Tom Sneva: the man AJ Foyt and the Unsers feared

Tom Sneva was one of the fastest drivers around during a decade of lndycar racing – but he remains an enigma. David Malsher tracked him down to tell his side of the story

Tom Sneva Indianapolis 500 1983

After years of Indycar race wins but no 500 glory, Sneva finally snared the big one in '83

Bettman / Getty Images

Indianapolis track announcer Tom Carnegie was whipping the crowd up. “It’s a new track record!” he called as Tom Sneva, driving the Penske-run McLaren-Cosworth, completed the first of four laps on his qualifying run for the 1977 Indy 500. The official speed was 200.401mph. On his second lap he improved it still further with 200.535, then as the tyres went off he rounded out with 197.628 and 197.032. It gave him a four-lap average of 198.884mph. It also gave him pole position.

“It’s an interesting story behind that,” recalls Sneva 29 years later. “The last hour of practice each day in the week running up to qualifying is usually coolest and quickest, and it’s called happy hour. I’d been concentrating on getting the car handling comfortably in the heat of the day, when qualifying was going to be, and was running 197s. Mario [Andretti], my team-mate for quite a few races that year, was running 199s but in happy hour. But on Thursday night Penske decided to put Mario’s set-up on my car for Friday practice.

“Back then the crews used to time me at Turn 4 and the first hot lap I came through at 201mph, the fastest ever at Indy at that time, but I didn’t quite make it through and took the right side off the car against the wall. So the guys worked all night to try and get the car ready for qualifying the next day, and I told them that Mario’s set-up may be a little quicker, but I know I can make all four turns with mine. So we put my set-up back, and though with Mario there I was like the B-driver on the team, on the Saturday, when the pressure was on, there was only one guy to do it— and it was the B-driver…”

Ultimately, it would remain Sneva’s best memory of the 1977 Indy 500. On race day his McLaren was beaten into second place by AJ Foyt, whose Gilmore team’s slightly slicker pitstops appeared to make the difference: “It was very disappointing, but I had never had any success at Indy before, so finishing second wasn’t too shabby.”

Tom Sneva 1977 Indy 500

Sneva collects 200 silver dollars for becoming the first driver to officially run laps in excess of 200mph at IMS


His sense of perspective is doubtless influenced by the fact that at the same venue two years earlier he was lucky to survive a huge shunt. Touching wheels with a backmarker going into Turn 2 on lap 126, Sneva’s McLaren was launched into the wall and performed a sequence of cartwheels that sprayed methanol across the VIP suites, before eventually coming to rest in two big pieces — the tub and the engine — and a million little ones.

“The last thought I had was that I was dreaming I was flipping out of the ballpark at Indianapolis, and like dreams do it just faded out. Next thing I knew I was in the hospital, with two broken vertebrae in my back and burns over about 30% of my body. Then I saw the replay and realised I was lucky.”

As was Penske to have a driver of such remarkable fortitude. Just four weeks later, having missed only one race, Sneva was back. He was soon racking up podiums, scoring his first win at Michigan and finishing sixth in the 1975 championship.

Just three years earlier he had been a weekend racer whose job was teaching at a school in his hometown of Spokane, Washington State: “My father was a stock car driver and I raced too, but I wasn’t sure I could make a living at racing. I had two kids and I had to put food on the table. I was a Phys Ed major and went on to play a couple of years’ college basketball. But I’d realised the market for a slow, short, white guard wasn’t too promising. So I became a Maths and Phys Ed teacher — and the school bus driver.”

Not only did it pay a regular income, teaching also gave him the summers off — to go racing. The only Indycar team owner from the north-west was Rolla Vollstedt, who noticed Sneva’s success in self-built rear-engined sprint cars and thus gave him his Indycar debut at Trenton, New Jersey, in 1971.

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Still without the money to buy a ride, Tom wouldn’t race an Indycar again until 1973. The school generously granted him May off to pass his rookie test at Indy, but then pushed him to commit to one career or the other. He chose motorsport.

