Sneva in the 1980s
June 1, 1948 |
Spokane, Washington, U.S.
Thomas E. "Tom" Sneva (born June 1, 1948) is a retired American race car driver, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1983. He primarily raced in Indy cars, and was named to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2005.
A former math teacher from Spokane, Washington, Sneva's win at Indianapolis followed several runner-up finishes and notable crashes. Nicknamed "The Gas Man," he was an outstanding qualifier, winning the pole position three times (1977, 1978, 1984). He was also the fastest qualifier on a fourth occasion in 1981, but because of qualifying rules did not start the race from the pole position.
Sneva won two consecutive USAC National Championships for Indy cars in 1977 and 1978.
Born in Spokane, Sneva played football and basketball at Lewis and Clark High School and a year of college basketball at Eastern Washington State College in nearby Cheney. After graduation form Eastern, he worked as a math teacher before racing full time. Sneva was the eldest of five brothers, all racers; the next oldest was Jerry, who also competed at Indy.
At Indianapolis in 1977, Sneva drove his famed Norton Spirit McLaren M24/Cosworth racer for car owner Roger Penske, and became the first driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 at a speed at 200 mph (321.9 km/h) or more. His one-lap track record on May 14 was 200.535 mph (322.7 km/h).
In 1984, Sneva became the first to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 over 210 mph (338.0 km/h) in his Texaco Star March 84C/Cosworth driving for the new Mayer Motor Racing team. His one and four lap track records on May 12 were 210.689 mph (339.1 km/h) and 210.029 mph (338.0 km/h).
Sneva's career at the Indianapolis 500 was known for fast qualifying, second place finishes, near misses and several crashes. Three times (1977, 1978, 1980) Sneva ended up the bridesmaid by finishing second. Finally, Sneva broke through in dramatic fashion in 1983 after a thrilling late race duel with Al Unser, Sr. and the lapped car of Unser's rookie son, Al Jr. It was Sneva's 1983 win in his Texaco Star March 83C/Cosworth for Bignotti-Cotter Racing that led to his nickname of "The Gas Man." That win was also famous for it being the last of George Bignotti's record seven Indianapolis 500 wins as a chief mechanic. For Sneva, the victory was sweet revenge, as he had been fired by Roger Penske prior to the race for never winning the Indy 500.
Sneva's second-place finish in 1980 is notable as it is one of only two occasions of such a finish by a driver starting last. It is also the only time the driver who started last (33rd) led laps during the race. Several other times Sneva was in contention for the win, but did not make it to the end of the race. In 1981, Sneva charged hard from his 20th starting position to lead early in the race, but his newly untested Blue Poly March 81-C/Cosworth was fragile and his clutch failed early on.
One year later, Sneva was in a duel with eventual winner Gordon Johncock and eventual runner-up Rick Mears when his engine in his Texaco Star March 82-C/Cosworth began losing power and eventually failed near the end of the race. As defending champion in 1984, Sneva dueled with Mears only 32 laps from the finish, but his CV joint failed, enabling Mears to win. The 1985 race was a testament to Sneva's ability as he drove an ill-handling Skoal Bandit Eagle/Cosworth to second place before exiting in a crash with the lapped car of Rich Vogler. It was this series of near misses combined with second-place finishes and hard-charging qualifying and racing style that made Sneva a fan favorite at Indianapolis.
He suffered one of the most famous crashes at Indianapolis during the 1975 race, his second. After touching wheels with Eldon Rasmussen, 26-year-old Sneva flipped up into the catch fence and tore his car in half, but suffered mostly minor burns on 15% of his body in the fiery crash. He walked to the ambulance but was placed in the intensive care unit at Methodist Hospital, mainly for lung issues due to the fire retardant. In 1986, he was warming up his car during the pace lap, but lost control and crashed before the race started. In 1987, Sneva crashed three cars, two in practice, and one during the race. He would suffered crashes during the Indianapolis 500 in 1975, 1979, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1992, a record for crashes during the race.
After Sneva's Indy victory in 1983, he never finished the race again. He dropped out of the race in 1984-1990, failed to qualify in 1991, and dropped out of the 1992 race as well. Some observers have attributed his decline in success to the switch to radial tires (the series transitioned to radials over a period from 1985–1987). His driving style was more apropos to bias ply tires.
Sneva's final start was the 1992 Indy 500. He arrived at Indy without a ride for 1993, and was unsuccessful in landing a car for the race. He retired with 13 career Indy car wins and 14 pole positions.
After Sneva retired from driving, he was a color commentator for ABC television network's Wide World of Sports program and called several Indy 500s. He is also heavily involved in the golf course business where he resides in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
Sneva's father, Edsol ("Ed") was a local racer in the Spokane region.
