(Note: the 2016 running of The 12 is over, now, but the series on Sebring’s incredible history continues. Here’s Part 3).
The Plastic Fantastic: How Chaparral Changed Sportscar Racing.
Continuing our look into the cars, companies, drivers, and personalities who have made the 12 Hours of Sebring a legendary race.
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Chaparral changed the status quo at Sebring in 1965.
The Chaparral was the product of the driving/racing team of Jim Hall and Hap Sharp. Jim Hall was a west-Texas oilman and “Hap” Sharp (official name James Sharp, he got his nickname because he was born on New Year’s Day in 1928, i.e. “Happy New Year”), who was also in the oil business. They were ambitious, fearless, well-funded, and innovative.
Sharp and Hall started racing initially using “Chaparral” cars built by the famous racing team of Troutman and Barnes. Troutman & Barnes were builders and designers of good reputation. They had enjoyed great success with front-engine/tube frame race cars. Among their clients was a wealthy young man named Lance Reventlow (Lawrence Graf von Haugwitz-Hardenberg-Reventlow), for whom they developed the Scarab race cars (There were both race car and F1 designs under the Scarab name plate, but the F1 car campaigned by Reventlow in Europe cars was never successful, coming as it did at the end of the era for front engine Formula cars). Reventlow’s mother was Barbara Hutton, the heir to the Woolworth fortune, who would eventually be wed seven times.
Troutman and Barnes also produced the Mustang 1 prototypes that were used to judge public interest in building a production Mustang. They did two versions, one which was essentially just a show model with little or no mechanicals and another that ran and was used for demos, press exposure, and testing. The Mustang went on to be one of the great hits of the automobile world.
Hall and Sharp teamed up with Troutman and Barnes on the first “Chaparral” design; the original production run was to be five cars and Hall & Sharp’s deal was that they would purchase two of the cars and Troutman and Barnes would sell the other three to clients. The purchase of two cars by Hall and Sharp made the production economically feasible. It was a typically savvy and fair business deal, not unexpected coming from a pair of Texas oil men.
The combination of Hall’s engineering expertise and the craftsmanship of Troutman and Barnes produced a beautiful, brutally effective race car with a big front engine V8 and full independent suspension. Coming after the experience Troutman and Barnes had developed working on the Scarabs, the first Chaparrals were more powerful, had a vastly improved suspension, and better weight distribution (because of the mid-front engine chassis design). Grateful for the contributions of Jim Hall and Hap Sharp, Troutman and Barnes gave them “naming rights” (maybe the first such deal in sports!) and the new race car was called the Chaparral. Soon the pair started building the cars at their own workshop, and to differentiate the next generation of cars, they were called Chaparral 2s.
Jim Hall was both a talented driver and a very good engineer, and for a decade, the Chaparral designs and innovations greatly influenced motorsports. Chaparral’s Hall and Sharp broke new ground in aerodynamics, race car handling, tires, and transmissions (a Chaparral innovation was the use of an automatic transmission for a race car).
A trained engineer, Hall brought a new level of engineering design and testing to race car development. It has long been believed that Chaparral and Hall had significant access to the engineering department at General Motors via “under table” or “backdoor” support. What ever the arrangement, it was brilliant and it worked. The situation was a win-win deal for both parties. For Chaparral, they had the research resources of one of the largest automobile companies in the world; for GM, they could test and try new concepts in competition against the best car companies in the world, but there would be no hit to GM’s reputation if the cars did not win because they were racing under the Chaparral name.
The Chaparral cars produced by Hall and Sharp were given the numeral 2 followed by a letter of the alphabet, from 2A through 2K. The race car livery was typically white and cars often ran sporting Texas license plates. Chaparral’s were famous for the size and the sound of their big Chevy V8 engines, which gave rise to one of the most famous quotes in racing : when Hap Sharp was asked (in Nassau, for the famous Tourist Trophy sports car race, I believe) if the secret to winning in sports cars was cubic inches, he quickly responded, “No, the secret is cubic money”. It was true then, and it’s still true.
The Chaparral made its race debut at Riverside in 1963; it was auspicious, as Hall took the pole and was a half-mile or so in front when an electrical issue took the car to a DNF. In 1964, Hall won the U.S. Road Racing Championship (7 Wins, 6 Seconds, and 2 Thirds) and again in 1965, with 16 wins in 21 races.
The car that won Sebring was a 2 with an automatic transmission, front spoilers, a 5.4 liter aluminum block Chevy, mounted mid-engine, and a GRP chassis. Ferrari, Porsche, and Ford were gunning for a win at Sebring and the Chaparral faced long odds. The word in the paddock was that the Chaparral’s couldn’t last (there were two entered) but Jim Hall and Hap Sharp had tested at Sebring for a couple of days in February, and they believe the cars could go the distance and compete. The team was the beneficiary of a rule change that would allow large displacement engines (i.e. the Chevy) to run against prototypes from Ferrari, Ford, and Porsche. It was be on display at Sebring last year (2015) driven by Jim Hall II.
When the checkered flag dropped, Hall and Sharp were first in the Chaparral; Miles/McLaren second in a Ford GT40 and Pipper/Maggs third in a 250LM. You can read a full and incredible history about this race at Sports Car Digest, where historian Louis Galanos has produced the definitive piece on the times and the race. Galanos also produced a five part video series on the 1965 Race, which we also feature elsewhere on this site. Both the article and the videos are highly recommended.
The 1965 race was historic in a lot of ways, and while many remember it as a turning point in automobile racing because of the Chaparral win and others will recall that part of the race was contested in a roaring rain storm that created havoc all over the track.
Chaparral continued to evolve and the model line extended up to the Chaparral K which in 1980 won the Indiannapolis 500 and the CART National Championship with driver Johnny Rutherford.
Jim Hall stayed active in racing up through the mid 90s, although not always with cars of his own design. He lives today in California, Colorado and Texas; in Midland, where he and Sharp started out, there is a Chaparral museum (a part of the Petroleum Museum) which has the Chaparral 2, 2D, 2E, 2F, 2J, and 2K on display. I have been told that the private track the two built to test their cars—the infamous “Rattlesnake Raceway”—is still operable.
Hap Sharp, who also ran in some F1 races, retired after the 1965 season. He took up polo and continued to work in the motorsports industry. At the time of his death, Sharp was running a cattle ranch in Argentina. He committed suicide in 1993 at age 65 after being informed that he had a terminal disease.
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