In 1983, Tom Sneva finally won the Indianapolis 500 after previously finishing runner-up in it three times. It proved to be the final time he finished the race at all, and after the 1992 running of the race, he hung up his helmet for good.
Sneva, the 1977 and 1978 USAC Champ Car Series champion, discussed with Frontstretch the victory that eluded him in the first nine years of his career and the terrible crash he had with Eldon Rasmussen in the 1975 Indy 500. He also recounted his rise to American open-wheel racing’s pinnacle and who in the Verizon IndyCar Series today reminds him most of himself.
What do you remember from the day you won the 1983 Indianapolis 500?
Well, I remember taking the checkered flag. But before that, we had a pretty great battle going at the end of the race with the Unsers. Al Unser Jr. was a rookie that year, and we had a yellow late in the race. His dad was leading, and [Al Jr.] sort of got between his dad and me to help his dad try to win the race. There was a lot of blocking going on. It was crazy stuff, and what was great is that everybody was full of fuel.
There were a lot of guys running the same speed, but my car got a little faster as the fuel ran out. So I had to have the temperament to wait until I ran some fuel out of the car and got faster. I had a good chance to get by him, and we ended up passing Al [Sr.] and taking the checkered flag. It was a great day.
Before you won, you finished runner-up in the Indy 500 three times. Did you ever think, “Is it ever going to happen?”
Yeah, you always do, you know? For two times, we finished second after starting from the pole. Actually, in 1980, we finished second with a backup car for a smaller team. We started dead last and finished second, which was the most improvement ever, and that might have been my finest drive ever at Indy. But you know, it’s just a second-place finish, and it’s not until you win the thing that you become… more recognizable, let’s put it that way.
You suffered a major crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1975. What do you remember from that?
We got together and touched wheels with Eldon Rasmussen, who was a rookie. Eldon and I had ran sprint cars and super modifieds in the Northwest together. I got to Indy before he did and he came, like I said, in ‘75; I was a rookie in 1974. But when he came, he was struggling. He wasn’t going to make the race. I gave him some ideas to try on the car, and he gained about 10 mph and was now going fast enough to make the race. We were lapping him for the second or third time. I just assumed he would give me a little more room and then he didn’t. Anyway, we touched wheels and the rest was history.
At what age did your racing career begin?
I didn’t start racing until I graduated from high school. So I was 18, which is late compared to what the guys do nowadays. I was playing sports in high school like football and basketball and had to get through high school until my father let me get an old ‘38 Chevrolet. It was an old jalopy that we ran at the local fairgrounds track.
Is there anyone in the Verizon IndyCar Series today that reminds you of yourself or like to watch?
Well, I think there’s a lot of great talent out there, but probably Tony Kanaan. He grinds pretty hard, and he’s good in traffic. He’s a great oval racer too. He might be as close as anybody to what my style was.
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