Sneva is the oldest of five brothers: Jerry, Jan, Blaine, and Ed ("Babe"). He said the brothers were always racing something growing up. Babe raced, too, but succumbed to injuries from a race crash in 1975 in British Columbia.
Sneva was an ace in mathematics, and graduated from Eastern Washington State College in nearby Cheney with an education degree. He became a math teacher in a tiny school district outside of Spokane city limits, and drove the school bus.
Induction tribute by Robin Miller
The following short article was written by the racing journalist Robin Miller regarding Sneva's entry into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
He was the first man to break the 200 mph barrier at Indianapolis and the first back-to-back national champion to be fired. He was adored by the fans and media but managed to get sideways with A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and both Unser brothers during his career. Mechanics loved his savvy behind the wheel, yet wanted to strangle him because he was never satisfied with the chassis. He was well-spoken and outspoken -- but never at a loss for words.
Gordon Johncock once said: "If nine people pushed the up button in the elevator, Sneva would press down."
And that combination of talent, bravado, personality and unpredictability is what made Tom Sneva one of Indy-car racing's most entertaining performers for the better part of two decades.
He quit driving a school bus for Indy cars in 1973, packing up his wife and two young daughters and moving from Spokane, Wash. to Indianapolis where he immediately received instant respect and victories in the tough USAC sprint series.
Sneva qualified for his initial Indy 500 in '74 with a low-buck team and ran so quick all season that Roger Penske signed him up for '75. That was the start of a tumultuous four years where arguments ran a close second to success.
After surviving one of the most spectacular crashes in IMS history in May 1975, Tom came back to score his first win at Michigan a few weeks later. By 1977, nobody in the USAC paddock was quicker. The day after crashing and drawing the ire of his team for trying to run through Turn 4 flat out, Sneva stormed back to run the first 200 mph lap and win the pole position.
And, even though he captured the USAC title in '77 and '78, Penske didn't like drivers who thought outside the box or freely gave their opinion so he fired the national champion. Sneva soldiered on and by 1981 he had hooked up with George Bignotti. They fought like the Honeymooners but got along well enough to win six races together—including Indy in 1983.
A bridesmaid three times at the Speedway, "The Gas Man" (as he was nicknamed by fellow driver Johnny Parsons) drove the Texaco Star around Big Al Unser and into Victory Lane in a win that was as popular as it was overdue.
Sneva set another track record for his third Indy pole in 1984 and was fixin' to have a shootout with Rick Mears for the win when he lost a CV joint. He did triumph three times and lost the CART title to Mario Andretti by 13 points.
As road racing became more and more prominent, The Gas Man became an Indy-only specialist and competed for the final time in 1992. His career stats read 14 poles, 13 wins, two titles and 1,695 laps led. He was a master in traffic, especially at Phoenix and Milwaukee.
And whether he made you laugh, cuss or shake your head in awe, whenever he strapped on his helmet, Tom Sneva was always worth the price of admission.
CART Indy Car Series
(key) (Races in bold indicate pole position)
Indy 500 results
He was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2005.
- Herman, Steve (May 18, 1988). "Has Tom Sneva run out of gas?". Spokesman-Review. Associated Press. p. D1.
- Pash, Phil (June 22, 1975). "Tom Sneva: Fearless driver quite a celebrity these days". Wilmington Star-News (Wilmington, North Carolina). (New York Times). p. 6C.
- Weaver, Dan (Oct 2, 1983). "Local boy does good". The Spokesman Review (Spokane: Cowles Publishing). pp. D5. Retrieved 14 September 2013.
- "Sneva roars to pole position". Spokesman-Review. Associated Press. May 15, 1977. p. D1.
- Brown, Butch (November 4, 1977). "Spokane honors Tom Sneva". Spokesman-Review. p. 37.
- Cash, Phil (May 17, 1984). "Sneva saved his best effort for qualifying". Milwaukee Sentinel. p. 1, part 2.
- Fleischman, Bill (May 23, 1984). "Tom Sneva: The radical?". Spokane Chronicle. Knight Ridder Newspapers. p. 21.
- "Wife of Tom Sneva says driver to be all right". Spokane Daily Chronicle. May 26, 1975. p. 15.
- Weaver, Dan (Oct 2, 1983). "Local boy does good". The Spokesman Review (Spokane: Cowles Publishing). pp. D1. Retrieved 14 September 2013.
- Weaver, Dan (Oct 2, 1983). "Local boy does good". The Spokesman Review (Spokane: Cowles Publishing). pp. D10. Retrieved 14 September 2013.
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