Chaparral Gallery opens at The Petroleum Museum

Until the mid-1960s, aerodynamics to a race car designer meant only making a car "slippery" and streamlined, to reduce drag and make the car go fast in a straight line. Then along came Jim Hall and his Chaparrals to use aerodynamics to not only...

Until the mid-1960s, aerodynamics to a race car designer meant only making a car "slippery" and streamlined, to reduce drag and make the car go fast in a straight line. Then along came Jim Hall and his Chaparrals to use aerodynamics to not only make his cars go fast in a straight line, but also fast around corners. First he used flippers, then wings mounted on stilts high about the rear bodywork, and then suction fans. He was the first to adapt F1 ground effects chassis to Indy Cars. His engineering genius along with secret financial backing from General Motors made the Chaparrals a force to be reckoned with in sports car racing. They didn't always win, but they were always fast and they always scared the competition.

And he did all of it out of a little shop on the outskirts of Midland, Texas. Midland is an oil town in west Texas and not exactly the place one would expect a world class racing team to operate from, but they did. The team raced and won in the USRRC, Can-Am, endurance racing, Trans-Am (Camaro), F5000 (Lola), USAC, and CART (Reynard).

Jim Hall and Chaparral Cars left racing in the mid-1990s. In 1999, the idea of adding a wing to The Petroleum Museum in Midland to honor Jim and give a permanent home to his Chaparrals was first discussed. On Friday, April 16, 2004, five years and $7.6 million later, that idea became a reality when the Chaparral Gallery at The Petroleum Museum hosted a press conference, racing forum, art exhibit, gala dinner, and museum tours which were open to those who purchased advanced tickets. The day started, however, with tours of the Chaparral Cars, Inc. facilities and Rattlesnake Raceway, the Chaparral test track, facilities normally not open to the public.

The first thing you notice when you turn into the driveway at Chaparral Cars is that if you weren't in a tour van, you wouldn't have noticed the place at all and driven right past. The complex consists of four nondescript one-story structures situated around a paved courtyard. But sitting in that courtyard, for today anyway, was one of Hall's winged wonders, the Chaparral 2F coupe. It would not be placed into the museum until after it's participation in the Gallery's grand opening ceremonies on Saturday.

Inside one of the buildings is the dynometer used by the team. Another building contains two non-Chaparral race cars - a Formula 1 Lotus once driven by Hall and a Reynard the team entered in CART for Gil de Ferran. All along the walls of this building are many of the trophies Hall and the team have won over the years.

After the shop tour, guests were taken by van on a lap of Rattlesnake Raceway. Although the road surface is not in the best of shape and the brush has grown back to the edge of the track, it looks pretty much as it did when used by the team in the '60s and '70s.

A press conference was next. Present were Jim Hall, his wife Sandy, Museum Board of Trustees President Paul Morris, Museum Executive director Jane Phares, racer and constructor Dan Gurney, and former Chaparral team drivers Phil Hill, Vic Elford and Brian Redman. After hearing the story of how the museum came to be, the attending US and European press were treated to stories of racing in the glory days of Chaparral. At the end of the press conference, Ed Wellburn, General Motors Vice President of Design, gave Hall an award from GM..

The press conference was followed by a racing forum, where the racing stories continued. Participating in the forum that was chaired by automotive journalist Pete Lyons were Hall, Gurney (described by Lyons as an "interloper" as he never had anything to do with the Chaparrals except race against them), chief mechanic Franz Weis, and drivers Hill (2D, 2E, & 2F), Redman (F5000 Lola), Elford (2J & Camaro), Ronnie Hissom (1 & 2A), Robert Donner (1 & 2A) and Gil de Ferran (CART Reynard).

After the forum, everyone present who had not yet had a chance to wander through the Chaparral Gallery and automotive art exhibit did so. In the gallery were six of the seven existing Chaparrals - Chaparral 2 USRRC racer, 2D endurance racer, 2E Can-Am car, 2H "White Whale" Can-Am car, 2J Can-Am "Sucker Car," and 2K "Yellow Submarine" Indy 500 winner, which greets you, suspended in the air at the gallery entrance. The 2F would be added after Saturday's Grand Opening. There are no other Chaparrals still in existence. None of the non-Chaparral cars the team raced such as the CART Reynard will be placed in the museum. All of the Chaparrals will be kept in operating condition at all times, so that should Hall decide to take one to a vintage event, they will be ready to go.

There is a second 2E in the museum, but it is a mock-up in which the public may have their pictures taken. Also in the Gallery are videos of the Chaparrals in action, interactive displays where one can learn about the physics of racing, photos, driver and employee bios, and various bits of Chaparral memorabilia.

That evening a gala dinner, docented tours of the museum, and art auction were held.

Saturday, the festivities continued when at 10:02 am Jim Hall drove his Chaparral 2F endurance coupe onto the museum grounds from the Chaparral Cars shop. Speeches were made by Paul Morris, Texas State Speaker of the House Jim Craddick, Midland Mayor Mike Canon, and Hall. Then the ceremonial ribbon was cut and the doors to the museum were opened to the general public for free for the day. An all-day party ensued that included music, food, arts & crafts, slot car racing, and autograph sessions. To add to the automotive theme of the event were local hotrods and cars from the Permian Basin Corvette Club.

For more information about the Chaparral Gallery or The Petroleum Museum go to www.petroleummuseum.org/.

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Series History , General