A natural driving talent with shaggy hair and a battered cowboy hat, Jan Opperman (February 9, 1939 – September 4, 1997) was a traveling “outlaw” and one of the most talented open-cockpit racers. And his skills were such that his unconventional outlook and varied ideas were secondary to top-flight car owners who knew he could get the job done on the race track.
Born in Los Angeles, California, and raised in several areas of the Pacific Northwest during his first 16 years, Opperman learned to box and began racing flat-track Motorcycles.
Someone who also enjoyed the outdoors, Opperman embraced the “hippie” lifestyle of the 1960s and after giving up Motorcycles he started racing Midgets with Northern California’s Bay Cities Racing Association. Then, after being quite successful in BCRA events and in the region’s Sprint Cars, he headed to the bigger races in the Midwest and East.
One of the first modern “outlaw” racers, Opperman went wherever the purses were the best and he raced over 100 times a year. A consistent winner and popular draw, promoters also paid him appearance money which allowed him to make a pretty decent living while driving Bob Trestle’s No. 88, LaVerne Nance’s No. 1n and Bill Smith’s Speedway Motors No. 4x.
During the mid-1960s Opperman was introduced to Christianity while living in Beaver Crossing, Nebraska, and he immediately changed his lifestyle. Displaying crosses on his race cars and wearing them around his neck and on his driving uniforms, he was nicknamed “The Preacher” as a result of his dynamic Christian presence and he was still winning plenty of races.
By the 1970s Beaver Springs, Pennsylvania, was Opperman’s home and he was driving Dick Bogar’s No. 99 in Central Pennsylvania, United States Auto Club (wingless) and World of Outlaws races. In this car he won: 1971’s Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals and the Western World Championship at Manzanita (Arizona) Speedway; 44 races in 1972 plus his second Western World title; and, 26 races in 1974 including the International Motor Contest Association’s Winternationals title in Florida and his only track championship at Selinsgrove (Pa.) Speedway.
In 1974, Opperman – who also drove Paul Deasey’s famed yellow No. 707 dirt-track Modified 1937 Chevrolet coupe and the purple and white Butler-built No. 71 asphalt Modified at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway – got his hair trimmed to a more conservative length and joined 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones’ team at the Indianapolis 500. But he didn’t have much luck at the Speedway: he qualified 32nd and finished 21st in Jones’ No. 51 Offy-powered Viceroy entry; missed qualifying for the race in 1975; and, in 1976, he started 33rd and finished 16th in Bobby Hillin’s No. 8 Long Horn Racing Eagle/Offy.
The winner of 1975’s Northwest Dirt Cup and Big Car Racing Association titles, though, was still turning heads in USAC’s Sprint Car and Dirt Car divisions. He won USAC Sprint and Midget races on Dayton (Ohio) Speedway’s asphalt high banks and drove Smith’s black Speed-way Motors No. 64 to victory in the 1976 Hulman Classic at Terre Haute, Indiana, that was televised on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” But while battling for the lead in Hillin’s No. 12 USAC Dirt Car on September 11, 1976, at the Hoosier Hundred on the one-mile Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis he was in a serious accident and suffered critical head injuries.
After a long recovery, Jan Opperman – who was now living in Noxon, Montana, and working with troubled youths – returned to racing in 1978. Alas, his illustrious career ended in 1981 after a United Racing Club Sprint Car accident at the half-mile asphalt Jennerstown (Pa.) Speedway that required him to be under round-the-clock care for the rest of his life.
In recognition of his outstanding career, the Jan Opperman Memorial is held annually at Selinsgrove as part of Pennsylvania Sprint Car Speedweeks.