Q & A: Jimmy Boyd
Catching up with the trailblazing California sprint car racer
Interview + Photos: Saroyan Humphrey
Feature | It’s another blazing, sunny July morning in Dixon, California, and the temperature is going up by the minute. Jimmy Boyd, 76, is looking over his 1939 Chevrolet candy apple metallic red hot rod sedan in the cool shade of his nearly spotless two-car garage. Maxi, a sweet 13-year-old beagle-hound mix, is sharing the space, too. “I like to keep it cool in here for her,” Boyd says. “So I try not to open the door too long.”
It’s been over 30 years since Jimmy Boyd climbed out of a sprint car for the last time, but he can still remember the joy of being at the summit of one of America’s most competitive forms of motorsport. Boyd was a true pioneer and one of the original California “outlaws” on the national sprint-car scene. In the early 1970s he brought innovation to the open-wheel short-track racing community on the West Coast during a time when sprint cars were evolving from supermodifieds. He’s been called the “game changer.”
After winning numerous hardtop, supermodified, midget and sprint car main events across California and track championships at Chico and Anderson, Boyd decided to head to Pennsylvania in 1972. The Keystone state was fertile ground for “super sprint” racing and a place where a good wheelman could potentially make a living driving race cars. Leaving California in the spring, Boyd headed out across the country with his mechanic, Dave Norris, a former wrench with Jan Opperman. Along the way, the duo stopped in Nebraska to visit the Opperman family, and take a break from the road. At the Opperman homestead, Boyd met his future wife, Betty, the widow of Jay Opperman. Jay was Jan’s younger brother, and Jay had been killed in a crash at Knoxville, Iowa, on May 16, 1970.
A winner of over 125 main events across 11 states between 1964 and ’84, Boyd is a member of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville. He’s also been enshrined in numerous California halls of fame, including Calistoga and West Capital Raceway. He was the 1979 NARC sprint car series champion and has eight wins at the historic Calistoga Speedway. He was the first three-time winner of Dirt Cup in Washington.
He is likely best known to race fans as the winner of the first World of Outlaws race on March 18, 1978, at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Mesquite, Texas. “Oh, yeah, that was a highlight,” says the soft-spoken Boyd. Driving the Sacramento-based, Kenny Woodruff-prepared orange No. 21, Boyd beat the best drivers of his day during the final night of the event.
Boyd was also a prolific midget racer, racing on pavement, dirt and at indoor events, including the Cow Palace in Daly City.
These days, Jimmy and Betty enjoy going to a handful of sprint car races each year and keeping an eye on the sprint car scene in Northern California, and on Friday nights during racing season, they check out the flat-track action at the Sacramento Mile. Jimmy and Betty also like hot rodding with their ’39 Chevy. “On the second Tuesday of every month there’s a car show in Winters at the Buckhorn Steakhouse. That place is famous. They shut down the streets and you can get a tri-tip sandwich and a drink for $8. We like going out there. This paint looks good in the sun,” Boyd says, smiling.
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How did you get interested in racing?
When I was real young we lived in Fresno, until I was about eight years old, and our parents (James and Noele Boyd) used to take us to the midget races at Kearney Bowl. We saw Billy Vukovich and Eli Vukovich. All those guys were there. Then we moved up to Redding and they used to take us to the races in Anderson. It was a half-mile dirt track then.
I was living down the street from a wrecking yard and I used to hang out there because they had a hardtop (stock car). I got to know the guy real well. It was Orville Whitson. I asked him how much he had in his car and he said ’$37.50’. Well, after you knew Orville for a while, you knew why because he would borrow something from you and after a while it was his. He wouldn’t return it. (laughs) Plus, he worked at the wrecking yard and in those days the cars were just built out of ’32 and ’34 Fords and they had a ton of that stuff. Anyway, I bought the car from him at the end of the year and started racing it. That was about ’63.
The next year I channeled the body, made it lower and stuff like that. And then the next year after that, I built my own. Then I sold it to a friend of mine and started driving for another guy and then my brother John bought a car and I drove for him for a while. He bought a car (supermodified) from John Siroonian from Fresno. Billy Vukovich had driven it the year before on pavement and we ran it on dirt. We won the track championship at Anderson with it. It was ’67 or ’68.
