[Phil Rider's review of WHERE EAGLES FLY appeared in the Nov. 27 issue of National Speed Sport News, and is reposted with his permission. -- email@example.com]
Where Eagles Fly By: Harvey Shapiro 208 pages, illustrated, hardcover, $30 Witness Productions (Box 34, Church St., Marshall, IN, 47859), 1996
By PHIL RIDER
Harvey Shapiro's Where Eagles Fly is the newest of the books on Jan Opperman and is in some ways the most interesting because it presents Opperman from several different points of view.
Approximately one-third of this book is a fairly straightforward biography of Opperman, tracing his beginnings in motorcycles, through the midget and sprint wars, to the Indianapolis 500, and then to his two career-ending crashes. His races at Indy are covered in detail, as are his time with the United States Auto Club and his first serious crash in the 1976 Hoosier Hundred. But there are a lot of other sources for this information, and while it is convenient to have it gathered together and the 80-plus black-and-whitephotographs and wonderful, if this were all Shapiro had to say, this book would not be needed.
The bulk of the book is made up of stories about Jan told by the people whose lives he touched in one way or another, and it is these stories that give the book its strength. Some of the stories come from family members, including daughters Teacia, Krystal, and Jay Lou, and son Jan T., whose memories of him are of a father more than a race driver. From Jay Lou: "My best memories are more of Montana, especially when it comes to Dad. I knew he was a famous race car driver, but I didn't really like racing. I loved the time my dad stayed home and spent with us." And from Jan's early years comes a recounting by his grade school principal of what the brothers Jan and Jay were like as young boys.
Reminiscences of Jan as driver, friend, and adversary come from a wide variety of people in racing. Luke Bogar, Jr., owner of the Bogar 99 sprint car that Opperman made famous, says "Jan Opperman was the greatest dirt track driver that ever existed". Kenny Weld, whose rivalry with Opperman in the early '70s is the stuff of legend, tells his side of the story ("I didn't particularly like Jan. I didn't care for what he did," but "Jan Opperman was one of the best drivers ever"). Other drivers featured in the book include Rich Leavell (who remains one of Jan's closest friends) and LynnPaxton who competed with him regularly on the central Pennsylvania circuit.
Former URC President Jim Campbell, former USAC sprint car supervisor Russ Clendenen, photographers Leroy Byers and John Mahoney, and many other mechanics, car owners, and even fans provided Shapiro with accounts of their experiences with Opperman. Cary Agajanian and Dick Berggren, operators of the Jan Opperman Fund, explain how it came to be and how it is administered. All of these first-person accounts, combined with the historical record of Opperman's life and career, make for fascinating reading. They paint a picture not just of a superbly talented athlete but of an individual whose zest for life and compassionate for others is both heartwarming and, in his present circumstances, heartbreaking.
Seventy-five percent of the profits from the sale of Where Eagles Fly are being donated to the Jan Opperman Fund.