Introduction: The Story Begins
Eleven years ago, on September 4, 1997, Jan Opperman, dirt track racing legend, passed away in Fountain, Florida. After a second horrific racing crash, he lived for sixteen years as an invalid, cared for by his parents until his death.
His death was overshadowed at the same time and year by the passing of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. Although Opperman never achieved that kind of universal notoriety, for those who knew Jan or who watched him race, he was equally a legend, on and off the track.
Opperman was the original “outlaw” with his long hair and tattered jeans. Yet he was the ultimate racer, with a faith in his God that never quit.
While Jan Opperman was a legend to so many, he was even more than that to me. He was my idol, the recipient of my “teenage crush”, and my Uncle Dick Bogar’s race car driver. I was in awe of this most charismatic man that was at much at home hosting a prayer meeting before a race as he was flinging himself around the turns of the Selinsgrove Speedway dirt track.
Jan was the racer responsible for my falling in love with NASCAR. And his career, and ultimately life ending, crash was the reason that I stopped watching racing for many years.
It was only until recently that I returned to racing, after a visit to Lowe’s Motor Speedway to watch a driver whose name I didn’t even know at the time drive a rainbow colored car with the number 24 on the side. And, just as in my teenage years watching Jan Opperman, I fell back in love with NASCAR.
This past summer, we had a Bogar family reunion. It was a blessing to see all of the aunts, uncles, cousins and families, many of whom we had lost touch with through the years. And it was the chance to see my uncle, Dick Bogar, bringing back all those memories of the orange 99, with Jan Opperman at the wheel.
All of us cousins went that evening to Selinsgrove Speedway, not only to remember Jan, but also to once again experience the ultimate thrill that is Pennsylvania dirt track racing.
All of these memories, especially on this anniversary of Jan’s death, along with great encouragement by L.J. Burgess, Bleacher Report’s Auto Racing Community Leader extraordinaire, has prompted me to revisit this time in my life and to try to fill in the many gaps in my own memory of knowing Jan Opperman.
I have done all the research, particularly enjoying the book Dialed In by John Sawyer, who truly told the tale of Jan’s escapades on and off the track. Many of the facts of Jan’s life are indeed from this wonderful biography, done by a fellow racer and friend who had the privilege of knowing Jan better than I ever could.
This is the story of a racing legend. I plan to share it in parts, as it encompasses the life of Jan Opperman, from the early years, to his Pennsylvania days when I knew him, to his later years before his career-ending crash. Jan’s reputation as both racing “hippie” and “Jesus Man”, as he called himself, will also be explored.
As with every racer, there are many faces, sides and aspects to the Jan Opperman story. I hope that you will enjoy the journey that is the career of Jan Opperman as much as I have, watching it play out with my own eyes. Stay tuned for the first part of the story, Jan Opperman’s early years, to be continued later this week.
Here is Part One in the Series: Jan Opperman—The Original Racing "Outlaw" (Part One)