We’d run Chico on Friday night and Anderson on Saturday night. It was the Valley Auto Racing Association.
After I won the championship and I won a lot of races, people with sprint cars asked me if I wanted to drive for them. That’s kinda how I got into sprint cars.
How much of a transition was it for you moving from supers to sprints?
Well, it was open competition so it wasn’t much different. When I was in a supermodified we’d run with the sprint cars and unless it was a real good one, we’d beat most of the sprint cars. It wasn’t a big difference; a little different, but not much.
You were winning races in California, what made you decide to go racing in Pennsylvania?
Well, it was in 1972, and the mechanic that was helping me had been Jan Opperman’s mechanic (Dave Norris) a couple years before that … and I wanted to go the Midwest and race because I had been back there before. He said, “We oughtta go to Pennsylvania because they pay more money and you can race more times a week…” So we went back there and I shouldn’t have gone back there because the car I had was a spring front and torsion-bar rear and the tracks back there were real rough and that car wasn’t the car for back there.
I’d go back there and race for the summer and come back in the winter and work and go back. I did that for four years.
What type of work were you doing besides racing?
I was a diesel truck mechanic.
Eventually you found success racing in Pennsylvania…
Yeah, I did. I drove for several people back there. I think the last year, I won like five races. Back there you can run like four nights a week but on Friday night, Williams Grove was the only track running, so everybody goes to Williams Grove. So if you win a race there, it’s big. Saturday night, you can go to Lincoln, Port Royal, Selinsgrove, so everybody kinda spreads out. And some people just go to those tracks. But if you win Friday night, that’s a big deal. Anyway, we won a few at Williams Grove that year.
How did you decide where to race?
Well, when I first went back there in that first year, I went to a little track. I don’t remember where. … They announced that I was from California and I was driving way over my head because I wanted to show ’em I was good (laughs). I was used to winning races back here, and those guys were way faster back there and I was driving way over my head. I had it up on two wheels and I still got lapped (laughs).
So I saw Jimmy Edwards. I’d known him from racing at Ascot (Speedway, in Gardena). He asked me, “Where are you going tomorrow night?” I said, “The promoter over at Lincoln would give me show-up money if I go over there.” And he says, “Oh, man; the first night I went there I got lapped twice.” And I said, “Really?” So, anyway, we went over there and I got lapped twice. They were that fast. And then you just get to liking certain tracks and that’s where you go. I liked Selinsgrove a lot, so we went up there a lot.
It wasn’t common in those days to go back east from California to race sprint cars…
Oh, it was uncommon! Jan (Opperman) was the only one that I knew of. That was a couple years earlier. Me and Jimmy Edwards were the only Californians back there. But there was a lot of guys from Texas that would come in there and run like Rick Ferkel. He’d get his ass kicked and go home then he’d come back and then he finally got fast, too. They were fast back there and the cars … they didn’t have any chrome on ’em; they didn’t look pretty, but they were fast.
For a while we were going to Susquehanna, Hagerstown, Maryland, and they opened a new track there at Penn National, at the horserace track, but I think they finally closed it. And then during the week there was always an All-Star race somewhere.
What was the scene in Northern California at the time?
You know, it was more of a weekend warrior thing. I was trying to make a living at it, so, you had to be real serious about it. That’s why I went back there.
So, tell me how did you two meet?
Well, Dave Norris the mechanic I was telling you about, and I were on the way to Pennsylvania and he knew the Oppermans real well. So he wanted to stop and see them and they were living in Lincoln, Nebraska. Or, by Lincoln … Beaver Crossing. So, we stopped to see them and I met her there and we kinda hooked up and then I went onto Pennsylvania and she came back there in a week or two.
Betty Boyd: That was it (laughs). Yeah, it was good. It was time for me to not live with the in-laws anymore. So I gathered up my kids and went (to Pennsylvania with Jimmy).
I had really thought that I would not connect with racing any more, but here comes Jimmy Boyd through town (laughs). I was attracted to him and he stayed for two or three days with us. I went with him to the gas station to gas up his truck as he was going to take off for Pennsylvania, and the guys at the gas station asked me, “Are you going to go with these guys?” I said, “Oh, no…” And, Jimmy says, “She is; she just doesn’t know yet.” (laughs) So, that was cool; that did it.
