Chaparral 2H - The White Whale
Jim Halls chunky Chaparral 2H of 1969 is possibly my favourite race car. Its possibly John Surtees' least favourite race car. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I consider this a pretty car, but it is extreme in every way, which really summarizes the Can-Am itself. I love its Laguna Seca big wing guise the most, although I'm guessing by the fact its not fitted to the restored example, the big wing was never part of Halls plans.
Up to the arrival of the 2H in 1969, Hall had gotten most things right in the Can-Am. His cars weren’t always reliable, and won just a single race in the 5 years they competed in the series. But many of his ground breaking creations did prove successful in their concept and functionality, if not on Halls own cars, then on the cars raced by other teams that had adopted his ideas. It was Halls intention to win races and championships, not be the guinea pig who tested radical concepts for others to benefit from. But in some ways, that’s how the Chaparral Can-Am cars are remembered. In the Can-Am, Jim Hall was the ultimate pioneer.
Hall suffered severe injuries to his legs at the final race of the 1968 season at Las Vegas, when his 2G ran into the back of the slowing Lothar Motschenbacher McLaren, sending the Chaparral skyward. The injuries sustained to Halls legs brought about the decision to place another driver in his car for the ’69 season. This driver was John Surtees, winner of the inaugural Can-Am championship, and World Champion in both cars and on motorbikes.
The 2H was intended to appear in 1968, but delays in its development meant the older 2G, effectively a modified version of the 1966 2E, would be pressed back into duty for another season. The 2H was radical in many ways. It was originally intended to have a fully enclosed cockpit, with the driver sat extremely low in the car. A forward facing windscreen and windows cut into the sides of the bodywork allowed for forward and side visibility, and a set of elaborate mirrors took care of the remaining blind spots, of which there were plenty. The car featured a very short wheelbase, of just 85.5”, and was also very narrow, while rear tyres were a massive 20” in width. Rear suspension was a chunky de Dion style, with a large alloy beam split in the middle, and linked by a big U-joint. Hall figured that during cornering in an independently sprung car, the inside wheels do little work, with just the inner edges touching the track, so the de Dion would better place those inside wheels firmly on the road, increasing cornering power. And with the wheels pressing firmly into the track in corners, he could make the car narrower, so it’d be faster in a straight line.
Unlike previous Chaparrals which were fitted with a rear aerofoil mounted up high above the car on tall struts attached directly to the rear hubs (and which had been adopted by just about every other team in the series by 1969), the 2H had a low flipper wing set directly at the rear bodywork. The intention for this wing was that as it was pushed downward and placed a load onto the rear suspension, hydraulic cylinders would resist, to keep the chassis attitude unchanged, like a form of active suspension.
When Hall tested the 2H himself around his own Rattlesnake Raceway, it eventually went quicker than the older 2G. However, when it finally debuted in the Can-Am, at Edmonton, round 4 of the 1969 season, and with Surtees at the wheel, it was 3 sec slower than Hall had been in the 2G the previous year. When Surtees first saw the 2H, he immediately demanded the seating position be raised, with a hole cut in the bodywork so he could see out over the top of the car. Hall would later comment that this decision raised the centre of gravity, making the car unstable. Surtees commented its narrow track and short wheelbase made it unpredictable, that it couldn’t be driven anywhere near the limit, and that the reason it was so fast around Rattlesnake Raceway was due to the smooth surface of the track, which was unlike most of those on the Can-Am calendar. It regularly bucked up onto two side wheels when cornering. Either way, it never looked like becoming a race winner. Hall provided Surtees with a customer McLaren M12 for the opening three races of the ’69 Can-Am while the modifications were being made to the 2H, as Surtees had requested. He would race the 2H just five times, the nearest he got to pole position with the car was a massive 4.3 sec shy at Mid Ohio. At Riverside for the penultimate round of the series, he qualified nearly 10 sec off pole. The engine failed after 4 laps, and he climbed out of the car and quit.
Should Surtees have followed blindly and just persevered, hoping the Chaparral team would eventually extract potential form this car? Easy for me to say, I'm not the one with a 700hp big block Chevy strapped to my back and a set of elaborate mirrors as my only means to see whats going on around me. The fact was, he didn’t need to. He’d achieved greatness in the sport at the highest level, and was winding down his career. Had Hall plugged a lesser known driver into the car, who would have just accepted what he was told, would the 2H have reached its full potential? Or was this just a bad idea? In the 40 years since the 2H was built, race teams have usually built their cars as wide as the rules would allow, which suggests a very narrow race car is not the way to go. But we'll never know. It raced just five times, then was pushed into a quiet corner of Halls workshop, and quickly forgotten about, while its successor, the even more radical 2J “sucker car” put the fear of God into the Can-Am fraternity when it debuted in 1970.
One has to wonder if Jim Hall could have his time over again, would he kick John Surtees out of Texas and find a new driver right at the beginning. That car became completely the opposite of what was intended and didn't work, a younger driver may well have helped prove the original design albeit with a few changes.
I did read that Hall himself admitted the car was probably too narrow. Anyone who has ever raced go-karts knows what happens when you adjust your rear wheels inwards too much for more grip, and end up going too far. You have a kart that has too much grip, and jumps up on two side wheels. It would seem the 2H shared this trait.
Would have been interesting had its arrival not been delayed, and Hall himself had raced it with its fully enclosed cockpit, and mirror set-up, in 1968. He did design it for himself to race, so I guess he was happy with the cockpit arrangement. Must have been a very strange feeling inside the car in its original format. The driver apparently sat very low, like a modern day F1 car, so they couldn't see over the front wheels, only directly ahead and to each side, where the cut-outs had been made in the bodywork. And so he set up a set of mirrors that worked like a periscope to allow vision where the natural blind spots were. I guess a lot of trust in that mirror system was required.
But if he'd been able to race the car himself in 1968, perhaps he could have learned himself of any handling/design shortfalls, such as the narrow track, and corrected them for an improved version that could have raced in 1969.