Sprint Car Outlaws - Rico Abreu, Jan Opperman, and 50 Years of Sprint Car Technology
In racing, things can change quickly. Split seconds can separate disaster from victory on the track. Technology is constantly changing our cars and the way we race. But in the midst of all this change, there are a few things that seem to stay the same. Our 70th anniversary has us thinking about all that has changed and all that has remained constant over the last seven decades in the racing business, and our display at this year’s PRI show is a great case study. We’ve parked a legendary, mid-70’s 4x sprint car next to the modern Eagle Motorsports sprint car piloted by Rico Abreu. At a glance, the two cars look like they’re from different planets, but under the skin they’re surprisingly similar.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of 48 years of sprint car evolution, we can’t ignore a few similarities between the men behind the machines. Jan Opperman famously piloted the black 4x to victory at the ’76 Hulman Classic in front of a television audience of millions. He was enormously popular in the late 60’s and 70’s, as much for his magnetic personality as for his skill behind the wheel. He’s often called the original “outlaw,” racing wherever he could get a ride with no regard to organization or affiliation. A quick look at Rico Abreu’s 2022 schedule shows that he too was all over the place, running with a few different clubs, aways with a distinctive style that has made him a fan favorite. Highlights of his season include 19 top-ten finished with the World of Outlaws, 39 top-tens overall, with 21 top-fives and six wins.
It's also significant to note that both of these cars were built in Lincoln, Nebraska. Don Maxwell came to Lincoln to work for “Speedy” Bill Smith, but soon was out on his own. Working with behind the wheel intel from Jan Opperman, Maxwell approached each car like a work of art. He was constantly late in delivering cars, but those who were willing to wait took delivery of an impeccably built, technically advanced car. Maxwell built this car in the summer of ’74 and, predictably, delivered it to “Speedy” Bill a few months late in August of that year.
Rico’s Rowdy Energy No. 24 car was built at EMi, a few miles from Don Maxwell’s former shop and in the building that housed Speedway Motors from 1978 through the 1990’s. EMi employs legendary builders like Brian Schnee, and we’ve seen firsthand the outrageous commitment to quality in every car they build. Like Don Maxwell’s creations, it’s no stretch to say that each one is a work of art, built by masters of the tube notcher and TIG welder.
If you look past the giant wings that all sprint cars started wearing in the 80’s, these two cars are very similar in stature. Both have wheelbases within a few inches of each other. Both are suspended with four torsion bars. The modern car wears shocks with adjustable valving, allowing team and driver to precisely dial in the car based on changing track conditions. The Maxwell/Opperman car also has what were then state of the art Koni adjustable shocks, but it also has a stone-age, but still quite ingenious way to adjust the car's setup. If you look out the left side of the cockpit, there’s an actual 3/8"-drive ratchet handle hanging off a heim joint with a long tube that extends forward to the right front torsion bar stop. What gives? This was an early effort to give Opperman the ability to change the setup in the car on the fly. It may look silly by today’s standards, but it was groundbreaking in its day.
When it comes to the engines, things might look similar at a glance, but look a little deeper and you’ll find similarities in name only. Yes, they’re both small block Chevys, both have Hilborn-style mechanical injection, and both have magnetos. But that’s about the end of it. The old 4x has an iron-block 302 (small displacement to run USAC in the 70’s) built by Lincoln engine ace John Marsh. Rico’s 410 built by Speedway Engineering in Indianapolis is a monster by comparison. Modern 410’s have pushed the almost 70-year-old SBC design to the ragged edge. Blocks are made of aluminum and absolutely everything non-essential is machined away by a CNC program. Ditto the heads, with enormous runners and injectors right above the valves. We don’t want to give away any of Rico’s secrets, so here’s the inside scoop on a 410 that we put together a couple years back.
Behind the engines, there’s more “same but different.” The early car uses an “in/out” box, with a shifter allowing the driver to engage or disengage the drive. The modern car runs a Winters quickchange with a shifter that engages and disengages the rear via cable. Both, however, run the torque ball/torque tube driveline that amazingly descends from early Ford design from the 1900’s.
Modern sprint car safety has come a long way since the 1970’s. Rico’s car sports a full containment seat, designed to protect the driver and minimize his movement in case of a hard crash or rollover. Opperman sat in what Museum of American Speed Historian Bob Mays calls the “Grandfather of the modern racing seat,” an early wraparound seat built by Maxwell employee Randy Hunt. As cars were getting faster, drivers needed the extra support, and Maxwell and Hunt were among the first to create the wraparound design. It’s looks archaic next to it’s modern descendants, but it was yet another big step forward in its day.
What do all these changes actually mean on the track? Bear with us here as we try to come up with the closest side by side comparison possible. In 1976, Don Maxwell qualified for the Knoxville Nationals with a lap time of 22.387 seconds around the ½ mile oval behind the wheel of one of his own cars. Fast forward to the 2022 Nationals and Rico Abreu qualified with a 15.769 lap. We’re here to tell you that 6 ½ seconds is an eternity in a world where your fate is determined by thousandths of a second. 46 years is a long time for technology to progress, but it's also a long time for a winning formula to stay relatively unchanged. We can't wait to see what the sprint car of 2068 will look like!
If you plan to attend the 2022 PRI Show, be sure to stop by the Speedway Motors booth to check out these cars and a ton of new racing products!