They called him “The Gas Man.”
It was a good name for Tom Sneva, because it encompassed all the drama, milestones, speed, humor … and a win in the 1983 Indianapolis 500.
He was the first to crack the 200-mph barrier at Indy with a lap of 200.535 in 1977. There was a time when he went slower.
He was an assistant football and basketball coach in Sprague, Wash., and was scheduled to be the baseball coach. But not enough kids turned out for practice, they’d already paid him to be a baseball coach so they made him assistant tennis coach. Since Sprague did not have a tennis facility, Sneva was assigned to drive the bus to another town each night for practice. It was good practice for him.
Along with that, Sneva competed on the rugged Canadian-American Modified Racing Association circuit before coming to the Brickyard.
In ’77, it was a harrowing route to the 200-mph lap for Sneva.
“We were going to go as fast as we could and we had a pretty good car, so we just ran two corners at a time so we didn’t show what we had,” Sneva said recently. “(Mario) Andretti was my (Penske) teammate, and he and some other guys were running 199s, and I was running 197.
“They put Mario’s setup on my car. But on Friday, the day before qualifying, I hit the wall. They worked long hours to put it back together, and they put my setup back on it.
“I was the ‘B’ driver, and we got her done. I couldn’t tell how fast I ran, but I knew it was a good lap because I used a little more throttle. Back then, you couldn’t run flat out all the way around.
“I can’t believe those early guys trying to run 100 miles an hour with skinny tires on bricks. Those were real men. Now they have less than half the horsepower we had in ’77 and a whole lot more technology. It was easier to run 226 in ’92 than it was 200 in ’77.”
In 1983, Victory Lane awaited Sneva, but it wasn’t easy. He was chasing Al Unser with rookie Al Unser Jr. in between them.
“We had a yellow late in the race, and Al got himself between me and his dad,” Sneva said. “As the fuel load went down, my car was faster, and theirs were slower. Mentally, it was tough to keep the patience until the right time.”
But he did and took his place on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Sneva used every trick possible to try to gain an advantage on rivals at the Speedway. Teams started to cover their wings when their cars weren’t running, keeping wing angles secret, because Sneva walked up and down the pit road looking at the setups on other cars.
“You could get the ride height by slipping your foot under the front of the car,” Sneva said. “One day at the Speedway, there were some gals standing around the garage, and I gave one a tape measure and told her to go measure the side of (Johnny) Rutherford’s car. She went over there, and Steve Roby, the team manager, went nuts. Our whole team was laughing at ‘em.”
In 1980, Sneva’s experience as a bus driver became important. In Mexico City, there were buses to take drivers, mechanics, officials and the like back to the hotels in the city’s Zona Rosa from the track. A bus was loaded, and the driver wasn’t to be found.
So Wally Dallenbach slipped the brake, and Sneva saddled up the bus and drove the group back to the hotel.
“I called the bus company and told them where their bus was double-parked,” Sneva said.
The next week at Phoenix, Sneva was “served” with a “warrant” by a Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputy to appear in court in Mexico City regarding a stolen bus, causing laughter up and down the pit road.
Today, he isn’t really taking it easy at his Paradise Valley, Ariz., home.
“I’m racing quarter-midgets with my grandson,” he said. “I found out that being a mechanic is harder than being a driver.”
He also got involved in golf years ago, being a builder of The “500” Club links in Phoenix.
That led him to another project, building a golf cart, not just a routine golf cart.
“It’s got a 750 Yamaha, five-speed on nitrous in it,” Sneva said. “If I was going to be in the golf business, I figured I ought to have the world’s fastest golf cart.”
He returns for race weekend in May every year.
“I like to see the old timers and meet the new guys,” he said.