Jan Opperman's Indy Car
In the 1970’s, Jan Opperman was a larger than life figure in the world of auto racing. His hippie lifestyle, devout religious beliefs, and hard-charging driving style made him stand out in a crowd of characters. And he remains a standout in the pantheon of great drivers that partnered with “Speedy” Bill Smith. His win at the ’76 Hulman Classic aboard the Speedway Motors 4x machine stands as one of Bill Smith’s proudest moments.
In 1968, Speedway Motors employee “Yogi” Janssen saw Opperman racing in California. He was a little rough around the edges, but Janssen could see a ton of raw potential. At his urging, the already nomadic Opperman loaded up his Ford station wagon and headed off to Lincoln, Nebraska to meet Speedy Bill. After some reluctance on Bill’s part to embrace the hippie that had just been dropped on his doorstep, he offered him a ride for the ’69 season, and the rest, as they say is history.
(You can hear more about Jan Opperman and Bill Smith in this episode of our What Moves You podcast featuring Museum of American Speed historian Bob Mays.)
But the car pictured here is obviously no sprint car. You see, Opperman’s talent behind the wheel drew the attention of the big boys, earning him a seat in this very car for the 1974 Indy 500. Opperman joined USAC in ’74, then travelled to Indy at the urging of his friend and fellow driver Sam Sessions in advance of the 500. There was a rumor that the third car in the Vel’s Parnelli Jones stable was up for grabs, and that’s the car you see here.
VPJ cars were designed and built in house by the team (VPJ-Vel’s Parnelli Jones), and this particular model was built for the ’73 season. For whatever reason, these cars were not very successful and team drivers Mario Andretti and Al Unser Sr. considered them to be “dogs.” And so, the team switched to the very successful Gurney Eagles for the ’74 season. But VPJ-2 went with them to Indy in ’74 as a backup car.
Opperman tentatively introduced himself to Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones. They had heard of him, and knew that he was barnstorming the country and running almost 100 sprint car races a year. Parnelli himself came up racing sprint cars and knew firsthand how much grit and determination it took to run that kind of a schedule.
They agreed to give Op a chance, but there were some strings attached. You see, Opperman showed up to rub shoulders with the big boys wearing his trademark tattered cowboy hat, racing shirt, blue jeans, and moccasins. Before the sponsors started showing up in their private jets and helicopters, Opperman was “encouraged” to get a haircut. “At approximately 10:30 this morning, I became a shorthair again” Opperman said. “Afterwards, at eleven o’clock, I began my rookie test at the Speedway”.
The story that you hear about Opperman’s Indy performance in ’74 leaves out a few important details. The succinct version goes something like this: he spun on lap 85 and was out of the race. But there’s more to the story. Fortunately for us, we have it straight from the man himself. For the ’74 season, Opperman was travelling around with a tape recorder. Automotive writer Joe Scalzo, aware that Opperman’s unique perspective on racing, life, and just about everything else, might make for a good book, equipped him with a recorder and cassettes and encouraged him to make daily reports of his exploits. The resulting book, Odyssey, the Racing Diary of Jan Opperman, is transcribed straight from those tapes. And it’s amazing.
So what did happen on lap 85? Opperman was running 10th, which is not bad for first timer in a pack of the greatest racing drivers in the world. He was having a pretty good run, having passed 21 cars on his way to 10th position. The pit board said P3, signaling that he was to come in for fuel in 3 laps. Then the trouble started. The car in front of him lost an oil line and started oiling down the track. Opperman did an admirable job of avoiding the mess while also avoiding teammate Al Sr. coming up fast behind him. But finally, going into turn 4, the car with the oil leak scattered its engine entirely. A piece of shrapnel punctured Opperman’s right rear tire. He spun, but reigned it in before hitting anything. By then all four tires were flat. The car could easily have been patched up in the pits, but the nail in the coffin was the tow truck picking the car up by the cage and dropping it in the infield. At Indy, that means you’re out. He was 100 feet from the pits, where fresh tires and fuel were waiting for him.
But that’s not the end. Opperman went on to run this car again, at Pocono later in ’74. This time went even worse than Indy. The car had been leaking water, and in spite of various attempts to fix it, Opperman made it only four laps before getting bathed in hot water and the temp gauge said it was time to pull in. As far as we know, that’s the last time this car was ever raced. It would go on to sit in Jones’s museum in as-raced condition before coming the Museum of American Speed.
Opperman would return to Indy in a different car in 1975, but didn’t qualify. Then he was back in ‘76, just a few months after his win at the Hulman Classic. He made the show at the very last second on bump day and would go on to finish 10th. Four months later he would suffer a crash that marked the beginning of the end of his career.
And so, after all of that, it’s only fitting that this car has landed in the Museum of American Speed. There it will stand next to the car that would carry Opperman and Bill to the podium at Terre Haute. It hasn’t been restored, and the fact that it still wears the scars of battle makes us feel that much closer to its legendary last driver.
Special thanks to Bob Mays for lending his immense knowledge of all things racing to this article.