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Saltwater Portrait

Walter Koopman has a need for speed

Grand Prix racing a lifelong passion
May 21, 2019

Every room in Walter Koopman's Milton-area home pays homage to his passion for cars.

Trifolds of his racing days line his dining room. Photos of race cars and magazines about them fill his living room. Lining a hallway are boxes of memorabilia waiting for him to go through that lead into a back room, where even more boxes are tucked away.

But the back den is where the real magic lies.

With its cathedral ceiling, the walls are covered with photos of a compact Koopman dressed in his racing attire, at the wheel of an Aston Martin, Austin-Healey, Alpine Renault Berlinette or one of famed designer René Bonnet's Grand Prix cars. Shelves of miniature cars also line the walls. Koopman said he has collected over 7,500 in his lifetime. In his garage sit a 1965 Matra-Bonnet D'Jet 5S and Porsche 550 Spyder – similar to a model once owned by the late James Dean.

Koopman learned to race Grand Prix cars while stationed in France following the Korean War. Working for two generals, Koopman said, he had a lot of time on his hands doing administrative work, so he enrolled in driving school at the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry, south of Paris. The windy, 2 ½ mile oval with an 11.4 degree bank was state-of-the-art in the 1950s and used by all the top performance car producers at the time, he said. “You had to go 140 to 160 mph to stay up on the curve,” he said.

His lessons there paid off when he won the 1957 Prix de Paris – the first American to ever win that race. “That was the most exciting race for me. I didn't realize I did so well until it was over,” he said.

He won the equivalent of about $100, got a bottle of champagne and a trophy cup, but the recognition he earned in the race car driving community was priceless.

He raced against Jackie Stewart and A.J. Foyt, and he was a team driver for Lotus Europa Team Renault, which competed in 12-hour and 24-hour races at Le Mans and the Bugatti Circuit.

After four years of professional racing in Europe, Koopman returned stateside with an Alfa Romeo, an Aston Martin and a rank of sergeant major. His station at Fort Hood, Texas, was close to Eagle Mountain racetrack where he met Carroll Shelby – designer of the legendary Cobra and Shelby Mustang – and he drove with American Grand Prix drivers Hap Sharp and Jim Hall.

During a trip to France in the 1960s, Koopman said he met Steve McQueen while filming the movie “Le Mans.” While at a movie-related event, Koopman ended up with an original Heuer watch, just like the one McQueen wears in the movie. Over the years, Koopman said he also rubbed elbows with Paul Newman, another famous actor and car enthusiast.

Back in the United States, Koopman continued racing until 2006, logging miles at Watkins Glen, the Poconos and tracks in Florida, Long Island, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Ohio. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1978 and worked for a funeral home before settling in Cherry Hill, N.J., with his wife, Lorraine, and three daughters. And he returned to a profession he knows best – cars – this time, working for Datsun-Nissan Cherry Hill where he retired in 1996.

His years in New Jersey also led him to Delaware where the family vacationed, eventually building a home in Winding Creek. With a house on the water, Koopman said he enjoyed boating, especially since it involved speed. “At one time I had the fastest outboard boat on the bay,” he said. “Nobody ever passed me.”

Koopman stayed in his home after his wife passed in 1999. In 2016, he sold it in two days and had about two weeks to move out and find a new home. His Milton home with in-ground pool and tiki bar is frequented by his three daughters, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Koopman also keeps himself busy with veterans programs throughout the year and the CHEER Center where he serves on the board of directors. He stays busy volunteering and organizing the annual car shows at the Georgetown facility. Koopman said he enjoys blending his two passions for a good cause, and at 83 years young, he shows no signs of slowing down.

“I've always had a knack for some speed,” he said.