Time Capsule Tuesday - Tom Sneva

March 22, 2016

Team Penske will be celebrating our 50th anniversary in motorsports in 2016. To bring you some of the terrific stories of our five-decade run of excellence, Team Penske is running weekly online features highlighting some of our drivers and our key events. We hope you enjoy this memorable time in our history.

During Team Penske’s 50 years of racing, 86 drivers have contended for iconic team owner Roger Penske – and few have been as fast as Tom Sneva. Known as “The Gasman” for his qualifying prowess, Sneva is credited as the first driver to qualify at over 200 mph for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500. Sneva enjoyed four successful racing years with Team Penske, making 54 starts, calming three victories, 10 poles and winning two-consecutive IndyCar titles in 1977 and 1978. 

Sneva, a former math teach from Spokane, Washington moved to Indianapolis to make a full-time career out of racing. Sneva gained racing respect early by winning a series of USAC sprint car races in 1973 using a rear-engine machine.

In 1974, Sneva qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 and caught the attention of Roger. Sneva began driving for Team Penske the following year. In fourth starts, Sneva started first for the 1975 Trenton 200, leading the first 20 laps, eventually finishing sixth. 

Sneva’s next race for Penske was the 1975 Indianapolis 500 where Sneva would endure one of the most horrifying accidents in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history. Sneva’s Penske-McLaren touched wheels with the IndyCar driven by Eldon Rasmussen; Sneva’s burning car flew through the air, and laid to rest on the track. 

Missing Milwaukee, Sneva would return for the 1975 Schaefer 500 at Pocono Raceway before exiting the race early with injector issues. Sneva’s luck would eventually turn around, scoring a second place finish in the 1975 Norton 200 at Michigan International Speedway and a third place finish in the 1975 Tony Bettenhausen 200 at the Milwaukee Mile. 

It was not until September 13, 1975 during the Michigan Grand Prix where Sneva would see victory lane for the first time with Penske. Starting from the seventh position andonly leading seven laps, Sneva was able to hold off Johnny Rutherford for the win. Sneva would finish sixth in the drivers’ standings for 1975. 

In 1976, Sneva had 11 starts with Penske. Sneva completed 1,187 of 1,503 laps, lead only 16 laps and finished the season with three top five finishes and ended eighth in drivers’ standings. 

During the 1977 season, Penske fielded new Cosworth-powered McLaren M24s, and Sneva came through with the first of his three Indianapolis poles. Despite crashing in practice on the day before Pole Day, Sneva set the one-lap record of 200.535 mph and four-lap mark of 198.884. Sneva made 14 starts for Penske in 1977, completed 1,617 of 1,914 laps, lead 59 laps and had an average finish of 7.6 enroot to winning his first Championship with Penske.

The following season, Sneva successfully defended his series title, making 18 starts for Penske, Sneva led 124 laps and captured seven poles, with an average start of 2.8. Sneva also broke his own speed record at Indy while driving a new Penske PC-6 chassis, increasing speeds to 203.620 and 202.156 mph. 

After the 1978 season Sneva raced for several different teams before showing his versatility by competing in eight NASCAR Cup events, spanning from 1977 to 1987. Sneva earned one top-ten, a seventh in the 1983 Daytona 500. A few years later, Sneva retired from racing, credited with 13 career IndyCar wins and 14 pole positions, calming three victories, 10 poles while driving for Team Penske.

After Sneva retired from driving, he was a color commentator for ABC television network's Wide World of Sports program and called several Indy 500s. He is also heavily involved in the golf course business where he resides in Paradise Valley, Arizona and was named to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2005.