The Fate Of Being The Brother

Having brothers that both race is nothing new. In fact, it’s fairly common. We’re all familiar with the Unsers and the Bettenhausens. The Unser brothers each had sons who also raced, while the Bettenhausen brothers followed in their father’s footsteps. The first Andretti brothers to race were not Michael and Jeff – it was their father Mario and his twin brother Aldo. Some say Aldo was the better racer of the two, but we’ll never know because Aldo suffered a near-fatal accident that sidelined him and ended his career early on.

There was also George Robson, the winner of the 1946 Indianapolis 500 and his brother Hal. The two raced against each other in the 1946 “500”, before George was fatally injured at a race in Atlanta later that year. Hal would live another fifty years before passing away in 1996 at the age of eighty-five.

In the grand scheme of things; two sets of brothers seemed to fall under the radar. Like the Robsons; both of these sets had one brother win the Indianapolis 500, while the other did not. Rick Mears won the Indianapolis 500 four times. His brother Roger was four years older and never won it. Tom Sneva became an Indianapolis 500 champion in 1983. His younger brother Jerry, who won Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 1977, tried five times to win and always came up empty.

Jerry Sneva passed away last Saturday at the age of sixty-eight.

Tom was the oldest of the five Sneva brothers. Jerry was the second oldest. The others were Jan, Blaine and Ed (Babe). Their father, Edsol (Ed) was a local racer in the Spokane, WA area. Consequently all five of the Sneva boys eventually grew up to be racers. Babe was fatally injured in a race in British Columbia in the mid-seventies; but that did nothing to discouraging the others from racing.

Tom’s first year as a USAC driver was in 1970. He was not an Indianapolis starter until 1974, as a driver for Grant King. He started eighth and lasted for ninety-four laps before being sidelined with mechanical problems. Jerry’s first “500” saw him start sixteenth and finish tenth as Rookie of the Year, in a five-year old McLaren.

Finishing that high as a rookie in five year-old equipment is indicative of (a) the talent that Jerry Sneva possessed and (b) the kind of equipment he always drove.

While brother Tom worked his way into Team Penske for his second year at Indianapolis, Jerry continued to toil in third-rate equipment. He was usually a second weekend qualifier at Indianapolis, except for 1980 – which was perhaps his best year even though it didn’t show up in the box score.

While driving for Sherman Armstrong, Jerry Sneva put his Lola/Cosworth on the middle of the second row and ran with the leaders early on, even as he battled a very ill-handling car. But by Lap 130, the car became too much of a handful and his day ended up against the Turn One wall, giving the younger Sneva a seventeenth place finish.

One year later came perhaps his lowest moment at Indianapolis. Jerry Sneva was trying to squeeze his way into the field. It looked as if he had, when he bumped out Jerry Karl in the closing minutes. But after Karl’s team protested that something illegal gave Sneva the speed he needed to qualify; the Sneva car was inspected, Sneva was disqualified and Karl was reinstated to the field.

Jerry Sneva drove in the “500” once more after he was disqualified in 1981. It was the next year, 1982, and it was a forgettable showing. He qualified twenty-eighth, ran for sixty-one laps before crashing in Turn Two. The following year, Jerry Sneva would watch as a spectator as his brother, Tom, raced into immortality by winning the 1983 Indianapolis 500.

Tom Sneva’s career at Indianapolis stretched from 1974 through 1992. He was the first to break the 200 mph barrier in 1977. He won the USAC National Championship in back-to-back years in 1977-78 and the Indianapolis 500 in 1983. His nickname was The Gas Man, which would be the type of nickname any racer would want. Overall, the elder Sneva won three poles in his eighteen “500” starts. Aside from his win, he had three second-place finishes, a fourth and a sixth.

Jerry Sneva had a much more modest career. He had one top-ten finish at Indianapolis and a best starting position of fifth – in only five career starts. His main accolade was winning Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 1977 – the same year that AJ Foyt won his record fourth Indianapolis 500 and Tom Sneva broke the 200 mph barrier in qualifying before finishing second in the race. Even in Jerry Sneva’s finest moment, his accomplishments were overshadowed by his big brother and arguably the greatest driver of all time.

For the past few days, we’ve been hearing all that knew Jerry Sneva or knew of him say that he was just as talented as his older brother. But fate smiled on Tom Sneva just as it did Mario Andretti and Rick Mears. Jerry Sneva never got to drive for Roger Penske or George Bignotti. There is a lot of luck involved with racing – not only what you encounter on the track, but also what teams you are able to catch on with. Jerry Sneva only had twenty-six career USAC/CART starts combined. Brother Tom had a total of 221 starts.

History has sort of forgotten the Aldo Andrettis, the Hal Robsons, the Roger Mearses and the Jerry Snevas of the world. There is documentation that suggests that each of these drivers had about as much driving talent as their more successful brothers. They just encountered a more difficult road in their respective racing careers.

By all accounts, Jerry Sneva was very well respected by his racing peers. More importantly, he was well-liked and looked up to off of the track. Apparently he never showed any bitterness toward the hand he had been dealt. He knew the luck involved with racing.

Jerry Sneva is survived by Kathy, his wife of thirty-five years – a son and a daughter; as well as his three remaining brothers. Please keep the Sneva family in your thoughts and prayers.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “The Fate Of Being The Brother”

  1. Excellent piece, George. It makes the dual accomplishments of the Unsers even more amazing. This is one of your best posts

  2. The Bettenhausen brothers, Tony Jr., Gary, and Merle seem to have inherited the bad luck of their father “Tough Luck Tony Sr.” Merle has survived and lives in Indianapolis. I hope to meet him this summer.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed the fact that there were racing brothers named Tom and Jerry. That’s even more fun than seeing Ganassi and Coyne standing next to each other and saying “Hey, it’s Chip and Dale!”

    Jerry Sneva and guys like him, the oft-unlucky guys who hustle for backmarker rides just to prove themselves. They’re a big part of why serious racing fans love racing. Jerry is most certainly missed.

  4. Thanks George for this tribute to Jerry Sneva. Luck does play a part and some just receive more opportunities. I always think “what if” when I read about someone who had such potential.

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