From being an occasional gun for hire in 1973, his sprint car performances with Carl Gehlhausen that year earned him a full-time ride with Grant King Racing in ’74. The results were poor, but he had the car going quicker than any of his predecessors, with eight top-10 grid slots. When Roger Penske’s regular driver, Gary Bettenhausen, broke his arm in an accident in a dirt race, Sneva was top of his shopping list.

After 1975’s extreme highs and lows, ’76 was a wash-out, two third places being the highlights; no-one involved is sure why, but one possibility was eliminated when Penske replaced his Offenhauser engines with Cosworths for ’77. Sneva won in Texas and Pocono to build the foundations of his first title. He retained the crown in ’78 on sheer consistency. The pace was there — he took seven poles — but amazingly the champion didn’t win a single round!

“We messed up in the pits a few times; little things went wrong,” recalls Sneva, “but what hurt us more than anything was that this was the first full year that Penske ran his own Indycar. We did all the testing in the first car Penske built, but as the A-guy, at the start of the season, I got a fresh chassis, and Rick Mears as the new boy on the team got the test car. Well for some reason the prototype was always better than any of the cars that followed.”

Tom Sneva 4

Sneva in the pits on the way to his 500 win in ’83


Mears, in his sophomore season, chalked up three wins and became Penske’s golden child, while Sneva’s relationship with the Captain turned sour: “There was some inner-squad fighting, partly I think because I wasn’t winning races. Everyone from the crew chief down wanted to protect his own situation so fingers got pointed towards the driver more often than they should have been. For my part, I saw in Penske a team that was about 85 per cent efficient, and my suggested changes weren’t well received by the team. It wasn’t until I went and ran elsewhere that I realised running at 85 per cent efficiency made Roger’s team far more efficient than any other!”

And so Sneva was rewarded for two consecutive championships by being shown the door. Jerry O’Connell’s Sugaripe Prune team offered him a lifeline for 1979, and then a ground-effect chassis, the Phoenix, in ’80. A crash in practice at Indy meant starting the race from 33rd and in the old back-up McLaren, but what followed was a Sneva classic, as he fought through to finish second: “That was my best day at Indy, better even than winning it in 1983. In 1980 we had a small team, our car was several years old, we started last, we maximised the team strategy, the pitcrew did a great job and I think I drove as well as I’ve ever done there.”

It wasn’t until the end of the season — appropriately enough, in Phoenix — that he was able to take the Phoenix chassis’ first victory, despite being jammed in fourth gear from green to chequer, and starting from the back!

That was the first of four wins for Sneva at the tricky tri-oval, and that, says famed US racing journalist Robin Miller, is no coincidence: “Trenton, Milwaukee [another venue where Sneva won four times] and Phoenix were real drivers’ tracks, where you shone if you could handle traffic, and Sneva was as good in traffic as anyone I’ve ever seen in 37 years of covering this.”

George Bignotti, legendary crew chief with whom Sneva would work from 1981-83 in the new Bignotti-Cotter team, concurs with Miller’s view. “Tom was an excellent, brave driver, and had a pretty heavy foot,” he chuckles. “At Milwaukee, once the race was underway, he’d go to the outside line and take four or five laps to clean the track. And then zip, he was gone! His only fault was that he tried to be an engineer too. I used to set up the race and spare car identically and one time at Michigan he kept coming in and telling us, ‘Change this, change that.’ Finally it was almost qualifying time, and he came in and said, ‘I can’t drive this car’! So we got the spare out, which hadn’t been touched and he went out and went quickest!”

The counterpoint to that comes from Miller: “After practice once, Tom wanted to change springs, and he and Bignotti started screaming at each other. Bignotti was yelling, ‘You don’t touch that car: I’m the mechanic; you’re the driver. We’re going to lunch, and when we come back you qualify.’ After George stormed off, Tom got me and some other guys to lift up each corner, he changed the springs himself, then he went and got pole!”

