The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were good and bad for Indy Car racing. The formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) ) was the first step on the rocky road which brought about the eventual split into two separate series. We are still seeing the effects of the split and inevitable reunification in the current mediocrity of IndyCar. The upside of this period was the open rule book and a group of risk taking owners and designers who were building radical race cars.
One such owner was Jim Hall who successfully raced his own Chaparral sports cars nationally and internationally. These sports racers were known for innovative aero design featuring large overhead moveable wings and “sucker” fans to optimize ground effects. Hall enlisted British designer John Barnard to design the ultimate ground effects Indy Car. The result was the Chaparral 2K, affectionately known as the Yellow Submarine because of its unusual appearance and its bright yellow Pennzoil livery. It looked like no other Indy Car in the paddock when it debuted in 1979 with Al Unser at the wheel. The design included wide ducted side pods which allowed air flow through the aero tunnels from the front wheels all the way to the rear wing and under tray skirts to control air traveling beneath the car. It was powered by the reliable Cosworth 2.65 litre engine. Hall and Unser had only moderate success in 79 including an outside front row start at Indy and a win at Phoenix.
Hall and Unser parted ways after the 79 season and Hall hired fellow Texan Johnny Rutherford in 1980. Rutherford and the Yellow Submarine dominated the season with 3 poles and 5 wins including the pole and the win in the Indianapolis 500 (his 3rd and final 500 win) capping off the season with the CART Championship.
1981 proved to be a disappointing year for Hall and Rutherford as other designers copied and improved on the aero innovations utilized in the 2K. By 1982 the Yellow Submarine was obsolete and well on its way to the museum.
The Chaparral 2K won 6 races in just 27 starts. Its cutting edge design became a dinosaur in less than 4 years and it really was only dominant for 1 season. Interestingly, only 3 of the 2K chassis were built. There were no customer cars sold. One is on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, a second is part of Hall’s personal collection and resides in the Chaparral Museum in Texas. A third car was heavily damaged in a crash at Phoenix and apparently destroyed. As a result of owners like Hall the breed kept improving through innovation and an open rule book. There were many success stories like the Chaparral 2K but there were many more failures; still owners, designers and mechanics continued to look for breakthroughs.
Among the 1980 Indy 500 starting field there were 11 different chassis (13 if you include different iterations of the Penske) powered by 4 different engines. Compare that with the 2013 box score – 1 spec chassis and 2 sealed spec engines. The rule book has destroyed innovation, creativity and interest which results in empty grandstands and minuscule TV ratings. In trying to compete with NASCAR and the “ball sports” IndyCar leadership crushed the very life out of the sport.
©2014 William L. Rottner