11 December 2019

Fascinating F1 Facts: 8 - The man who got there first

Ellis Hall was an oil man, and a very successful one as well. He had plenty of money and lived in a grand house in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife Theresa and their four children: Richard, Betty, James and Charles.

Alas, tragedy struck and he lost his wife to illness at the age of just 46. The children were 18, 16, 12 and nine. It was a traumatic time. A couple of years later he remarried. Virginia Hockenhull was 10 years his junior and her daughter Joann joined the clan. The new family spent the next three years in New Mexico.

In the summer of 1953 Ellis took his wife and two daughters and some friends on a holiday trip to Juneau in Alaska with their the twin-engined De Havilland Dove. On the return trip the plane disappeared somewhere over southern Alaska. It was a month before any wreckage was found. For the Hall brothers it was a second traumatic blow – and it changed their lives. The  always plan had been to follow their father into the oil business but once Ellis was gone, they could do what they wanted to do. James (known as Jim) gave up studying geology at Cal Tech and switched to mechanical engineering. He was already mad about cars and at 14 had turned a beaten-up 1929 Model T Ford into a hot rod.

Richard (known as Dick) ran the oil business for a while and then they all agreed to sell the shares. Between them, they inherited a vast fortune, amounting to nearly $24 million, equivalent to around $250 million today. Dick moved to Texas and helped Carroll Shelby set up a sports car dealership in Dallas.Jim came home from college in the summer of 1954 and did his first races in his brother’s Austin Healey at Fort Sumner in New Mexico. That was it. He was hooked on racing.

With some of his inheritance money he built his own speedway on a plot of land outside Midland, Texas, not far from the Texas-New Mexico border. Rattlesnake Raceway was soon attracting a group of young racers, including another younger oilman called Hap Sharp. As this was being developed another oilman Gary Laughlin asked the Hall brothers and Shelby to build him a Chevrolet Corvette with Italian-styled bodywork, designed by Sergio Scaglietti. Jim thenbought a Lotus Formula 2 car and put a 2.5-litre Climax engine into it and entered it for the United States GP at Riverside. In the next three years he raced in 11 Grands Prix in a variety of different Lotuses for various different teams.

Hall and Sharp had the ambition to build their own racing cars and in the US at the time sports cars were the thing. They approached well known racing car builders Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes to build them a car to be called a Chaparral. It was a conventional machine and but they wanted more and so bought the rights to the name and built their own sports car, named the Chaparral 2, a mid-engined car with a monocoque chassis and a fibreglass body. At the same time in Britain, Colin Chapman was creating the first monocoque F1 car, but the difference was that Chaparral were using aerospace materials, notably fibreglass composites to build the bodywork.

At the time, the American car manufacturers had all agreed to withdraw from racing  but General Motors was not playing by the rules and began to use Chaparral as a skunk works to develop new ideas. They started out with the first rear wings, and even adjustable versions of the same thing, they then invented side-mounted radiators, built lightweight aluminium engines, designed a semi-automatic transmission, did the first data-collection, built the first composite chassis and ultimately, in 1970, created the extraordinary Chaparral 2J, the first ground effect racing car, which used an small engine to drive fans that sucked air from beneath the car and used a polycarbonate plastic material called Lexan that was light, flexible and unbreakable to create “skirts” that sealed off the air flows, moving up and down as required using cables and pulleys.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar it is because most of these ideas eventually went into F1, where others took credit for them. Perhaps they were better developed that Hall’s machinery had been, but he had got there first.

Pushing the boundaries of technology meant that Hall had many of his ideas outlawed at international level, but Chaparral enjoyed huge success at home with Hall winning the US Road Racing Championships in 1964 and 1965 and his cars winning in every series in which they competed including CanAm, Formula 5000 and IndyCar. Although there was never a Chaparral Formula 1 car, Hall’s impact on Grand Prix racing was considerable. 

In the end, Hall tired of fighting regulators and began to produce more conventional cars, such as the Chaparral 2K, which applied the ground effect seen in F1 to Indycars. It was designed by a certain John Barnard. In 1980 the Chaparral 2K won the Indy 500 and the CART championship in the hands of Johnny Rutherford. Barnard then went off to F1 to create the first composite chassis and the first semi-automatic gearboxes, while Colin Chapman ad previously down much work on ground-effect, and Gordon Murray had designed a car that was sucked to the tarmac using fans…

Hall turned to using March, Lola and Reynard chassis in Indycar racing and was still winning races with Gil de Ferran in the mid-1990s. He then decided he had done enough and closed the team down. He was then 62 and wanted a quieter life.

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Fascinating F1 Facts: 7 – A very fast fellow »