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1977 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Jerry Sneva dead at age 68

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Jerry Sneva at Indy, 1977. Photos courtesy IMS.

Born into a racing family, Jerry Sneva climbed the ladder from Spokane, Washington’s dirt tracks all the way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 1977, Jerry’s debut year at the Brickyard, he qualified 16th but fought his way to 10th by the checkered flag, a performance that earned him Rookie of the Year honors. Jerry Sneva would make the show four more times, though without achieving the same success as in his first Indy 500. On January 29, Jerry Sneva died in Indianapolis, age 68.

Older brother Tom Sneva made his debut at Indy in 1974, and Jerry attempted to qualify for the 500 one year later, in 1975. Though unsuccessful after a crash forced him to swap cars at the last minute, the younger Sneva did pass his rookie test, thanks in part to an official who may have overlooked the expired time clock. Jerry sat out the 1976 race, but returned to Indy in May 1977.

By then, Jerry was a veteran driver, with experience piloting supermodifieds in the Canadian-American Modified Racing Association (CAMRA), as well as USAC Sprint Cars. In his 1973 USAC debut, substituting for his absent brother Tom (who was busy qualifying for a California Indy Car race), Jerry qualified for the main in Carl Gelhausen’s rear-engine sprint car and managed to achieve a second-place finish in the ill-handling beast.

Jerry Sneva

With Warner Hodgdon’s turbocharged AMC at Indy in 1979.

At Indy in 1979, a mechanical issue sidelined the car Sneva was supposed to drive on the third day of qualifying. Asked to shakedown the turbocharged AMC reserved for Neil Bonnet – who planned on flying in to qualify at Indy after qualifying for the NASCAR race at Dover – Sneva was happy to offer his assistance to team owner Warner Hodgdon.

The plan was to go to the end of the qualifying line, take three warmup laps, and then pull in off the track before the green flag waved for a timed lap. A session complete, Sneva provided good feedback for the team, which made changes to the car’s setup. A second session followed, though it didn’t end as anyone expected.

Carrying a substantial amount of speed off turn four, Sneva took the green flag instead of returning to the pits, flying through four qualifying laps at an average speed of 184.379 MPH, good enough to put him 21st on the grid, well outside the danger of being bumped on “Bubble Day.” Part of Sneva’s performance was bravado, but part of it was also self-preservation – the car’s throttle had stuck in the open position, forcing Sneva to drive it with the kill switch instead of the more conventional gas, clutch, and brake pedals.

Sneva later admitted there was strategy behind his move. Staying out with a stuck throttle was risky, but returning to the pits to hope his original car was repaired in time to qualify was riskier. Though the turbocharged AMC had been assigned to Bonnett, the rising NASCAR star was a rookie at the Brickyard, while Sneva was a veteran. Qualifying, particularly with such an impressive performance, increased the likelihood that Sneva would be awarded the seat once reserved for Bonnett.

Bad weather kept Bonnett in Delaware for the weekend, ultimately giving the seat in Hodgdon’s car to Sneva. His 1979 Indy 500 would be a short one, however, as just 17 laps into the race, his engine let go. In 1980, Sneva qualified fifth on the grid, in the middle of the second row, but a crash in turn one on lap 131 relegated him to a 17th place finish. He failed to qualify in 1981, and in 1982 – his last Indy 500 – Sneva qualified 28th and crashed on lap 62, ultimately scoring a 23rd place finish.

Jerry would ultimately start 28 Indy Car races over his career, achieving six top-10 finishes despite his inability to procure a truly competitive ride. After relocating to Indianapolis, Sneva became a regular visitor to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and a frequent sight in its museum and gift shop.

Sneva is survived by his wife, Kathy; son, Trevor; and daughter, Shelby, as well as brothers Tom, Blaine and Jan.