Tom Sneva holds the distinction of being the first man to circulate the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at more than 200 miles per hour. They called him ‘The Gas Man,’ and his qualifying attempts at IMS in the late 1970s into the ‘80s were always spellbinding.
Sneva was a school principal in Spokane, Washington when he moved to Indianapolis to make a full-time career out of racing. He gained fame by winning a series of USAC sprint car races in 1973 using a rear-engine machine that was a Huffaker Indy car converted for sprint car use by Carl Gelhausen. USAC promptly banned rear engine cars in 1974.
Sneva qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 in 1974 and his performances throughout that season in a ’72 Eagle copy caught the attention of team owner Roger Penske. Driving for Penske in 1975, Sneva survived one of the most spectacular accidents in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On the 126th lap of the ‘500,’ Sneva’s Penske-McLaren touched wheels with a car driven by Eldon Rasmussen; Sneva’s burning car flew through the air, captured memorably in a sequence of still photographs.
Even in his earliest years at Indianapolis, Sneva’s mastery of the unique four-lap qualification format was evident. He lined up eighth for his initial ‘500’ start in that low-budget Kingfish, started fourth in 1975 and earned his first front row berth in 1976, going on to finish sixth in the rain-shortened race.
In 1977, Penske fielded new Cosworth-powered McLaren M24s, and Sneva came through with the first of his three Indianapolis poles. Despite crashing in practice on the day before Pole Day, he set the one-lap record of 200.535 mph and four-lap mark of 198.884, increasing those numbers to 203.620 and 202.156 mph a year later while driving a new Penske PC-6 chassis. Sneva finished second at Indianapolis in both 1977 and ’78 and went on to win the USAC National Championship both years, yet was dismissed by Penske at the end of the 1978 season.
“Tom drove for us for a number of years, won the championship, and was a tremendous qualifier,” observed Roger Penske. “Every time I saw him come off of Turn 4 I thought he would never get the thing turned. He drove it right on the edge, and I was really concerned when I saw the accident off of Turn 2 in 1975, when the engine came apart. That was a tragic situation, but fortunately he walked away.
“Tom was good for the team, but he and I had some different ideas on how we wanted to go,” Penske added. “He was one of the key drivers that brought us to the next step. He was a smart guy, and I think he understood our methodology, which was important.”
Sneva’s cerebral approach to fine-tuning the handling of his car was perfect for Indianapolis qualifying, but it didn’t always pay dividends in the race. He pedaled a three-year old McLaren to the middle of the front row in 1979 but crashed late in the contest.
In 1980, Sneva crashed his qualified Phoenix chassis in practice and again resorted to the trusty McLaren, which he dubbed “Old Hound.” Despite starting in 33rd place, Sneva drove through the field to finish second, and he remains the only driver in Indianapolis history to lead the race after starting last.
Sneva’s month of May 1981 was mostly forgettable; he was the fastest qualifier, but started 20th because he did not set his time on Pole Day. A broken clutch eliminated him just before half distance. He bounced back in 1982 to qualify seventh and finish fourth.
His Indianapolis triumph finally happened in 1983 as ‘The Gas Man’ qualified fourth and took the lead for the first time on Lap 36. The last three-quarters of the race was essentially a two-man duel between Sneva and Al Unser and both men led six times.
On a Lap 177 restart, Unser led, and his son Al Unser Jr., making his first Indianapolis start, passed Sneva despite being several laps down. For the next fifteen laps, rookie Unser Jr. drove very defensively and was accused of blocking as he tried to keep Sneva at bay to allow his father to pull away. Although Sneva’s car was must faster than Unser Jr.’s, Tom bided his time and didn’t work past Unser Jr. until Lap 191. He passed Al Sr. on the same lap and drove away to win by 11.174 seconds.
“I’ve got to say 1983 wasn’t really the year I expected to finally get the win,” Sneva told RACER magazine. “We had a lot of trouble throughout the month, couldn’t get a motor to last over 100 miles, and I was fighting with George Bignotti, the chief mechanic. The car was quick but we just weren’t getting any reliability in the engine department. I actually booked a pretty early tee time, because I didn’t think the car was going to last.
“But sure enough, when you think it isn’t going to happen, we finally got one of those motors to run all day and we won the race.”
Sneva ran the Indianapolis 500 eight more times, but never again finished the race after his 1983 triumph. His final Indy pole came in 1984, when he set one-lap (210.689 mph) and four-lap 210.029 mph) records. He led six times for 31 laps and was set for a shootout with Rick Mears for the victory, only to suffer a broken CV joint with 30 laps to go.
Sneva retired from driving following the 1992 season. His career Indy car stats include 14 poles, 13 race wins and 1,695 laps led. He served as a color commentator for ABC’s coverage of the Indy Racing League in the late ‘90s, but spends most of his time playing golf at his own course, the 500 Club in Phoenix.
“It seemed like Indianapolis fitted my driving style pretty good,” Sneva said. “I never went to Indianapolis thinking I couldn’t win. I wasn’t just turning up for the show. I always thought we had a shot, and although some years our equipment wasn’t what we needed, we won the race in 1983 when we weren’t optimistic about the equipment we had.
“Indy is a strange bird, and you never know what to expect. So you just go as hard as you can for as long as you can.”
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