How long had you been living in Nebraska, Betty?
Betty: Jan (Opperman) actually had a home in Beaver Crossing, too. He and Mary lived there. So I rented a home there after Jay passed away (in 1970) and then the in-laws ended up moving in with me (laughs). It was good …
Jay and I had been living in Montana and Jan called him and asked him if he’d come to Nebraska to drive a (Bob) Trostle (chassis) car … and Jan wanted to go to Pennsylvania and race. So Jay came out to run the Trostle car in the Midwest. That was in ’68, or ’69, and then we lost Jay in Knoxville. So I left Montana in ’70.
But I always liked racing, and the travel. My brother was a pro flat-track racer with Dick Mann and all those guys. So I did a lot of going to races early in my life, seventh, eighth grade. I loved ’em, just loved ’em. I grew up in Castro Valley, and so did the Oppermans.
What was it like traveling with Jimmy?
Betty: Great. I love that—being on the road. I ended up driving once in a while.
Would you rent a house in Pennsylvania?
Betty: Yeah; we didn’t buy anything until we got back to Dixon.
Jimmy: When we were in Pennsylvania, we would try to get a place somewhere around Harrisburg, because that’s the central part of the state. There’s probably seven or eight tracks within a 70-mile radius. We stayed in New Cumberland at first. So, you’re home every night and work on the car and get back out there. But in the Midwest, you’re traveling a lot further.
And we got married before we came back (to California).
Betty: Yeah; Jimmy says, “I want to marry you before we get back to California… .” I said, “OK…” (laughs). The promoter at Lincoln wanted to do a big wedding thing for us at the speedway, but you had to have a blood test in Pennsylvania and we wanted to leave to go to California. But in Maryland you didn’t have to have one. So we went down to Maryland real quick to get married at the Justice of the Peace … the kids were out in the car (laughs) … and drove back. That was late August and it’s been good ever since.
What did you use for a shop when you were in Pennsylvania?
Jimmy: For a while I kept it at a garbage company. I just had a stall there.
Actually, the first year we went back there, we were driving around looking for a place to live. It had been raining a lot and I saw all these people driving around with boats on top of their cars. I thought, man, these guys are panicking over this rain. So, we had my car at this garbage company and that night we ended up sleeping in the back of the pickup at a school parking lot on a hill and I woke up in the morning and there was water all the way around us. We went down to where my car was and you couldn’t get to it … the Susquehanna River had flooded and you couldn’t get over there. So a guy went over there in a boat and he said he could see about a foot of the wing sticking up over the water. It sat under water for three days, until the water went down.
Betty: It was silty mud everywhere. The garage was right on the Susquehanna River.… I couldn’t believe it.
Did you have to do a lot of repair, or replacing?
Jimmy: No, actually, it didn’t hurt a lot of stuff. I had to take everything apart and clean it and the fuel tank was full and the way I had it vented, I had a hose coming off the top going down to the bottom, so no water got in it. The engine was full of water and I had to drain it and I took the magneto out and let it sit upside down in the sun for a couple of days. But it didn’t really hurt anything. Changed the oil, stuff like that.
But right after that I blew an engine up and I didn’t have any money. I think I had like $250 to go from California. But you know, gas was like 50 cents a gallon, at the most. But anyway, Bobby Allen came over and said take it down to Gettle’s (machine shop). They were building his engines. And he said, “Take it down there and have ’em fix it—and just pay me when you can.” So I did that and he didn’t know me from Adam. Jan knew him pretty good; they were good buddies.
So, toward the end of 1973, you brought your Pennsylvania experience back to California, and turned heads… what led up to that?
Jimmy: (In 1972) I got hooked up with Lloyd Racing in Pennsylvania and they were going to build me a car and they wanted to get some out. So when I came back to California, I ended up winning a bunch of races with my own car and I ended up selling it but I kept my engine, rear end and all the stuff I would need. (Charlie) Lloyd said they would have the car done when I went back (to Pennsylvania in 1973) but when I got back there, the car wasn’t done.
