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Subtle Setup Changes Helped Sneva Become First To Break 200 mph at Indy

In the spring of 1977, expectations ran high that the first 200-mph lap would be achieved at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. An improved Speedway racing surface, advancements in technology and changes in rules all seemed to indicate that 1977 would be the year that the historic speed mark would be obtained at the Brickyard. 

After the 1976 race, the Speedway received a complete repaving of the racing surface for the first time in its 67-year history, which was expected to improve lap times In addition, advancements in racing tire technology also contributed to advancements in lap speeds. Moreover, in 1977, United States Auto Club rules restricting turbocharger boost at 75 inches since the 1973 race were increased to 80 inches, allowing for an increase in overall engine horsepower.

On Saturday, May 14, 1977, Tom Sneva drove into Indy history by becoming the first driver to officially clear the 200-mph barrier at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a Pole Day qualification run.

Driving a McLaren Cosworth owned by Roger Penske and prepared by chief mechanic Jim McGee, Sneva ripped a first lap of 200.401 mph that erased the previous single-lap mark of 199.071 mph set by Johnny Rutherford in 1973. Sneva then broke his single-lap track record on his next circuit with a clocking of 200.535 mph. Sneva’s four-lap record average of 198.884 mph would not only win the pole for the 61st running of the Indianapolis 500 but also break Rutherford’s 1973 mark of 198.413 mph.

Sneva reflected on the circumstances and a critical late setup change that led to the run that made Speedway history.

“It was pretty funny because during that week leading up to qualifying, the 200-mph barrier, everybody was getting real close to it,” Sneva said. “Some of the ‘hot dogs,’ Foyt and Andretti, and some of the guys would run in what we call Happy Hour, which is the last hour of the day between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. during the practice day leading up to qualifying. The track would cool off, and you could usually run quite a bit quicker at that time of day.

“So, a lot of guys were running about 199-plus in Happy Hour, and I was running probably 197-range, but we were doing it in the middle of the day because that’s when I knew we had to qualify.

1969 Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti unofficially broke the 200-mph mark during Happy Hour on Wednesday, May 11 with a lap of 200.311 mph at 5:44 p.m. in his McLaren-Offenhauser.

Then three-time winner A.J. Foyt followed just before 6 p.m. with a clocking of 200.117 mph in his Coyote-Foyt. Two-time winner and defending champion Rutherford joined the unofficial 200-mph club the following afternoon, at 5:13 p.m., with a lap of 200.624 while driving his McLaren-Cosworth.

Official Indianapolis 500 track records only can be set during qualifying or the race, not in practice.

“I was a teammate to Andretti that year, with Penske,” Sneva said. “Because Mario was running 199 mph late in the day (Thursday) and I was only running 197 mph, Penske decided that I ought to try Mario’s setup on my car for Friday, the day before qualifying. So, they put Mario’s setup on my car the Friday before Saturday Pole Day. Back then they used to time us off of Turn 4, and then they could give you the sign board by the time you got down to the start-finish area and tell you your lap speed. Well, that first hot lap with Mario’s setup on, coming off the middle of (Turn) 4, they had us at over 201 mph.

“The problem is we never made it all the way off of Turn 4. We hit the wall on the exit and knocked the right side off the car. So, the guys worked all night to get it ready for Pole Day qualifying, and I told them, ‘Well, Mario’s setup might be a little quicker, but I know I can make all four laps if you put my setup back on it.’

“So, they put my setup back on the car for Saturday qualifying. They got it all together, worked all night. We shook (the car) down in that half-hour (of pre-qualification practice), and I convinced them that if we changed the right rear spring and the left front wing and a couple tire pressures, we’d be in pretty good shape. The rest is history. We went out, ran 200 mph, and nobody else did that day. It was a good experience for me.”

To commemorate Sneva’s record speed achievement on pit lane, local businessman and long-time Indy car sponsor Phil Hedback poured 200 silver dollars into Sneva’s helmet. Hedback had done the same with 150 silver dollars for Parnelli Jones when Jones eclipsed the 150-mph barrier in 1962.

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