Chaparral's ingenious but strange race cars, with their six-foot tall wings and vacuum suction motors, were first mocked, then feared, then finally banned for being too advanced. Four decades later I got a ride in one.
There are few race car manufactures that were so innovative they will never be forgotten. Chaparral and the Hall family are very high on that list. There have been companies like Ferrari or Porsche that have cranked out car after car with cool new ground breaking features, but almost everything Chaparral built was banned from racing because it was so good. I was super fortunate to meet Jim Hall Jr., son of the famous designer, and owner of Jim Hall Kart Racing in Oxnard, California.
At first I just wanted to talk to him, shake his hand, simply touch history. I wish I had my Chaparral coffee table book with me for him to sign I was that excited. I got to watch the 2J start up before its launch up the hill and it's pretty special.
It starts when you crank up the 700-hp driveline engine, then you fire up the twin 17-inch fans that suck all the air out from underneath car. When those fans start you can actually see the car get sucked down to the ground and of course everything that's under the car gets spit out the back like a shotgun. Its other nickname was the vacuum cleaner. That's why I was standing up on the hay bales.
The car was complicated and never fully developed by the time the SCCA banned it but when it did run correctly it was often two seconds faster than the competition. The real advantage of the fan was that it was independent of speed. It worked the same at a 40mph hairpin as it does on corners above 100 MPH like The Kink at Road America. Cool huh? I caught up with old school famous racer Vic Elford who piloted the fan car in 1970 and was driving it again at the Goodwood Festival of Speed this year.
But it doesn't end there. Later in the weekend I was stuck at the top of the hill after riding in Group B Rally Car (yes you will here about that too in another article – ED) and didn't want to ride the bus thing all the way down. So I zipped up my firesuit, grabbed my helmet, and walked into the cars that had just come up the hill. And sure enough, there was Jim Hall Jr in his winged Chaparral – the 2E built in 1966.
"Hey Jim, does that thing have passenger seat? Can I catch a ride down?"
"Sure Caswell, let me get in first then you climb in after."
It was pretty special. It reminds me so much of Speed Racer's Mach 7 when you're sitting it. I have been following this car for years. I went up to the CanAm reunion at Road America many years ago just to see it (and the McLaren's, sorry Jim, those things were pretty sweet too!). The reason this car is so special is that it is generally considered the first winged raced car – I faintly remember reading someone beat Jim to it by mounting a wing midsection on a formula car. Sure he got more creative and built things like the fan car, but this thing was really cutting edge at the time.
It looked so different than all the other cars in the series which had yet to fit wings –- the fact that the wing was six feet up in the air made it visible all the way across the paddock.
If I saw that car with its wing in 1966, I'm sure I would have just scratched my head and said "Well if it works on a plane, maybe it works in the opposite as well…" or I would have condemned it and said "its all over, the pigs can fly." But this was no pig, it has a 3 speed automatic transmission leaving your left foot free to hit a pedal which lays the wing flat for the straightaways to reduce drag.
The ride in the 2E was really special for me. The guys I raced with in the 24hrs of LeMons, POS Racing, borrowed his design and fitted a moveable wing to our E30 that stands up under braking and stays up through the corner. And you know what, IT WORKS. Sure it was 45 years later, but I got feel what it was like to fit a bizarre aerodynamic contraption like that and race. I can only imagine what it must have been like back in 1966 for Jim Hall and his team at Chaparral.
I shot some random video from my iPhone which allows you to see the wing moving in the background and what it feels like to ride in the car which can be watched here.
If you ever want to see the car in person and don't make it to vintage races, head down to Midland, Tx where most of the Chapparals are on display and are occasionally pulled out and hustled around the museum grounds.