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My Favorite Car: Tom Sneva

Monday, May 4, 2020 Paul Kelly, Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Tom Sneva 1979

This continues a series of interviews with Indianapolis 500 legends about the favorite car they drove in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and why, in their words. “My Favorite Car” interviews will appear at on Mondays through the spring.

Note: This continues a series of interviews with Indianapolis 500 legends about the favorite car they drove in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and why, in their words. “My Favorite Car” interviews will appear at on Mondays through the spring. Read other installments of "My Favorite Car" here.

Q: What was your favorite car you drove in the Indianapolis 500?

Tom Sneva: I think it’s got to be the car I drove in ’79 and ’80, the old McLaren 24. In ’79, I had just got let go by Penske and went to a quite-a-bit smaller team (Jerry O’Connell Racing), and that’s what they had. I went to California, where they were based, and had a buddy out in Riverside who I stayed with for a couple of months. We helped prepare that car for the ’79 season. It was pretty interesting. We didn’t really have engineers back then. It was just sort of garage engineers. We did a bunch of stuff to that car that was just from pictures that we saw with other people and were able to end up putting the thing on the front row in ’79 at Indy, and it was about a 3-year-old car at that time.

Q: Were you more hands-on with O’Connell Racing than with Penske Racing? You said nobody had engineers at that time, but Penske still was a big team then.

TS: Oh, yeah. A lot more so.

Q: Did that hands-on approach make your success with this car more satisfying?

TS: Yeah, that was one of the reasons, and the fact we were able to do so well with a smaller team, a smaller budget and sort of a bunch of renegades that Jud Phillips was able to keep control of and direct in the right way. In ’79, we started in the middle of the front row, and it wasn’t until then that they saw some of the stuff we had done to the car that they thought could have been a little questionable. I got a Formula One wing from Williams. At that time, they were pretty strong. We went to Long Beach – they (F1) were still running at Long Beach at that time – and saw that wing and thought that would be a nice one to have for Indy. So we purchased a drawing of that wing from them. And unfortunately, that’s what fell off late in the race and caused us to crash. We were running about second at that time, so we would have had another second-place finish. The trick wing we had, which we had built in Indianapolis, the end fence fell off.

Q: How did an F1 rear wing translate to an Indy car? You need downforce for the tight sections and to be trimmed out for the straights at Long Beach. But at Indy, you’re almost always trimmed out for speed, at least for qualifying.

TS: We didn’t run it with as much downforce as they did, but the design was such that we could lay it back and turn the flaps down and do some things. They used it on all their racetracks, not just Long Beach. That was the kind of engineering we had. We saw a car that was being successful in Formula One and tried to take some of their technology that we couldn’t afford to go to the wind tunnel and test. Back then, the wings were pretty good sized on the Indy cars.

Q: Did you go right to Frank Williams and Patrick Head to buy the drawing for the wing at Long Beach?

TS: Oh, yeah. I went to Patrick Head and asked him if we couldn’t do something. They were more than accommodating. I think they charged us $500 for the drawing, so we purchased that, had it built and almost was able to run 500 miles with it.

Q: When did you know during May that this car was good? Was it good right off the truck, or did you have to work on it to gain speed?

TS: We had to massage it. I was sort of a backyard engineer-type guy, so we had some unusual setups back then compared to most people. But they worked for us. At that point, we probably had an 800-pound heavier left-rear spring in the car than we did in the right rear spring. I’m pretty sure nobody else was doing that kind of stuff. We did some creative things on the setup of the car and got it so it really drove well.

Q: Was that car stronger with horsepower or handling?

TS: It was stronger in the handling aspect. We had good, reliable motors. Jud Phillips, the chief mechanic, actually did the motors. They were always very, very reliable. They weren’t short on horsepower, but they weren’t at the top of the scale, either. But it was pretty much handling that we were able to do what we did with Indy at it.

Q: Was there any time when your oddball setups got too scary and you said, “I don’t know about this one?”

TS: No. Most of it was trial and error. We didn’t have any sim or any 10-post rig or whatever they’ve got now. If something didn’t work, we tossed it aside and went in a different direction. If we found something that did work, we kept going in that direction. That’s sort of how we got to where we were. Nowadays, they’ve got the power down so far and so much downforce that people seem to get up to speed quite a bit quicker.

Q: Any other final comments about this car?

TS: What made it so good was that was the car we basically ended up running in 1980, as well. We started last and finished second, which is a pretty good improvement at the time. We didn’t intend to run it. We qualified a different car, a ground effects-type car, that broke a wheel after qualifying in practice. We crashed it, and that was the only one we had. So that (1979 car) was our backup car again in 1980. That was a really good effort in 1980 compared to what we were running against. We did a lot of good things. I think we were, by far, the first to ever use spotters at Indy and other racetracks, and I don’t think we ever got credit for that. We started using it in 1979 and ‘80, and I don’t think most people started until the mid-80s. They realized that could be an advantage. It wasn’t anything rocket science. When I was teaching school, I was coaching football. You had somebody up in the press box that could see the field a little bit better than you could as a coach on the sidelines, and that’s where we sort of got the idea from.

Facts about Tom Sneva’s 1979 Indianapolis 500 car:

Car name: Sugaripe Prune McLaren/Cosworth
Car number: 1
Team: Jerry O’Connell Racing
Qualified: Second
Finished: 15th
Laps Completed: 188
Laps Led: 0
Status: Accident
Tom Sneva career ‘500” starts: 18 (1974-90, 92)

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