Home / stars /   Jim Hall

Jim Hall

Inaugural ASF Master of Motorsports Honoree Jim Hall

By George Levy

Look at any modern race car and you’ll see the direct and unmistakable influence of Jim Hall. From Formula 1 to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, from the Indy 500 to the Baja 1000, from historic stock cars to Top Fuel dragsters, all of them incorporate performance innovations the 1994 Motorsports Hall of Fame of America inductee brought not just to race cars, but high-performance production cars like Corvette, McLaren, Porsche and Ferrari.

Formula 1 might be the signature example. Today every Grand Prix car is comprised of a chassis constructed of lightweight composites, side-mounted radiators to minimize drag and driver fatigue, semi-automatic transmissions, driver actuated aerodynamic devices and net downforce, all of them things that Hall pioneered on his Chaparral race cars in the mid-1960s. That’s right, more than a half-century ago.

Hall bent the arc of motor racing history. He changed the way street and track vehicles were conceived and realized. Became an inspiration to a generation of designers including F1 superstars Gordon Murray and Adrian Newey. It is for that reason the Texan has been chosen as the first recipient of the Master of Motorsports Award, which will be bestowed each year at the American Speed Festival at M1 Concourse.

If there’s a single Hall innovation that stands above the rest, it is the concept of net downforce. The idea that you could improve the performance of a vehicle by converting the tremendous energy of air flowing over, under and through the car to a downward force that would increase traction as vehicle speed increased.

Before Hall, cars at speed were prone to lift. The faster you went, the lighter the steering got. Tires would lose traction. When the Ford GTs first went to Le Mans, fellow Hall of Famer Dan Gurney remembered being able to saw the steering wheel down the Mulsanne straight without any great influence on the direction of the vehicle.

The problem became real to Hall when he designed his first car, the Chaparral 2. He had tested it without bodywork and found it had all the potential he had hoped. But as soon as he installed the body, it became almost undriveable. Recognizing this to be an aerodynamic problem, he spent the next several months identifying and mitigating every source of lift. If you look at old photos, you’ll see that at each succeeding race the Chaparral 2 sprouted new vents, louvers and other aerodynamic interventions all enlisted to this purpose.

In short order, the car became a world-beater. Hall dominated the 1964 and ’65 sports car racing seasons, winning championships both years and scoring a victory in the 12 Hours of Sebring that shocked the international racing establishment. Suddenly, Midland, Texas became one the epicenters of automotive ingenuity and innovation.

It was during the 1965 season that the Caltech-trained engineer asked himself the question that would change all performance cars going forward. He had whittled the lift in his race car to zero and sure, it felt good. But he sensed there was more. So he asked himself, What if I keep going? What if I continue down this path until I’m generating measurable downforce on both ends of the car? Something he would call “net downforce.”

The following year Hall introduced his masterpiece, the Chaparral 2E. Its most distinguishing feature was a giant “flipper” wing mounted on tall struts at the rear of the car. Down the straights the driver would depress a pedal that would move the wing and a corresponding downforce device in the nose to a neutral position to minimize drag. Releasing the pedal in the corners allowed the driver to select the high downforce position to aid traction. It was a revelation. Hall and teammate Phil Hill’s Chaparral 2Es were comprehensively the fastest cars in the then-new Canadian-American Challenge Cup Series, a series for the world’s most advanced drivers and cars.

More innovations followed. Remember those magnet-traction slot cars you or your dad played with as a kid? They were inspired by Hall’s revolutionary 1970 suction car, the Chaparral 2J. The 2J was promptly outlawed, simply because it was so much faster through the corners that it threatened to obsolete every other race car in existence.

Later Hall would revolutionize IndyCar racing with the Chaparral 2K, aka the “Yellow Submarine,” which introduced ground effect to American open wheel racing. With it, Johnny Rutherford won the 1980 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar championship. It would set the basic design criteria for every Indy car through present day.

If there were downsides to all this for Hall, they were one: he was so busy innovating, the flow of new ideas so constant, that often his cars would not finish as many races as his competitors. There weren’t as many wins in the later ‘60s as their speed and brilliance would warrant. And two: as the influence of his designs grew, people began to forget that Hall was also one of the greatest drivers of his generation. In addition to the Sebring 12 Hours, Hall won consecutive United States Road Racing Championships and multiple victories in the Road America 500, Watkins Glen Grand Prix for Sports Cars and Canadian Grand Prix for Sports Cars — the top prizes in the category.

But his influence as a designer remains paramount. Today net downforce is not only one of the core design criteria for every form of race car — Top Fuel dragsters generate so much of it at both ends of the car that they literally bend upward in the middle during each of their runs — but also for high-performance road cars. Today, Ferrari, Porsche, Corvette, McLaren and more tout the net downforce numbers for the latest supercars as proudly as they once used to announce 0-60 times.

Jim Hall didn’t just change racing.

He changed cars.

George Levy is the president of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and the author of the upcoming biography “Texas Legend: Jim Hall and the Chaparrals: ‘There’s always a better way’” which will have its worldwide premiere at the American Speed Festival.

Explore More stars