Toby Tobias called me to drive a “heavy” (big-block dirt modified). So I did that off and on until we got the (sprint) car finished and the first night out we went to Williams Grove and I went down into the first corner during warmups and it didn’t have any brakes. I ran into Jan and flipped it. Ruined my wing.
Anyway, I had trouble making that car handle … most people had 51-inch rear ends, offset one inch. Well, mine was 48 straight up. So it got too much bite going into the corners. The rear end would stick but it would make the front end push. So I started thinking about it. Finally, I cut everything off the front axle and moved it in, so it would bite harder. I just got the car handling really good before I came back home to California. Then when I got back to California the first race was the Gold Cup (at Capital Speedway) and I won it pretty easy (Boyd lapped the field). That car was fast. It just took me a long time to make it fast.
That ’73 Gold Cup race has been called the “game changer” for West Coast sprint car racing. What did you have that set you apart from what was happening out here?
Jimmy: Those cars were fast back there (in Pennsylvania), the way they built ’em, and everything else. A lot of guys were still running spring fronts here, which is what I took back there originally. And this was a four-bar car. I just had a stock 350 engine in it. It didn’t have a lot of horsepower but it handled really well. But it had taken me all summer to get it that way. Actually, I wish I could’ve still raced it more back there, because I didn’t really do much with it back there.
You took nearly a second off the track record at Capital (during Gold Cup qualifying). That’s unheard of.
Jimmy: Yeah. (smiling)
Betty: It was! It’s funny; I remember I had to go to the restroom and somebody’s in the next stall and she’s like, “Wow! Did you see Jimmy do that?” (laughs).
You went back to Pennsylvania for the next couple of years and you were driving for other car owners.
Jimmy: Yeah, I kept going back until ’75. That was my last year back there. The last year I drove for the promoter at Williams Grove, Jack Gunn, and his brother had a car.
And today, the sprint car scene is still tough in Pennsylvania…
Jimmy: Oh, yeah. You know even when the Outlaws first went there (in ’78), they couldn’t beat those guys. They were fast.
You started racing from Sacramento in ’76, and driving for Kenny Woodruff.
Jimmy: Yeah, I started driving for Kenny and we’d run the Dirt Cup (at Skagit Speedway in Washington). That used to be a really big race. It’s not like it was now but it was a three-day race. I think we won it three times. Jan Opperman drove for Kenny the year before I did. We won a lot of races together. We did a lot of traveling… everywhere, Ascot, Calistoga, Chula Vista, El Centro. There were some times back east we could race 12 days straight. We went to Knoxville and won. We didn’t win the Nationals but we won the regular Saturday night races.
Kenny was a good mechanic. He was really thorough. We learned a lot together. When I started driving for him, I knew more than he did. I drove for him for about four or five years. He was smart and his cars were always in top shape.
Of course, you guys won the first World of Outlaws race in ’78… what do you remember about that journey to Devils Bowl Speedway?
Jimmy: Well, they weren’t racing around here yet (in March) and Kenny had the car ready to go and somehow he heard about a race in (Mesquite) Texas, and asked me if I wanted to go, and I said, “Yeah, let’s go!” And it actually went pretty good.
There were a bunch of big names in that race… so that must’ve made it special.
Jimmy: Yeah, it wasn’t a big deal, being the first Outlaw race because nobody knew what that was. But what I always liked about it was that everybody that was anybody in sprint-car racing was there at the time. All the real fast guys were there. (Steve) Kinser, (Rick) Ferkel, (Doug) Wolfgang, Opperman, Bobby Allen… a lot of guys.
What do you think made the combination of you and Kenny Woodruff so good?
Jimmy: I think we were both ornery. (laughs) No, I don’t know. I got along with Kenny. He was kinda quiet, kinda gruff.
You seemed to be really good on the road…
Jimmy: I don’t know. I adapt to tracks really well. I don’t know why but I adapt to tracks I’ve never been to. Easier than most, for some reason.
I set a track record down at El Centro one time and it could never be broken. … Well, for one, they don’t race there anymore but … it was a half-mile dirt track at the time, and right in the middle of qualifying it started raining. So half the guys had qualified and the other half went out after the rain. Well, I was like the second or third guy out in the second half and I broke the track record by over a second and that would never be broken. Anyway, they made it a shorter track after that.
