His life was the stuff of movies and songs. Call it, “The Ballad of Jan Opperman.” A true free spirit from the hippie days of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, who believed strongly in both religion and racing.
Opperman was one of the first of what became known as “outlaw” drivers in the world of Sprint Car racing. He didn’t race for points or championships, only for victories and the sheer fun of the sport. He was a local weekend racer who, when the mood hit him, would travel the country going from track to track competing in events for various sanctioning bodies.
All the while, Opperman was winning races and winning over the Sprint Car fans, who felt a strong connection to this “outlaw” racer.
“He was very much a free spirit, and that’s part of what attracted people to him,” said Dick Berggren, a longtime motorsports announcer and magazine editor. “He was such an incredibly good spokesperson for the sport itself. That combined with his success as a driver made him somebody who truly was a memorable person.
“There was just some magic to him. He was not an average person by any stretch of the imagination. He looked different, he talked different, he drove different. He was different.”
Jan Opperman was born in February 1939 near Los Angeles. As a teenager, Opperman briefly competed in boxing and football before settling on motorsports. He began by racing on the Pacific Coast circuit of the American Motorcycle Association (AMA), then turned his attention to Midget Cars in the Bay Cities Racing Association. Finally in 1967 he became a regular in Sprint Car racing.
Opperman was very much a child of 1960s California, and he took that attitude with him into Sprint Car. He had long hair, wore raggedy blue jeans and a tattered western hat, and did not try to hide the fact he smoked pot.
This image might not have worked well in many forms of auto racing at that time, but Berggren said Opperman was ideal for the rough-on-the-edges crowd found at Sprint Car events.
“Sprint Car racing is a sport where you’re not going to see anybody sipping Chardonnay and eating cheese and crackers,” Berggren said. “Opperman fit right in with that, and the people who followed that sport loved him. He was somebody who crowds just gravitated to.”
But even though he lived a bit on the wild side, Opperman also was a devoutly religious man who wore the sign of the cross on his helmet and occasionally on his race cars. This helped him attract fans who might otherwise have been turned off by his counterculture antics.
Of course, none of this would have mattered much if Opperman hadn’t won races. But he did win, often. Sprint Car records from that era are sketchy, but Opperman picked up dozens of victories every year. It is believed that his best season was in 1972 with 44 feature wins.
“He took on absolutely the toughest that there were in his era of Sprint Car racing and beat them all,” Berggren said. “He went to the United States Auto Club (USAC), which at the time was by far the premier division in the United States, and he beat them. This is a guy who was really a local weekend racer. And yet, when came time, off he’d go and win all these races.”
Opperman’s biggest victories were in the 1971 Knoxville Nationals, which is the premiere event in Sprint Car racing, and the 1976 Hulman Classic in Terre Haute, Ind., which featured most of the circuit’s top drivers as well as a few Indianapolis 500 entrants. He was a two-time National Supermodified champion in 1971 and ‘72, and the World Dirt Track champion in 1973.
All this success caught the attention of Parnelli Jones, winner of the 1963 Indy 500 who had moved to team ownership after his racing career. Jones put Opperman in one of his cars for the 1974 Indy 500 and Opperman finished 21st. He returned to the legendary race two years later and posted a 16th-place finish.
Opperman started a total of nine Indy Car races, with three top-10 finishes. He even took a shot at NASCAR with an eighth-place showing at Pocono Raceway in 1974.
Berggren believes Opperman was positioning himself for a serious attempt at a full-time Indy Car career. But everything changed after Opperman suffered severe head injuries in an accident at the Indianapolis State Fairgrounds in 1976. The wreck forced him to sit out the entire ’77 season.
“I think he was potentially headed for Indy,” Berggren said. “He was racing in the right places and under the right spotlight. He certainly had the talent and natural ability to do it. And no fear whatsoever. Absolutely nothing scared him.
“There have been a lot of people who have been on the threshold of greatness and never made it. But had he not been hurt that day, I think Jan Opperman would have made it, because he was prepared to do whatever was necessary to be successful at it.”
Opperman returned to the track in 1978 and continued occasional Sprint Car racing before an accident in 1981 at Jennerstown, Pa., left him in need of constant medical attention. He died on Sept. 4, 1997 from lingering injuries caused by the wreck.
“Sprint Car fit his personality, but I think he would have been very much welcomed in the big league of Indy Car racing had he made it,” Berggren said. “Charismatic people who draw fans are well valued in any sport. And Jan Opperman was remarkably charismatic.”
Tickets available for the 2011 International Motorsports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, scheduled for April 14, 2011, at the SPEED Channel Dome in Talladega, Ala. This black-tie ceremony consists of a reception, banquet and awards ceremony. (Tuxedo Required Event) Individual tickets are $125 and a table for eight may be purchased for $1000 by calling 256-315-4631 or 256-315-4528. Visa, MasterCard and Discover are accepted.