The Jan Opperman 4x Sprint Car
2022 is the 70th anniversary of Speedway Motors. We’ve been talking about it all year, and we’ve brought you a few pieces of that long history. There’s been a few famous race cars and we even interviewed the Smith family to get the inside scoop on seven decades in the family business. Well, we haven’t even scratched the surface of all the crazy stories to be told. Turns out 70 years in the hot rod and racing world makes for some pretty colorful tales, and the story of this legendary sprint car is a good one.
USAC loomed large in the 1970’s as the dominant force in open wheel racing. The perception among many was that the big dogs ran with USAC and everyone else racing with various clubs around the country was somehow “less than.” “Speedy” Bill Smith already had a couple decades of successful racing under his belt with several other organizations, and he felt that this characterization was a bit unfair. He had been working hard with fast cars and talented drivers for a long time and wasn’t about to be perceived as second banana to any club or car owner. So, in 1976, Bill was on a mission to prove himself while simultaneously sticking it to the USAC man. Best way to do it? Beat them in their own backyard. Even better if it can be done in front of a national audience.
The Tony Hulman Classic was a big deal right out of the gate in 1971. A perfect storm of factors added up to make it the biggest sprint car race in the country at the time. First was its proximity to the Indy 500, both on the calendar and geographically. In the early years, the nation’s best and fastest hot shoes would show up to run the Hulman on dirt, then run the 500 later in the month. It was the highest paying dirt race on the calendar, adding to the allure for the best teams in the country. Finally, remember that “national audience” part? It was televised on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” the first sprint car race to be covered so prominently. And in ‘76, ABC cut in coverage of the Kentucky Derby, adding a few more to the millions of eyeballs that were on the Terre Haute Action Track that fateful Saturday.
To add insult to the injury that “Speedy” Bill was dreaming up, his driver was the poster boy for the outsider, “outlaw” racer. Jan Opperman was known as the “racing hippie,” famous for a freewheeling, rambling lifestyle, long hair, and otherwise unkempt appearance. But he was also one of the most talented drivers to ever wheel a sprint car. He was a USAC member, having run the Indy 500 in ’74, but he was also barnstorming across the country, running wherever he could with no particular allegiance to club or organization. Who better to help Bill Smith tear down the walls than somebody who didn’t really believe in them anyway?
After making the necessary changes to the car to pass USAC tech, “Speedy” Bill swore there were conspiratorial factors at play when he drew the pill for qualifying. The high number meant Opperman would be one of the last on the track, which by then was sure to be dry, slick, and virtually guaranteed a poor qualifying performance and subsequent spot at the back of the pack for the feature. But car and driver came through anyway, qualifying fifth. That put him on the front row, right in front of USAC favorite Pancho Carter.
In addition to the millions watching from home, the 8,000 fans in the stands saw Opperman jump to an early lead, with Bubby Jones and Pancho following his high line against the cushion. Opperman managed to stay out ahead of a hard charging Carter, but with 10 laps to go, Tom Bigelow’s car let go of its left rear tire and wheel, bringing out a caution and bunching the cars up again. If Carter was going to get Opperman, this was his chance. When the green flag dropped again, Opperman changed lines, dropping down to the middle of the track. From there, he was able to block Carter no matter what angle he tried. When the checkered flag dropped, it was Opperman out front, followed by a stomping mad Pancho Carter, and Bubby Jones in third.
Jan Opperman and “Speedy” Bill had done it. The victory on USAC’s home turf was just one of the many cracks that eventually caused the wall to fall, opening things up to a generation of outlaw racers. A then unheard of $12,000 purse came home with them, and Bill Smith would talk about this event for the rest of his life, often claiming it to be his proudest accomplishment in a long lifetime of racing.
For Opperman, the story doesn’t end so happily. A little more than four months later, a hard crash at the Hoosier Hundred was the beginning of the end for Jan’s racing career. He would return from that crash, though never fully able to recapture the magic, only to crash again in 1981 and spend the rest of his life incapacitated and dependent on the care of others. It’s a sad end to one of the most colorful careers in the history of the sport. Below is a great tribute to Jan Opperman put together by the Museum of American Speed.
You’ll often hear us talk about the experience of standing in the presence of these old cars. Each one is different, as varied as the many lives they have led. This 4x sprint car was impeccably built by the great Don Maxwell and driven to many other feature wins by famous names like Wolfgang and Saldana. If you listen, it has stories to tell about each of them. But it’s hard to stand in front of this car in the Museum of American Speed, parked right next to the display that houses Opperman’s trademark tattered cowboy hat and his bible, and not feel the thrill of that Saturday in May, now 46 years ago, when “Speedy” Bill Smith and Jan Opperman stood on top of the world. They had just beaten the best of the best in front of a whole nation watching from their living rooms, and the future was bright ahead of them.
As part of our anniversary celebration, we’re bringing the old 4x out to the 2022 PRI show in Indianapolis. Next to it will sit a modern Eagle Motorsports sprint car belonging to modern outlaw Rico Abreu. This made us wonder, how much has changed from then to now in sprint car technology? We dug into that question a little, and you can check it out here. If you plan to attend the show, be sure to stop by the Speedway Motors booth to check out these cars and a ton of new racing products. As a bonus, Rico Abreu himself will be in the booth signing autographs on Thursday, December 8th and Friday, December 9th from 1-2pm!