When Tom Sneva is inducted into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Indianapolis on Friday, May 21, he will join the all-time legends of the Indy 500. Not bad for a former high school math teacher from Spokane.
Twenty-one years ago this month, Tom Sneva, born and raised in Spokane, won the 1983 Indianapolis 500, after finishing second a record three times (1977, '78 and '80). In 1977, he became the first driver to run a lap over 200 mph at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To Speedway historians, this was one of the biggest achievements in more than 60 years of racing.
In the post-Expo years, Tom Sneva became our own national sports hero. "This is Sneva Country" bumper stickers were just as common on Spokane's cars and pickup trucks as the "3"or "24"of our NASCAR heroes are today. (In fact, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon have since won Brickyard 400 races on the same track.)
In 1983, Tom Sneva drove one of most exciting 500s, led on 98 of the 200 laps, and received a record check for $385,886. Later, an artist put a two-inch sterling silver bas-relief profile of Sneva's face among the faces of all the winners on the Borg-Warner Trophy, which stands with his car -- the No. 5 Texaco Star -- in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.
Today, Tom Sneva is 55 and runs a luxury golf course in Paradise Valley, Ariz., where he and his family have lived since 1981. Though he retired from driving in the '90s, Sneva is active in racing. He will be participating in this year's Indianapolis 500 as driving coach for Indy Racing League rookie Mark Taylor on the Panther Racing Team.
In a recent cell phone interview from his clubhouse, Sneva said winning the 500 was huge, but breaking the 200 mph mark was a much bigger deal at the time.
"We were Penske's "B" driver," he said. "Mario Andretti was the 'A' driver, favored for the pole. We were running around 197 in practice. Other teams were running 198 to 199, almost 200. Then we went out in the mid-day sun, ran a lap at 202.535 and won the pole."
Tom Sneva was born June 1, 1948, and grew up on the South Hill, son of Edsol and Joan Sneva. His dad Ed was a local racing legend, beating all competitors in the 1950s on the now defunct local tracks at Mead, Joe Albi Stadium and the Fairgrounds. His sons Babe, Tom, Jerry, Jan and Blaine all raced and enjoyed some national success, too. Blaine still races a super-modified Chevrolet on the Northwest Modified circuit on the super half-mile oval at Spokane Raceway Park.
As kids, they were always racing something. "Trikes, wagons, soap box racers, anything that rolled," says Ed Sneva of his kids' need for speed. "They even ran foot races around the house, timing their laps with my wrist watch."
At 14, Tom got into go-karts; stock cars came at 18. As an education major at Eastern Washington State College, he spent his summers racing sprint cars on the Canadian American Modified Racing Association circuit. He has said that he gained his edge for Indianapolis by working with his father and running fast rear-engine cars on paved ovals around the Inland Northwest.
In 1970, with a wife and two baby daughters, Tom Sneva took a job teaching math and P.E. at Sprague High School, which gave him summers off to race. This led to some of the best racing Spokane has ever seen (although his wins reportedly did not impress school administrators in Sprague).
In 1973, the Snevas towed a homemade Offenhauser IndyCar to Indianapolis. Tom passed his rookie test, but the car was not fast enough to qualify. That was the end of Tom's beginning. In perhaps his riskiest move, Sneva resigned his teaching job and went back to Indianapolis on his own in 1974. He qualified Grant King's Kingfish Offy in 8th position, finished in 20th and earned almost $20,000 in his first Indy start.
Roger Penske recruited him to drive in 1975, and the rest is history. For the next 18 years, he competed on the national Indy racing circuit, winning 10 major races and two national driving championships in 1977 and 1978. With career earnings just under $4 million, he remains among the highest all-time money winners.
I followed Sneva's career with great enthusiasm. Like me, he grew up in Spokane -- except, of course, that he was a championship Indy 500 driver. Yet after almost a decade of racing, and many accolades, he still needed to win the Indy 500.
In 1983, I had just graduated from the University of Arizona and was in Spokane waiting for my first job at IBM in Florida to begin. I had seen Sneva win a race at Phoenix, and I believed he could win the 500. But the question was, would he win this time out?
Sunday, May 29, was brilliantly hot. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway's radio network linked our two cities. You could hear the eloquent voice of Indy 500 announcer Paul Page above the tiny whine of engines from radios in the shade of big elms, in the backyards and from open doors of garages all over Spokane. For more than three hours, Page called the race. Finally it boiled down to a battle between Sneva and the Unsers' father-son combination.
In my uncle's garage, we listened as Page narrated. Al Unser, Sr. was leading Sneva by a few seconds. Sneva had the faster car, but during a caution period, his son, Al Unser, Jr., many laps down in his first 500 start, passed both his father and Sneva. Back under green, young Unser hung back between the two cars, blocking Sneva, keeping him from passing his father. (Race officials later penalized Al Jr. two laps for passing under yellow.)
We held our collective breath as the race seemed to again be slipping from Sneva's grasp. With eight laps to go, Sneva made his move. He got under Al Jr. in Turn 1, and shot past both Unsers. In the clear, Sneva stood on the gas and ran it flat out, his car howling. Together, man and machine took the checkered flag. From under the shade trees and backyards and driveways in Spokane, the cheers went up.
In far-off Indianapolis -- you could see it in your mind's eye -- Tom Sneva drove the Texaco Star into Victory Lane. Half a million fans surged around him, like Charles Lindberg and the Spirit of St. Louis landing in Paris after his transatlantic flight. They placed a wreath of roses and laurel leaves around his shoulders, gave him a bottle of milk to drink and presented him with the Borg-Warner Trophy. Like all the 500 winners since 1911, for a few shining moments, Tom Sneva stood alone in the glow of history -- and he was golden.
Patrick Karle is a technology writer who covered the Indianapolis 500 from 1985-96 for national publications.