The sprint-car racing world changed on Sept. 11, 1976, when Jan Opperman suffered a closed head injury during the Hoosier Hundred USAC Dirt Track Championship race at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
Opperman, the quintessential “outlaw” sprint-car racer, was battling for the lead in the nation’s most prestigious dirt-track race when he was involved in a five-car crash that left him in critical condition.
At the halfway mark of the 100-lap race, Johnny Parsons was leading with Opperman second and Bubby Jones close behind in third.
But on the next trip around the slick one-mile dirt oval, Parsons slipped from the groove between turns three and four, lost control and backed the No. 93 Ayr-Way entry into the outside wall.
Opperman instinctively cranked his car parallel to Parsons’s and he, too, went into the wall, but his No. 12 Longhorn Racing machine did a slow roll. Jones followed the same path and also crashed. Bruce Walkup, Joe Saldana, A.J. Foyt and Sheldon Kinser missed the tangled cars before Chuck Gurney and Spike Gelhausen plowed into the mess.
Veteran NSSN correspondent Bob Sterling reported that Opperman’s upside-down car was struck three times, including a direct shot to the roll cage. Opperman was unconscious when he was extricated from the car and transported to Methodist Hospital.
A hospital spokesman said Opperman temporarily regained consciousness on Monday and by Tuesday he was lapsing in and out of consciousness and had begun to recognize people.
“The part of the brain that was injured was the part that keeps him awake,” Dr. Robert Silbert explained several weeks later. “That’s why he kept lapsing in and out of consciousness.”
Opperman’s condition steadily improved and by mid-October he had been released from the Hook Rehabilitation Center.
“I’m starting to get it together,” Opperman said while staying at the home of fellow racer Rich Lovell in Elwood, Ind. “I can walk pretty good and run just a little. But I still get a little flighty and dizzy when I do. But I really needed to get out and start living a normal life.”
While Opperman eventually drove sprint cars again, his skills behind the wheel were greatly diminished and he never returned to the form that had thrilled dirt-track fans from coast to coast.
A second severe head injury, suffered on June 20, 1981, in a United Racing Club sprint-car event at Jennerstown (Pa.) Speedway, left Opperman to live out his life as an invalid. He died on Sept. 4, 1997, at the age of 58.