Chaparral Museum: Midland Texas’s Permian Oil Basin
Permian Basin Petroleum Museum
Midland is located in the heart of Texas, surrounded by vast oil and shale deposits that dictate the economy of this booming area. The Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland features an extensive collection of exhibits detailing everything you’ll ever want to know about the petroleum industry. The museum itself is surrounded by a large number of outdoor displays of drill rigs, pumps, and other equipment -- from the early days of oil exploration to the latest technology. But my favorite part is the Chaparral Racing museum wing.
Chaparral Racing was formed in 1962 by Hap Sharp and oil magnate Jim Hall. Jim was a capable racecar driver but also had impressive engineering skills and Texas know-how. The name was chosen because it loosely combined the sound of the last names of the two partners, and “Chaparral” was the Spanish word for “Roadrunner.” Chaparral cars were known for their groundbreaking innovations that changed the face of racing. Jim Hall understood the effects of aerodynamics on race cars better than anyone else and developed a number of aerodynamic improvements to Chaparral cars that separated them from the rest of the pack. Jim built Rattlesnake Raceway, a track right next to their shop, so these cars could be tested and developed. This led to a joint venture with Firestone, which allowed Chaparral to do tire testing and development work and resulted in the creation of wider racing tires that benefitted both partners.
The Can-Am series, formerly known as the U.S. Road Racing Championship, was the Sports Car Club of America’s premier road racing series. It has very little in the line of rules other than no open-wheeled cars. Development was not stifled and the engineers were free to experiment. The Chaparral 2A debuted in late 1963, but the dominant model was the Chaparral 2B during the 1964 and 1965 seasons. Designed for 200-mile races, the 2B also won the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race on a bumpy track in pouring rain, which proved its durability. In 1966, the company introduced the 2C, which featured an automatic transmission. This freed up the driver’s left foot to operate a pedal that changed the angle of a rear wing attached to the body. A coupe version, model 2D, participated in international endurance racing in 1966.
The introduction of the Chaparral 2E in 1967 marked a big change. The 2E featured a high wing attached via struts to the rear suspension. This high mounted wing took advantage of the clean air flow to produce large amounts of down force directly to the rear tires without creating excessive loads on the bodywork. In addition, the front radiator was relocated to a pair of side-mounted radiators and a ducted nose vented under-car air up to increase front down force. Whenever the driver pressed the left foot pedal, the angle of the wing would flatten out for less drag on high speed straightaways, and the front ducts would close up to further reduce drag. Releasing the pedal returned the duct and wing to full down force positions for cornering. These changes were soon copied by other manufacturers and also began appearing in Formula One cars.
For the 1967 endurance racing season, Jim Hall copied the advancements made in the 2E to the 2D coupe, which resulted in the Chaparral 2F coupe. The 2F raced in Europe wearing Texas license plates and featured a 427-cubic-inch aluminum Chevrolet engine, replacing the smaller 327-cubic-inch engine of the 2D and 2E. The extra power required even wider tires from Firestone. However, the FIA outlawed the larger engines later that year, making 1967 the last year Chaparral ran that series.
For the 1967 Can-Am series, the Chaparral 2G was rolled out. Essentially a 2E with the larger 427 engine, it continued to use the aerodynamic tweaks of the 2E. By now, many Formula One teams had adopted Jim’s wing designed, but they weren’t as ruggedly built and many failures occurred. The FIA banned moveable aerodynamic devices after that year, which signaled the end of the Chaparral 2G. Unfortunately, 1967 also signaled the end of Jim Hall’s driving career. He was involved in a horrific accident at Las Vegas’ Stardust Raceway late that season when he rear-ended a slow-moving car.
For 1968, they broke the mold with the new Chaparral 2J. Nicknamed the “Sucker Car,” it featured a rear body portion sealed to the ground by Lexan skirts that moved in conjunction with the suspension. A vacuum was created inside this enclosed bodywork by a pair of 17-inch fans driven by twin snowmobile engines. This created a G force in excess of 1.25 times the weight of the car, which prompted one journalist to remark the car could have been unveiled with the snowmobile engines running stuck to the ceiling. The advantage to this design was that down force and traction were great at both low speeds and high speeds with minimal drag, something that was not achievable by traditional aerodynamic designs, such as wings. It was easily the fastest car in every race it entered but was plagued by reliability problems and didn’t finish many races. After pressure by the other teams, the SCCA outlawed the car at the end of the season, citing that the fans constituted “moveable aerodynamic devices.”
Indy Car Team
In 1978, Chaparral entered the Indy car arena with Al Unser driving a Lola T500. Unser won the Indy 500 that year, as well as the Triple Crown with wins at both Pocono and Ontario. The only driver to-date to ever accomplish that feat. In 1979, Hall created the Chaparral 2K for the newly formed CART series, as well as the Indy 500. Unser led for 89 laps until an engine fire ended that race. In 1980, Unser was replaced by Johnny Rutherford, who won five races that season, including the Indy 500. With the Chaparral 2K Indy Car, Jim Hall introduced ground effects to the world. By strategically designing the car’s underbody with venturi like channels, it was possible to increase down force by creating a negative pressure beneath the car. Chaparral retired from racing in 1982.
The Permian Basin Petroleum Museum is located within easy access of Interstate 20 in Midland, Texas. The museum is easy to spot because it is surrounded by large oil derricks, pumps, and drill rigs. The majority of the museum takes you through the history and science of the petroleum industry. The west wing is devoted to the Chaparral Race Cars, and provides an extensive display of every model.
All of these cars are kept in running order, and the service garage is also on display where you might see routine maintenance work being performed on one of the units. One model is open for visitors to sit in for cockpit photos and gives you an appreciation for the tight, Spartan quarters the drivers operated in. Every couple of months, a Saturday is chosen where one of the cars is brought out to the museum driveway to run and get some exercise. You can be notified of any scheduled run-ups by contacting the museum via their website, email, or phone. A number of interactive exhibits help show the effects of aerodynamics and other engineering ideas. A trip to this exhibit will recall an era where American ingenuity beat the best that Europe’s well-financed race teams had.
Permian Basin Petroleum MuseumMidland, TX 79701