The Colorful Indy Rookie Class Of 1974

By most accounts the rookie class of 1965 with future “500” winners Al Unser, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, future IndyCar champion Joe Leonard and standout drivers such as Bobby Johns, Jerry Grant, George Snider, Arnie Knepper, Mickey Rupp and Masten Gregory is considered the best. However the class of 1974 may have been one of the most colorful. Let’s take a look at the class which included a school teacher, drag racer, a hippie, a badgerland milk deliveryman, a barber and a cop.

Tom Sneva, this former school teacher from Spokane, Washington cut his teeth in the rough and tumble northwest. Moving to USAC in the early 1970’s Sneva drove Carl Gehlhausen’s rear-engine sprinter and tore up the pavement racing scene causing USAC to ban rear-engine sprint cars. In 1973, Sneva drove the forgettable Tipke in his first Indy Car race. Later he oved to Grant King’s underfunded team driving the No. 24 Kingfish, a copy of a 1972 Eagle. After several surprising finishes he caught the eye of Roger Penske and became a two-time IndyCar champion and won the 1983 Indianapolis 500 with Tom Cotter and George Bignotti. Sneva became one of the more honest and jocular color commentators and was perhaps too witty as he separated from ABC. A lifelong lover of golf, Sneva enjoys retirement in Phoenix.

Duane “Pancho” Carter was one of the last to move from USAC Sprints and midgets to the IndyCar circuit. A champion in both USAC Sprints and midgets, in 1974 the second-generation racer was hired by Bob Fletcher and teamed with Jimmy Caruthers and Jerry Grant. Carter enjoyed moderate success with Fletcher and after a two-year stint with Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers moved back to Fletcher in late-1977. A late post-season testing crash at Phoenix nearly ended his career. Carter received serious fractures in his leg, hips and pelvis that made it amazing he returned to racing in 1978. Carter moved to the Alex Morales’ Alex XLNT Foods ride in 1979 which culminated with a win in the inaugural Michigan 500 in 1981. Carter continued with limited success and raced in his final Indy 500 in 1991. Today Carter is a spotter and driver coach.

Bill Simpson was lying in the hospital after receiving injuries from a drag racing crash when he saw a jet fighter on TV using a parachute to slow the plane on landing, thus Simpson Safety Equipment was born. The Californian came to Indianapolis in 1970 and with his long hair turned some heads from the conservative drivers of the day. After several misses at making the “500” field and threats to cut his hair, Simpson finally made the field in 1974. Teamed with owner Dick Beith put the All-American Kids Racers Eagle-Offy safely in the race. Simpson, never afraid to speak mind has been a safety advocate who increased the awareness of driver safety not only to the sanctioning bodies but the driver too. Simpson nearly missed the field in 1976 and 1977 and moved out of the cockpit shortly afterward. Simpson is remembered for showing the value of his fireproof suits by setting himself on fire twice, the last in 1987. Simpson is now owner of Impact! Safety Equipment after selling Simpson Safety Equipment earlier this decade.

Jan Opperman known as the racing hippie was a legend in a sprint car. Whether it had a wing or not, Opperman was of the original “outlaw” racers who was feared on any dirt track. In 1974, Parnelli Jones brought Opperman to the track and had him get a haircut (twice) to clean up his image. Opperman breezed though his rookie test and seem to adjust well to the pavement. However on race day Opperman spun his Viceroy Parnelli-Offy out of the race. Opperman made the race again in 1976, however received serious injuries in the Hoosier 100 that September. Opperman made a comeback, which some disagreed with, only to be seriously injured again in 1981 at Jennerstown, PA. He never fully recovered from his serious head injury and succumbed to natural causes in 1997.

Whitewater’s own Tom Bigelow was a Wisconsin racing legend and a fan favorite. Bigelow cut his racing teeth driving midgets on the weekends and a milk truck during the week. Always ready to share a beer and sign an autograph after a race Bigelow still draws a crowd when visiting Gasoline Alley. Bigelow came with Rolla Vollstedt in 1973 but missed the field. After an spectacular early month practice crash with fellow rookie Lee Brayton, Bigelow may had thought he was never going to make the field. However, Vollstedt and the crew repaired the car and made the show. Bigelow made the field “500” nine consecutive times through 1982. Tom now resides in Winchester, Indiana and still seen at racetracks across the Midwest.

Larry “Boom Boom” Cannon is remembered more for his nickname than his accomplishments in at Speedway however the racing barber was respected sprint car driver. Cannon overcame several serious crashes and cracked the starting field in 1974 in a five year old Eagle owned by legendary car owner, Gus Hoffman. Cannon made the field again in 1977 and 1980, every year Johnny Rutherford won the race! A barber in his native Danville, IL, Cannon passed away in 1995.

Johnny Parsons like Sneva, Simpson, Bigelow and Cannon did not make the “500” on his first try. Son of the 1950 Indy 500 winner, Parsons was a Los Angeles Police officer when he had to make a decision, cop or racecar driver? Well, in 1969, the former cop made his first IndyCar start at the road course at Riverside driving Joe Hunt’s dirt car! Longtime Greek car owner Tassi Vatis brought Parsons to Indianapolis in 1973 and he made the race in 1974. Parsons ended up driving in 12 races at Indianapolis, his best finish 5th (1977 & 1985) and made his last start in 1996. Parsons is still active in racing in various media duties.

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