The first driver to crank out 200mph qualifying laps at the Indy 500 (1977), the first man to complete a four-lap qualifying average of over 200mph ('78), and the first man to do the same to the 210mph mark (1984). Tom Sneva was three times a bridesmaid at The Brickyard before finally nailing a long overdue win in 1983. And there were few braver around there. Not for nothing was this two-time IndyCar champion known as The Gas Man.
It seemed like that place fitted my driving style pretty good. Back in 1974, my first start in the 500, I was driving for a small team owned by Grant King, and he had built a copy – from a picture! – of a '73 Eagle. Back then, Dan Gurney's Eagles were the cars to have. I was just a school teacher from Spokane, Wash., but as a rookie, I qualified eighth with a year-old copy, and right beside me on that row, was Bobby Unser driving for Dan's factory team with, obviously, the brand-new '74 car. I can remember Dan being sorta mad at us that we'd gotten alongside the great Bobby Unser with a copy of his year-old car! Ha!
Then in 1975, we qualified that McLaren well but had the big accident in the race. It didn't affect my speed at Indy the following year. In fact, I'd say it was tougher at the first race after that accident, which for me was Pocono. I wanted to race, but didn't know if I could run on that fine line and push it to the limit. I had some real question marks, and the media kept refreshing my memory of it and asking me questions just as I was trying to put it out of my mind before I got in the car. But once I got back in the car, although it took a few laps to regain the confidence you need to drive those things, everything came back as it was before the accident. No problem. Back at Indy the following year, we qualified well.
[Indeed: Sneva qualified his McLaren third at Indy in '76. But '77, now driving for Team Penske, was something else again… – Ed.]
We weren't quite flat-out all the way around at that time. Even on new tires, you had to lift a little in maybe a couple of corners. Leading up to qualifying, a lot of drivers were running 199mph in Happy Hour, including my Penske teammate that year, Mario Andretti. During the middle of the day, I had only been running 197s or 198s – but at a time I thought was more relevant to the track conditions we'd be qualifying in.
But Andretti was a little quicker, so Roger Penske decided Thursday night that I should try Andretti's setup for Friday, the day before qualifying. Back then, they used to clock us just off Turn 4, so they could give us the speed on the pit board by the time we got down to the start-finish line. With Mario's setup, I remember they clocked me at Turn 4 at 201mph. Problem was, I didn't complete the lap, because I hit the wall on the exit and knocked off the right side of the car!
The guys worked all night to put it together for Saturday. I told Penske, “Mario's setup might be quicker but I gotta run four laps, and with his setup I couldn't even run four corners!” So they put my setup back on it, and sure enough, there was only one guy to turn 200mph laps – the B-guy on the Penske team that year! That was pretty rewarding for me, I've got to say. (RIGHT: Tom receives 200 silver coins for officially breaking 200mph, as team boss Penske [far left] looks on.)
The following year we got pole again and our average for the four laps was over 200mph that time, and then six years after that, we reset the record with a 210mph four-lap average. It's only about technology. For a driver, it's just a case of running his car right to the ragged edge until it doesn't feel comfortable any longer. In 1992, we did a 226mph average, and that was easier than the 200 and 210 marks, because by then you were running flat-out around the racetrack, with the downforce and power the cars had.
So, the difficulty in going these speeds is all relative to the conditions, the surface of the track and the technology available to you within the confines of the rules and regulations. In 1974, as a rookie, I probably had about 1,500hp but by '92 we probably had about half that, but we were going 40mph quicker. And if you look at the power difference between our 200mph pole and our 210 pole, it's pretty minimal difference. It was all about the improvements to the chassis and bodywork over that five- or six-year period. It took them a while to figure out that the shape of the bottom of the car was a lot more important than the shape of the top surfaces. We had non-ground effects cars in '77 but by 1984, ground effect was understood and being used by everyone, so although our power levels weren't much different, the time was being made up in the corners: higher entry speeds and more grip on exit and therefore higher terminal speed on the straights.
Of all the years I'd been there and three times finished second, I've got to say 1983 wasn't really a year I expected to finally get the win. By race day, I wasn't really looking forward to it. We'd had a lot of trouble at the Bignotti-Cotter team throughout the Month of May and couldn't get a motor to last over 100 miles. And I was kinda fighting with George Bignotti, the chief mechanic. The car was quick – we qualified on the inside of the second row – but we just weren't getting any reliability in the engine department. Things weren't gelling by the time it came to race morning so I actually booked a pretty early tee time, because I didn't think the car was going to last. But sure enough, when you think it isn't going to happen, it does and we finally got one of those motors to run all day and we won the race.
As you look at guys go through their careers, you see a lot of them slowing down as they get older. For me at Indy, I didn't really slow down, but what got me to thinking I should retire was that I couldn't really feel where the edge was, or at least, not to the same extent that I could in my best years. So the last few years, we were running back-up cars with some of the smaller teams. We'd run fast in the race, but sometimes you just couldn't feel where that edge was, and I think that's when you need to retire.
It wasn't the cars or the technology that blurred that feel that every racecar driver should have. I think it was more to do with the fact that, by the end, I wasn't running the full series. In my last few years there, the Indy 500 was pretty much my only race of the year, and I just couldn't feel that edge like I needed to. I'd like to think if I'd been doing the whole schedule, I'd have been stronger. You see, to go fast, you have to run right on the edge, and the problem is, it's a fine line between control and non-control. Some guys have to draw that line with a crayon so it's a wide line, and the good ones draw it with a sharp pencil so it's a real fine line. I was drawing that line with a pencil, but I started stepping over it too often, and I needed to be drawing it with crayon. Problem is, some of us are just slow learners, and it takes us 20 years to realize we can probably get hurt doing this.
Having said that, I never went to Indianapolis thinking I couldn't win. I wasn't just turning up for the show. I always thought we had a shot, and although some years our equipment wasn't what we needed, the fact is that in 1983, we weren't optimistic about our equipment and yet we wound up winning the race. Indy is a strange bird, and you never know what to expect, so you just go as hard as you can for as long as you can.
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