By the time this film was made in 1976, the Tony Hulman classic had become one of the most prestigious and profitable sprint car races in the world. Started in the early 1970 and held every year in Terre Haute, Indiana it drew the baddest, fastest, and coolest drivers in the world in for a big payday and big bragging rights. The 1976 race had the likes of Pancho Carter, Johnny Parsons, and the interesting Jan Opperman from Colorado driving “Speedy” Bill Smith’s car.
Opperman is one of the more interesting characters to burst on the racing scene in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. He won the Knoxville Nationals in 1971 and was an “outlaw” racer at the time meaning he would run races no matter the sanctioning body, rather than just sticking to one. He raced at the Indy 500 and drove USAC champ cars as well. He was a hippie when he first came into he racing world and then became a really religious guy, unafraid and dynamic in his views. One of his signature things was the hat he is often seen to be wearing in photos. This was his brother’s hat and his brother had been killed in a racing accident in the 1970s. It was a personal memento that he always had with him.
1976 would prove to be the apex of Opperman’s career. Winning this race against a load of guys who would race the Indy 500 weeks later got him the equivalent of about $50,000 today and it really thrust him into the national spotlight. Sadly in September of 1976 while racing at the Hoosier Hundred, Opperman had a massive crash where he incurred head injuries. He missed the entire 1977 season and came back in 1978 but never got back to where he was with respect to the successes of 1976 and earlier. You will see Opperman at his absolute best here and that’s the way we’ll opt to remember him.