Fast car: Looking back at when Tom Sneva broke 200mph during the 1977 Indianapolis 500

Tom Sneva blue race car

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1977 was quite a momentous year for the Indianapolis 500. Tom Sneva broke the 200mph “officially” for the first time, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the great race, and A J Foyt would go on to become the first four-time winner in race history.

This story looks back at Sneva’s 200mph effort in qualifying. Though his four-lap average was just under 199mph, his first two laps were over the ‘magic’ 200mph mark — and the first official laps of over 200mph recorded at the speedway. By Indianapolis rules, only laps turned during qualifying attempts are considered “official,” not those run in practice.

In addition to breaking the barrier and winning the pole, Sneva was rewarded by Phil Hedback of Bryant Heating and Cooling, who poured 200 silver dollars into his helmet in recognition for his feat — just as Parnelli Jones had 150 silver dollars poured into his for cracking 150mph in 1962. – AJW

Fast track: Sneva breaks ‘barrier’

by Jim Bailey, Associate Sports Editor – Anderson Sunday Herald (Anderson, Indiana) May 15, 1977

Indianapolis – As always, the opening day of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 Saturday proved eventful. Even the expected was full of surprises.

The “magic” 200-mile-an-hour barrier, as predicted, was broken. Not by A J Foyt, or Johnny Rutherford, or Bobby Unser. It was broken by Tom Sneva, who also set a four-lap record in gaining the coveted pole position.

Foyt, who usually makes his own luck, had a bit of it thrust at him on a silver platter. The three-time Indy winner actually qualified twice in the same car after tech inspectors discovered the pop-off valve on his car originally was faulty.

It was a day in which 196 miles an hour was not fast enough for last year’s pole position winner. Rutherford, who ran a lap of better than 197mph and was averaging 196-plus, was flagged off the track in anticipation of a later attempt at catching Sneva. It didn’t work as his backup car developed trouble before he even completed a warmup lap, and his No. 1 machine failed to make it to the line before the 6 o’clock closing time.

So instead of Rutherford being on the front line with Sneva, Al Unser joined brother Bobby in the first row for the May 29 classic.

Bobby’s qualifying attempt was his second of the day, aborting his first attempt because of a leaking radiator.

Fans of Janet Guthrie will have to wait at least one more day to see the first woman driver attempt a qualification for the race. Guthrie failed to get the machine, which had been worked over following a brush with the wall Tuesday, up to qualifying speeds and the car was not put in the qualifying line until near the end of the day.

MORE: Race car driver Janet Guthrie broke the gender barrier back in 1977 by qualifying for the Indianapolis 500

If the qualifying order is followed today, Janet will be the fourth driver to make a run for a spot in the field. Salt Walther, Rutherford, and rookie sensation Clay Regazzoni are to be the first three on the track.

Sneva’s brother Jerry also qualified, putting two brother acts in the race. Jerry, however, currently is first on the “bump” list of the 16 first day qualifiers with a speed of 186.616. Drivers were turning down faster speeds during the afternoon as track temperatures at 2pm soared to 120 degrees, neatly splitting qualifying into two parts.

Always one of the “hotfoots” at Indianapolis, Sneva’s 200mph lap came shortly after such notables as Foyt and the Unser brothers had tried and failed.

“I’ve got to be pleased,” beamed Sneva. “This has been a tough week.”

Tom Sneva - May 1977 - Indy 500 200mph

Sneva had brushed the wall only a day before, failing to get an “official” 200mph reading, such as non-qualifying times are. “Actually,” he admitted, “I warmed up that day at 199.8, and on the next lap they caught us coming down the track at 200.1 — sideways.”

The car barely brushed the wall but necessitated redoing the suspension. “We had to guess at the qualifying setup,” Sneva stated. “We were flirting with 200 but we didn’t get a lot of laps in the car. I figured I’d either break the record or break the engine.”

Obviously, Sneva’s crew guessed right.

“I knew the first couple of laps were good,” he said. “I didn’t have to let off much on the throttle. The car did get a bit loose after that, and I didn’t want to lose it, so I backed off a little.”

After a first lap of 200.401 and a second of 200.535, he slowed to 197.628 and 197.032. The total 198.884 still snapped Rutherford’s qualifying record of 198.413 set in 1973.

Foyt was the first car to qualify. Although he had bettered 200mph in practice and had run 196 earlier Saturday, the flamboyant Texan managed only a four lap effort of 193.465 with a fast lap of 194.510, his first.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” said Foyt after the second run. “I was dressed and ready to go to my suite when they found me and told me about it. They said it was up to me.”

Foyt’s decision to take another run was greeted with a mixed chorus of cheers and boos, which rankled the veteran driver. “If you don’t go back out, you’re a chicken,” he snapped, “and if you do, you’re a bad guy.”

MORE: Looking back to when Jim Clark won the Indianapolis 500 race in a rear-engined car (1965)

The second run was roughly a mile an hour faster, which eventually moved the Texan up one position from where he would have been.

“I had no choice,” asserted Foyt when asked whether he could have reverted to his first attempt had the second one been slower. “They wanted me to go with that one (the second try) if I took it.”

The “pop-off” valve, limiting turbocharger boost to 80 inches of mercury, is installed by USAC prior to each qualifying run. The problem discovered when the technical committee removed Foyt’s valve was a leak, which kept the boost from reaching that figure.

In all, the green was thrown 30 times, with 16 cars completing qualifying attempts. The 16 cars in the field currently have an average speed 8.047 miles per hour higher than last year’s field.

Foyt, Gordon Johncock and Mario Andretti comprise the second row. Johncock and Andretti both qualified in the late afternoon hours when a haze cooled off the track.

Rookie Danny Ongais, who blew up an engine in practice and had to give up his No. 1 position in the qualifying line, came back to grab the inside of the third row. Pancho Carter and Mike Mosley are beside him.

Wally Dallenbach, Johnny Parsons and Sheldon Kinser make up the fourth row, with George Snider, rookie Bobby Olivero and Al Loquasto behind them. Jerry Sneva is currently on the inside of row six, if his speed holds up.

Tom Bigelow, Regazzoni, Lloyd Ruby and Rutherford were waved off by their crews at faster speeds than the younger Sneva posted. Rutherford’s first lap was 197.542, the fifth fastest of the day, followed by a 195.993 and a 196.549 before he decided to try again later.

He’s still waiting.

DON’T MISS: Indianapolis 500: When AJ Foyt won his fourth Indy 500 crown (1977)

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