During the decades of the 1970s and 80s, there were a handful of exciting drivers that when they were on the track brought fans to the edge of their seats. Checkered flag or crash, they were pure entertainment.
It seems like that era had its share of hard-charging, all-or-nothing drivers, and leading the way was “The Gas Man” – Tom Sneva.
His 18-race career was nothing short of spectacular, and one that was the epitome of finding both ends of the emotional roller coaster drivers live at the Speedway. Sneva, who won the race in 1983, also notched three runner-up finishes, three poles and five top-5s.
At the same time, Sneva only finished the 500 miles on four occasions (averaging just 121 laps per start), and crashed out of the race a record SEVEN TIMES! His accident in 1975, where he touched wheels with Eldon Rasmussen and rocketed into the catch fence in front of the Turn 2 suites, is one of the most spectacular wrecks in the race’s history.
Fortunately he walked away from that crash, and many others, and in between exhibited some amazing driving. He is still the only driver two break two speed barriers in qualifying, topping the magical 200 mph mark in 1977 and 210 in 1984, while setting both the one and four-lap qualifying records on three different occasions.
Sneva was very adept at qualifying, always finding a little bit more in his car when it came time for his 10-mile run. While some accused him of sandbagging, Sneva always insisted that wasn’t the case. He just seemed to be a little faster when it was time to go.
When the green flag fell on race day, Sneva didn’t hesitate trying to get to the front of the field, and eventually led 202 laps between 1980-84. In 1980 he became the first driver to charge from 33rd position and finish second (Scott Goodyear equaled that feat in 1992), which was part of a seven-year run where he placed in the top-6 five times.
But until 1983, he was known as the world’s fastest bridesmaid after having finished second three times in four years. That changed when he piloted the Texaco Star to his one and only win, engaging in a spirited battle with Al Unser (and a young rookie named Al Unser, Jr. who was running a screen for his dad) before getting around both Unsers with 10 laps to go. He pulled away to win by 11 seconds to finally get to Victory Lane.
For Sneva, that was the high point of his Indy career, as he never finished higher than 15th in his final eight starts. His run at the Speedway ended in 1992, when he qualified 30th in a John Menard-owned Buick and crashed out of the race on Lap 10.
One of the more colorful characters in the race’s history, Sneva was the original Social Network, often walking up and down pit lane when he wasn’t in the car in search of conversation.
Though he was always good with a quote, his penchant doing his own thing and sometimes saying the wrong thing got him into trouble, case in point his being canned by Roger Penske after winning back-to-back National Championships in 1977-78.
Still, his combination of personality, charisma and sheer driving skill made him one of the more popular drivers of his era. He finished with 13 open wheel wins in his career and was enshrined in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2005.