data about what the car was doing at various sections of the track. By contrast, his competitors were satisfied with the lap times their stop watches were giving them. Working with Chevrolet engineers, Hall probably advanced the technology of racing more than any race car designer in that period.
That may have been what prepared him for one of the most significant jumps in technology that Indy car developers have taken in the second half of this century —introduction of the Pennzoil Chaparral, Indy car racing's first "ground effects" car, in 1979.
A year later his driver Johnny Rutherford won the Indy 500 and four other races, which combined with other top finishes gave him the first-ever combination of a CART PPG Cup IndyCar World Series championship and a U. S. Auto Club title. It also made Rutherford the consensus U. S. "driver of the year." Hall left Indy car racing in 1982 to concentrate on his other business interests but returned to the sport in 1991 with another bright yellow Pennzoil-sponsored car.