News & Multimedia

1977 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Sneva Passes at 69

Jerry Sneva, the 1977 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, passed away Saturday, Jan. 27 in Indianapolis. He was 69.

Sneva, a younger brother of 1983 Indianapolis 500 winner Tom Sneva, made five career starts in the “500,” with his highest finish of 10th in his rookie run of 1977. His best start was an impressive fifth in 1980.

Never blessed with the finest equipment, Sneva had to swap rides at the last minute in 1975 to complete his rookie test, not exactly with seconds to spare on the last assigned day for tests, but rather after being gifted with a couple of extra minutes by a senior official who took compassion on the struggling team and turned a blind eye to the clock.

Sneva went on to start in 28 Indy car races, placing in the top 10 six times. Two weeks after finishing fifth at Milwaukee in June 1979, Sneva posted his best career finish with a fourth in the Pocono 500. He finished the 1979 season seventh in points.

Sneva was one of a dozen or so drivers who came to the Midwest via a very competitive supermodified series in the Pacific Northwest called the Canadian-American Modified Racing Association. Other notables from that series included Tom Sneva, Art Pollard, Billy Foster, Jim Malloy, Dick Simon, Eldon Rasmussen and Cliff Hucul.

Jerry Sneva made his United States Auto Club debut Aug. 26, 1973 as a substitute for his brother Tom when Tom had to miss the first of two days of sprint car racing at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul because he was in California qualifying for the following week’s Ontario 500. Jerry jumped into Carl Gehlhausen’s highly controversial rear-engine sprint car for the day, qualified for the main event and finished second.

There have been many entertaining “off-track” anecdotes concerning the easy-going Jerry Sneva, but none of them come anywhere close to overshadowing the sheer drama generated by his Indianapolis 500 qualifying attempt in 1979.

Originally assigned to Bruce Crower’s stock-block Chevrolet, Sneva was waiting on the sidelines on the morning of the rain-threatened third qualifying day while a mechanical issue was being repaired.

In the meantime, the turbocharged AMC-powered car of Warner Hodgdon was ready to go but waiting for its driver to arrive.

The Hodgdon car was assigned to stock car standout Neil Bonnett, who had taken the assignment while being temporarily “between rides” on the NASCAR circuit. In the meantime, Bonnett had been hired to drive for the Wood Brothers, and having passed his rookie test at IMS, was at Dover, Delaware.

Attempting to do “double duty,” Bonnett’s revised plan had been to qualify at Dover, fly back to Indianapolis to qualify Saturday for the “500” and then return to Dover.

Dover’s Sunday race date meant qualifying at Indianapolis on Saturday was imperative for Bonnett. Unfortunately for him, there was a rain delay in Dover, and he was still waiting to qualify there before attempting to scurry back to Indianapolis by the end of the day.

Sneva, who was still waiting for work on the Crower car to be completed, was asked if he wouldn’t mind taking the Hodgdon AMC car out for a “shakedown” run. Sneva was more than willing, but a look down the lengthy qualifying line told the crew it would be quite a while before they could expect to get on the track.

They put their heads together and concluded that their best opportunity for any track time would be to join the end of the line. Eventually they could go out and take the available warmup laps (three in those days rather than two), NOT take the green and then return to the end of the line for another shot later without having been charged with an attempt.

Sneva went out, took the three allowable laps and then returned to join the end of the line as planned. By the time he went out for the second time, evidently some successful adjustments had been made, because at the end of the third warmup, Sneva was given the green.

Jaws dropped as he ran through the four qualifying laps at an average speed of 184.379 mph, making the starting lineup for his third straight “500.”

How on Earth did Sneva find that extra speed and qualify with only a handful of laps in that car? Well, for one thing: The throttle had stuck open!

Sneva went on to explain that he had “driven with the kill switch,” flipping it off upon entry to the turns and switching it back on when it was time to accelerate.

Why take such an unbelievable risk instead of coming in for repairs?

“Had to make the show,” Sneva said with a chuckle. “If I went ahead and got it in before Bonnett got back, I figured it would have made it harder for them to take me out and put him in for the race, considering he was a rookie, and I had previous starts.”

