Indy 500: The "Gas Man" Sneva Alway Concerned with Safety
14 May 1998INDIANAPOLIS, May 14, 1998 -- In his best racing days, Tom Sneva was called the "Gas Man."
One obvious reason was that he stepped on the gas, setting speed records wherever he drove. He was the first driver to top 200 mph at Indy, started from the pole three times and set fast time on a fourth occasion. He also had three second-place finishes and a victory in 1983.
But there may have been another reason. When speeds continued to escalate -- and most often he was the leader -- racing officials couldn't shut him off when he vocalized that outlandish speed was unnecessary and safety for the driver in those speedy missiles was not keeping pace. Sneva today is involved in more pedestrian roles. He ow
ns and builds golf courses in Phoenix, and he sits high above the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Race Day providing crisp commentary for ABC Sports on the action unfolding in the 500-Mile Race that he was such an important part of for 18 years.
Sneva will be saluted May 15 as part of the Parade of Champions at the Speedway. He will drive two ceremonial laps in the Texaco Star car in which he sped to victory in 1983.
He says the Pep Boys Indy Racing League has reduced speeds somewhat and is focused on important safety issues.
"I was discouraged back in the 1980s," Sneva said. "Safety was not coming along as it should. As the speeds went up, they had to look at the safety situation. Driver safety today is better than ever. Speed still is an issue."
Sneva, a former high school math teacher, had an ulterior motive when he correlated speed and safety. He knew that the safety issue would get attention and would bring focus on the spiraling speeds. He also knew that high speeds tend to separate the cars on the racetrack.
"I tried to slow them down to get them to run closer on the racetrack," Sneva said. "The IRL is trying to do that. Racing is closeness, not fastness." In Sneva's mind, more fans meant bigger purses. A close, safe show pleases fans, he thinks.
Sneva put on an unforgettable show for the patrons of the Turn 2 suites in his second race in 1975. His car shot up into the wall and disintegrated in flames and flying parts as fans in the suites ducked for cover. An instant later Sneva and the cockpit -- all that remained of the car -- skidded across the track with fire shooting out it. Miraculously, Sneva escaped with a few burns and scrapes.
Since Sneva already had lost a brother, Ed Jr., in a racing accident in Canada and he was a young father, what motivated him to depart the hospital and continue racing?
"It's hard to explain to people," he said. "I look back at the age I am now (50 on June 1) and wonder more why I did it. Then I enjoyed it. The pluses were more than the minuses. Most of the time at that age drivers can get it put in the backs of their minds. It's a lot easier coming to that conclusion at 25 than at 45."
There were five boys and one girl in the Sneva family, from Spokane, Wash. Ed Sr., the father, raced, and Tom was the oldest. Tom also was an athlete playing basketball while earning a teaching degree from Eastern Washington College of Education. He taught math and physical education at a small high school near Spokane and also was the assistant coach for basketball and football. He was supposed to be the head baseball coach, but there were enough pupils who played so he also became an assistant in tennis because he had a license to drive a school bus.
He also drove sprint cars at the time. Rolla Vollstedt, an Indy-style car owner also from the Pacific Northwest, gave him a try to qualify for a race in Trenton, N.J., in 1971. He passed his rookie test at Indy in 1973 in a car built in Spokane. But the team ran out of money and motors before he could get in the race.
But Indiana sprint car owner Carl Gehlhausen offered him a ride in a novel rear-engine sprint car, and Sneva began cleaning up on the pavement against the likes of Gary Bettenhausen and Larry Dickson. USAC banned the car. Sneva's performance in that car earned him a ride in a Grant King car at Indy in 1974. And this time he put it in the show as the eighth-fastest qualifier.
"Still, the most emotional day in my life was qualifying in '74," Sneva said. "Later I won the race, qualified first, done a lot of stuff, but just making the event was the most emotional."
Gary Bettenhausen was injured in a dirt car accident later that year. Car owner Roger Penske chose Sneva to replace him. The promotion accelerated him to the top in equipment, crew and budget. He quickly became one of the fastest drivers on the track.
But it wasn't until 1983, when he had moved to the Bignotti-Cotter team, that he finally achieved the ultimate at Indy and beat the other 32 drivers to the checkered flag.
"Racing is difficult," he said about winning. "It depends on so many people, parts and equipment. Most guys in other sports, if they win more than they lose they've had a good year. In racing, if you win 10 percent of the races you've had a good year. You have to rationalize. You have to have a lot of money, people and luck."
In 1983 at Indy, Sneva wasn't counting on winning. The team had a terrible motor problem, but in the race the engine didn't miss a beat. The big problem during the race was passing rookie driver Al Unser Jr., who did a splendid job of blocking in an attempt to help his father win for the fourth time.
Eventually, Sneva made the right moves in traffic to slip by Unser Jr. and did likewise on Al Unser Sr. to add his likeness to the treasured Borg-Warner Trophy.
Sneva drove on through the 1992 race, but never had another top-10 finish. He retired after his car swapped ends during the 1992 race because he didn't sense the problem immediately before it happened.
On Race Day, Sneva will provide his pithy comments for the worldwide telecast. He said there's no comparison to being inside the cockpit of one of the 33 starters and in the enclosed television booth.
"It seems the farther I get away from the action, the less intense it gets," he said. "Sometimes it's hard to portray what they are going through to the viewing audience."
Editor's note: This is the last of a series of six stories featuring the Indianapolis 500 champions who will be honored during the Parade of Champions May 10-15 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The honored drivers are Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser and Tom Sneva.