Even with Bignotti’s expertise on his side, Indy 500 glory wasn’t a given. In 1981, the late arrival of the March chassis meant qualifying on the second weekend and Sneva was consigned to mid-grid, despite lapping quicker than pole. Nonetheless, he was battling for the lead when his gearbox failed on lap 67.

Then, in 1983, it came right. “Strange thing is,” recalls Sneva, “I was less optimistic of our chances than I had been in a lot of previous years. We’d had a lot of engine trouble in practice, and Bignotti and I were fighting. I didn’t expect to be around at the end of the race.”

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“I’d had some special cams built by Ed Winfield,” says Bignotti, “and we had headers which gave us more torque and a little less rpm. But with the right gear ratios it made a good combination: we ran lower boost but stayed with the leaders. Towards the end of the race, Tom was running a full load of fuel and couldn’t pass Al Unser Jnr, who was some laps down. But with about 12 laps to go we gave Tom the signal to put the boost up to normal, and he went into Turn 1 past Al Jnr, passed Dick Simon [second place] on the short chute between 1 and 2, and took the lead from Al Unser Snr coming out of Turn 2. By the time Tom came out of Turn 4, he was already 10 car lengths ahead of Big Al!”

But just as two championships weren’t enough to earn Sneva a top ride when he departed Penske, now the reigning king of Indy looked to be losing out at the end of 1983. The Bignotti-Cotter team was dissolving, and the established teams had their line-ups settled.

Then Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander stepped in and offered him a March, and Sneva leapt at the chance: “It only happened because I could talk Texaco into staying on board with me, but it was a great experience; working with those two guys was great. We only just missed winning the championship.”

That team too disbanded at year’s end, and Sneva was offered a deal to join the Dan Gurney-Mike Curb operation for 1985. But Gurney departed at the end of ’85, and though Sneva stuck with Curb for another couple of years, a handful of podiums in three seasons riddled with disappointments were the beginning of the end for Sneva’s Indycar career. After a year of near sabbatical in ’88 (he raced only at Indy and Michigan), he returned full-time for Andy Granatelli’s vain efforts to make the Buick engine competitive in ’89. The partnership lasted eight races.

CANADA - JULY 18: Carloads of fun: Tom Sneva (inset) who's competing in today's Molson Indy; was enjoying himself yesterday watching cars crunching; squealing and gracing the wall powering into the first turn in Player's Challenge for GM cars; a preliminary to today's big event. Richard Spenard; who won the GM even last year; outduelled Peter Lockhart to make it two in a row. (Photo by John Mahler/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Sneva’s consistency in IndyCar had more illustrious names in the field rattled

John Mahler/Toronto Star via Getty Images

It wasn’t only the Buick’s narrow rev band that separated Sneva from the boys at the sharp end of the grid like Michael Andretti and Unser Jnr. “As road racing and street racing became a bigger and bigger part of the championship, that’s when Tom along with a lot of others from his generation got left out, becoming Indy-only guys,” says Miller. “He wasn’t a godawful road-course racer, but it was something he just hadn’t done.” In 1992 Tom Sneva competed at Indianapolis and in Indycars for the final time.

Beyond some remarkable statistics, what then is the legacy of the Gas Man (a nickname Sneva earned first because of his reputation for being hard on it, and then too because of his Texaco sponsorship)?

Miller: “Tom was good with the fans and refreshingly good with the media too because he always said what was on his mind. For example, he’d rail on at CART [the governing body of the time] about safety, about drivers’ legs sticking out in front of the front axles, which meant they got badly injured in head-on shunts. Finally CART did change the regs. But Gordon Johncock had the greatest quote about Sneva: ‘If Tom was one of 10 people in front of an elevator, nine people would press the up button, and Tom would want to go down.’ He loved arguments, he lived for that kind of stuff.”

It was natural, then, that he would have particular problems with those of a similar disposition. “Oh yeah, Foyt and the Unsers didn’t like him, because he shook up the establishment, and started winning poles and races from them. They feared him. Actually,” concludes Miller, “everyone who was around at that time knew Tom Sneva was top class, that in any given race they had to beat him. They might not have said it, but they knew it.”