But I don’t know why; I always adapted to tracks real quick.
As time has passed, have you enjoyed being known as the first winner on the World of Outlaws series? Does it seem like 40 years ago?
Jimmy: I don’t think about it. I just raced because I liked to race.
Who stands out to you from those days? What drivers do you remember?Jimmy: It depends on what area. You know, like, in Pennsylvania, it was Kenny Weld and Bobby Allen and Lin Paxton, and Jan… Mitch Smith. There’s people from different areas that you don’t hear about unless you go back there that are fast, really fast. They’re fast there, but they just don’t travel. So nobody knows ’em. They work a regular job and they can’t go all over the country but they have the setup for that track.
Yeah, and Doug Wolfgang in the Midwest.
Did you become pals with some of those guys?
Jimmy: Uh, probably Wolfgang more than the others. I tried not to be pals with people because you gotta race with ’em. But Doug and I did become friends.
Betty: Doug was fun to be around. He was just a kick. He was always playing John Denver songs—and he always looked like John Denver to me back then. So, we started calling him John.
We still see people now and then. Rick Ferkel came out with his wife, stayed with (Jimmy) Sills. And we’re close with Sills.
Jimmy: Jimmy (Sills) was just getting started when I was probably at my peak. And when I was slowing down, he was getting to his peak.
Jimmy has a motocross track out at his place—he has 40 acres—that we like to go to. We take our kids and grandkids out there and ride. We’ll go to the (Sacramento) River Cats game once in a while…
You raced with Gary Patterson. What do you remember about him?
Jimmy: Oh, a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff I can’t say. (laughs)
Betty: He was a good guy though. He helped a lot of people start racing, you know. Gave ’em info and this and that.
Were you ever seriously injured?
I broke my neck in a supermodified at Chico. The throttle stuck. I went over a guy’s wheel and went upside-down and came over backwards and landed just like that and broke my neck. That was in ’69 or ’70.
How long did it take for you to recover?
Jimmy: I was supposed to take longer to recover than I did but I wanted to get back in the race car. Probably about three months. They took some bone out of my hip and fused it into my neck. He said it was stronger now than it was before because of the added bone.
You raced at Baylands over in Fremont during its heyday driving for Roger Henderson.
Jimmy: Yeah, we won the championship there (1983). It was a fun track, a little bit like Stockton (Dirt Track), I guess. But it had a crash wall. It’s about the same size. Later on, I was staying closer to home. I was getting a little burned out.
Did you have an itch to get out on the road and travel to the bigger races?Jimmy: No, not really. I really admired Steve Kinser for as long as he did it. You get burned out. People think it’s a lot of fun and it is a lot of fun. But it’s a lot of work. A lot of these drivers just show up and drive it and then they go home. I wasn’t like that. I liked to know what’s going on with the car. I helped clean it, helped work on it, put an engine in, or change a rear end. I did everything like that. So, I don’t know, a lot of times I’d be wore out by the time the race got started.
I read a quote of yours, you said, “I felt worse when I didn’t win than happy when I did win.” What did you mean by that?
Jimmy: After a while people kinda expect you to win and if you don’t win they want to know why. I don’t know; it’s hard. At first, you might have a car that was superior to everybody else and you might win a lot and the car owner will say, “I’ve got $100,000 in this car.” But everybody else does too…
But I was more disappointed when I didn’t win than happy when I did win.
You are a fan of Parnelli Jones. What do you admire about him?
Jimmy: I bought the book “Parnelli” one time and I read it and liked pretty much everything about him. I felt he didn’t have the equipment that A.J. Foyt had at the time, when they were racing together, because his car broke a lot. But, I don’t know, I just admired him.
He was a versatile driver and drove a lot of different type of race cars…
Jimmy: Oh yeah, but I only wanted to drive sprint cars. And I kinda enjoyed Indy at the time, until they went to rear-engine cars (mid-1960s). After that I didn’t care about it. Then it was all sprint cars.
Did you have thoughts of driving Indy Cars?
Jimmy: Not really a thought but you know, a dream, like you dream in your head.