If America ever had its own version of Germany’s mighty Silver Arrows racing cars, they were the Chaparral sports racers. But instead of coming out of the workshops of a mighty industrial powerhouse such as Auto Union or Mercedes-Benz, the Chaparrals were produced in an unlikely garage in the arid and windswept high plains of west Texas (albeit with technical support from the engineering staff at General Motors).
Yes, I know, some of you would contend that it wasn’t the Chaparrals but Briggs’ Cunninghams or Shelby’s Cobras that were the closest American parallel to the Silver Arrows, and that might be true. But in all three cases, the Cunninghams and the Cobras and the Chaparrals were privateer efforts that exemplify the competitive American spirit.
Besides, this story is the product of my recent trip to Dallas to attend a Leake Auction Company classic car sale and our return drive to Phoenix through Midland, Texas, where I visited the Permian Petroleum Museum and its stunning Chaparral Gallery.
I also drove a few miles south of the museum to see if I could find the remains of Rattlesnake Raceway, the two-mile-long road course where Jim Hall and Hap Sharp honed their cars into American motorsports legends. I did. I even found our way past the locked gates and walked a lap of the track — and had a nice chat with the man who maintains the two oil wells on the property that hasn’t felt a racing car for decades, though the old skid pad is used as a landing area for the local remote-control aircraft club.
Hall was from Midland where, like so many, his family was in the oil business. Midway between Fort Worth and El Paso, Midland was established in 1881 as Midway Station on the Texas and Pacific Railroad. Some 40 years later, Midland would become a boom town when the Santa Rita No. 1 well started pulling oil out of the Permian underground.
Hall’s older brother liked sports cars and even had a dealership in Dallas, where Hall worked after graduating from college. Hall started racing sports cars and was an excellent and successful driver. But he realized that the driver was only part of the equation in racing and he became intrigued with improving the cars he drove, so he went back to college to do graduate study in engineering at Cal Poly.
James Sharp was from Tulsa. He was born on New Year’s Day, 1928, and got his nickname from people saying, “Happy New Year.” Sharp and Hall were rivals on the track until 1962, when they launched Chaparral Cars Inc. and, as someone has suggested, took racecar construction into the space age.
Except they didn’t build the first Chaparral racing car. That was done for them on the West Coast by the Troutman and Barnes racecar shop, which provided the Chaparral 1 with a Chevrolet engine in its traditional position in front of the driver. But Hall was convinced a mid-engine architecture was the way to go, so he set out to build his own cars. Since General Motors was participating in Detroit’s ban on racing activities, Hall was able to tap into some experimental engineering expertise, including lighter weight aluminum-block Chevrolet engines
He designed Chaparral 2 bodywork made from fiberglass-reinforced plastic and with what amounted to a single-speed automatic gearbox. In 1965, Hall or Sharp won eight of the nine races in the U.S. Road Racing Championship series, and Chaparral 2 cars would win 22 of the 39 races they entered.
In 1966, Hall and crew produced the 2D, with an enclosed cockpit for endurance racing — Phil Hill and Jo Bonnier drove the car to victory in the 1,000-kilometer race at Germany’s Nurburgring — and the 2E for the new Can-Am Challenge Cup series in North America. The 2E was revolutionary, the first racing car equipped with a high rear wing designed with a direct connection to the rear wheel hubs. The 2E also had a pedal (remember, there was no clutch pedal) so the driver could adjust the wing angle for increased downforce when needed — in corners and braking. Hill and Hall drove a pair of 2E cars to a 1-2 finish at Laguna Seca.
The 2F was a new model for international racing, while the 2H advanced Hall’s design philosophies for the Can-Am series (streamlining, stressed fiberglass body, height-adjustable suspension. But a crash in testing left Hall severely injured).
Next came the team’s most famous design, the 2J “sucker car” for the 1970 Can-Am season. The car was stunningly boxy and carried a second engine that run a pair of fans that sucked air from beneath the car to create a vacuum to help stick the car to the track. The car sat on the pole for every race that year, after which the technology was banned from racing, but it paved the way for the “ground effects” revolution.
With the demise of major sports-car racing in the U.S., Hall would turn his attention to Indianapolis, where Al Unser won in 1978 in a Chaparral Racing Lola. But Hall created the Chaparral 2K with ground effects for 1979 with Unser dominating much of the race and with Johnny Rutherford winning in the car in 1980.
The Petroleum Museum opened in 1975 and in 2004 added the nearly 20,000-square-foot Chaparral Gallery, which houses not only seven of the Chaparral racing cars but hands-on technical displays that include miniature wind tunnels, one with an Indy car model and the other with a model of the 2E wing as well as another display in which you control a scale model of the sucker fans to see how they affect a car as it circles a track. There’s also a 2E clone with an invitation to climb in and have your photo taken behind the wheel.
The displays are as well-crafted as those at any car museum we’ve again visited, and while you’re visiting, be sure to explore the rest of the Petroleum Museum as well — indoors and out.
Indoors, in addition to the Chaparral Gallery, there is a dazzling display of rocks and minerals from around the world, an art gallery, and exhibits showcasing petroleum exploration and the industry and even “supplemental” energy sources (the petroleum galleries and exhibits are undergoing extensive updating and are scheduled to reopen early in 2016).
Outdoors is the “Oil Patch,” an exhibit of antique oil field equipment that includes rigs in the museum’s front yard and a virtual forest of rigs behind the building.
The museum is located adjacent to Interstate 20 at Exit 126, is open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $5.
Photos by Larry Edsall