Jan Opperman did a lot of amazing things in sprints, midgets and dirt cars but his performance at Indianapolis in May of 1976 was just confirmation of his badass calling.
Driving an old Eagle for Don Mergard, Opp had nursed it into the field but when qualifying opened on the fourth and final day, he was immediately bumped.
“He was pretty down and said, ‘Let’s go to Findlay, I can make $1,000 there tonight if I win the sprint feature,” recalls Tim Coffeen, a longtime IndyCar mechanic and former sprint car driver who helped Opperman in the early ’70s when he was establishing his reputation.
But Terry Otero, his chief mechanic on the Speedway Motors #4X sprinter, told him, “We`re not going to Findlay — you deserve to be in the Indy 500 and we’re going to find you a ride.”
A couple hours later, Dick Routh approached Opperman and asked if he wanted to try out his car, which was an older VPJ Eagle. Earlier, USAC had refused Gary Allbritain, Routh’s original driver, a rookie test because he had had crashed Routh’s car at both Phoenix and Trenton. Steve Krisiloff drove it, then got out and went to Bill Finley. Jerry Karl ran a bunch of laps and wasn’t up to speed.
The first thing Jan did was go find Ted Swiontek (pictured in glasses, next to Opperman above), a great sprint car mechanic from Pennsylvania who had been working on Indy cars as well in the early 1970s. Jan went out, ran a couple of laps and told Ted the car was really nervous from the middle of the corner out and the car lacked straightaway speed.
“Ted, along with Routh’s chief mechanic, Todd Gibson, (who was also a helluva race driver) removed the shocks and found the bump rubbers were bottoming out on the left side before the right. They changed the bump rubbers and Art Lamey of Champion inspected the Offy’s spark plugs. Art suggested new plugs and richening up the fuel mixture on the engine.
“Jan suddenly jumps up to 179mph, just shy of bumping speed, but wants new tires as the current set had a bunch of laps on them. The crew gets new tires mounted, Opp scrubbed ’em in and they pushed the car in line to qualify. But a qualifying line had formed and it looks to be too little, too late. Chris Economacki thrusts a microphone in Opp’s face and asks him, “What does it feel like to miss the show?”
But Billy Engelhart is a good sport and pulls in after two laps too slow and Jan pulls away just as the 6 o’clock gun goes off. He kills the engine on the way out of the pits but gets it fired and then drives into the starting line-up with a clutch run that bumps Eldon Rasmussen.
So with a total of 10 hot laps, some grassroots logic from Swiontek, Gibson and Otero and Jan’s undeniable talent, this little team made the show in what can best be described as the annual drama of Bump Day in the ’60s and ’70s.
It’s why Indianapolis held such a grip on people and why being one of the fastest 33 qualifiers back then was such a big deal.
Later that summer Opp went on a tear in USAC — winning Dayton, IRP, Little Springfield, Eldora, Ascot, leading Springfield and finishing sixth at Ontario before being critically injured at the Hoosier Hundred.
He never again sat in an Indy car and his career never recovered from his injuries but his performance under fire in May of 1976 only added to his legacy.