As it turned out, Sneva didn’t need to take such a dramatic risk. The weather further delayed Bonnett in Dover, so he stayed there for the weekend, won the race and ended up with a full-time ride with the Wood Brothers.

Sneva lasted only for 16 laps on Race Day, but he had made the show again, and for someone who made their living driving race cars, it made for another most welcome payday.
And so it went much of his career.

Long since relocated from Spokane, Washington, to Indianapolis, Sneva was regularly seen in neighborhood hangouts and in the IMS Museum and gift shops throughout the year. He formed many longstanding friendships with IMS staff members, and every December for years, he’d stop by to drop off wooden Christmas ornaments he had carved and painted for them himself.

Sneva is survived by his wife, Kathy, and children TJ and Shelby.



Show More Show Less
Now Viewing
Jerry Sneva
 
1977 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Sneva Passes at 69
Sneva, a younger brother of 1983 Indianapolis 500 winner Tom Sneva, made five career starts in the “500,” with his highest finish of 10th in his rookie run of 1977. His best start was an impressive fifth in 1980.
Read More
Related Media
IMS
 
Race Fans Continue To Help Haiti Through IMS Online Auctions
Race fans, teams and drivers from around the world continue to help the people of Haiti, as Indianapolis Motor Speedway online auctions have raised nearly $15,000 for American Red Cross relief efforts in the earthquake-ravaged nation. Among the items up for auction now are a checkered flag signed by IZOD IndyCar Series stars, including Scott Dixon, Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan, and a Fiat Yamaha Team shirt signed by Red Bull Indianapolis GP winners Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo!
Read More
IMS
 
Fans Can Drive, Ride Indy Car At IMS Through Indy Racing Experience
The Indy Racing Experience has announced its 2010 schedule for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with nine dates scheduled for the historic Brickyard, including four days during the Month of May. During each of the 2010 dates at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indy Racing Experience will offer the opportunity to ride, drive, or participate in the Ultimate Indy Racing Experience promotion, which was unveiled late last year.
Read More
IMS
 
Danica Deal: Save $19 On Indy 500 Tower Terrace Tickets To Feb. 13
Danica Patrick didn't lead any laps but finished a very competitive sixth in the ARCA Series race Saturday at Daytona, and Indy 500 fans can save $19 off the purchase of a Tower Terrace ticket for the 2010 Indianapolis 500 until Saturday, Feb. 13. Danica led 19 laps as an Indy 500 rookie in 2005, so you'll save $1 for each of those laps! Click here to order your Tower Terrace tickets (normally $90 each) for $71 each through the Danica Deal today!
Read More
IMS
 
If Danica Dominates Daytona, Fans Win With Indy 500 Ticket Savings
New Indianapolis 500 ticket customers can cash in on Danica Patrick's participation in the ARCA Racing Series season opener Saturday, Feb. 6 at Daytona International Speedway. It's up to Danica how much they'll cash in. From Feb. 6-13, Tower Terrace ticket prices will drop one dollar for every lap Patrick leads at Daytona. The ticket price will be cut at least $19, honoring the number of laps she led as an Indy 500 rookie in 2005. Go Danica!
Read More
IMS
 
Bernard Named CEO Of Indy Racing League
Randy Bernard, longtime CEO of Professional Bull Riders, Inc., has been named CEO of the Indy Racing League, the sanctioning body of the IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights. His hiring was announced today by Jeffrey Belskus, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation, the home of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and owner of the Indy Racing League. Bernard (above left) will begin March 1. Video:
Read More
Items 1,556 - 1,560 of 1,570
Reserve one of our hospitality suites for your next event!
To start planning your event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway please fill out our Information Request Form or contact IMS Sales Department at (317) 492-8739 or email at hospitalitysales@brickyard.com.
Latest Tweets
It's Pole day on @CrownRoyal Armed Forces Weekend & we can't wait to see you! Check out details on the day: https://t.co/yKQ6Db3YRK
May 21