Friday, May 20, 2016

R100: Pacific Northwest Drivers with Speedway Connections - Fini!

Tom Sneva's 1983 Indy 500 winning Texaco Star racing car  on display at the IMS Hall of Fame museum. (The Tomaso Collection)

Continuing on with this ever increasing Tome, here's my final Quartet of Open Wheel Racing Stars with connections to Thy GURR-REAT Pacific Northwest!

Jerry Grant
Birthplace: Seattle, Washington
DOB: January 23, 1935
Death: August 12, 2012
Indy 500 starts: 10
Best Finish: 7th
Years: 1965-68, 1970, 1972-76

For many Hardcore IndyCar Devotees, Seattle's Jerry Grant is known as the driver of the *#48) "Mystery Eagle" who almost won the 1972 Indy 500 before cutting a tyre and ultimately being classified P12 after having refueled in team-mate Bobby Unser's pit in the ensuing aftermath - which he was penalized for.

Yet the Seattle All City Football star made his mark upon the local racing scene in 1956 by leading on Seattle's Airfield course in a custom jalopy ahead of Thoroughbred foreign pedigree marques for 2-laps before mechanical failure.

Grant then decimated the Pacific Northwest Sports Car trail aboard a Ferrari, at one point winning twenty seven straight races over a two-year period en route to winning the SCCA's Pacific Northwest championship! Along With winning the first two Rose Cup races in Portland, Oregon.

It was during these formative days of carving up the West Coast competizione that Jerry came to Thy Attenzione of his "Idol," somebody by the name of Daniel Sexton Gurney, whom promptly put Grant behind the wheel of his Lola Sports Car and the rest was History, with Grant reeling off eleven Poles aboard said Lola in the USRRC championship.

Jerry would partner Gurney at FoMoCo's (Ford Motor Company) Works Shelby American team in 1966 aboard one of those Uber NASTY seven-litre V-8 Big-block Ford GT-40 Mark II's - finishing runner-up that year at Daytona.

Gurney would later comment that Jerry was his favourite co-driver, as presumably this bond helped solidify Grant's long association of wheeling Indy Cars for Gurney's All American Racers,(AAR) for which the number 48 is synonymous with Dan Gurney. Where Grant almost gave Dan the taste 'O milk that day at the Speedway!

As Jerry notched a total of three Top-10 finishes at the Brickyard during his decade-plus career there, with seventh place being his best finish in 1970 before returning in '72 for what could have been!

Yet Grant's also remembered for making some history in Open Wheel Racing by becoming the first driver to officially record a lap over 200 miles per hour! For which he set this once unachievable speed record at Ontario Motor Speedway (OMS) in the fall of 1972, as Ontario (OMS) was then known as Indianapolis's sister track, "the Big O Indianapolis of the West!" Before fading away into obscurity after closing in 1980 - ultimately being demolished to make way for urban sprawl.

As isn't I-T ironic that the two men to be the first recorded Indy Cars officially to eclipse the magical 200mph barrier were both from the State of Washington...

Art Pollard
Birthplace: Dragon, Utah
DOB: May 5, 1927
Death: May 12, 1973
IndyCar Wins: 2
Indy 500 starts: 5
Best Finish: 8th
Years: 1967-71

Although born in the relatively unknown Dragon, Utah, Art Pollard's family moved to Oregon with Art Lee Pollard, Jr. graduating from Roseburg High School in 1945. Subsequently, the junior Pollard went onto dominate the West Coast Sprint Car (Midgets) racing scene during the 1950-s and 1960's, winning an impressive 22-of-28 Features in 1961 alone!

Art gained his rookie stripes at Mother Speedway in 1967, coinciding with his career best finish at Indianapolis; eighth place, while his best USAC Championship Car season was 1969 when he won at Milwaukee and  Dover - coming on the heels of arguably his best ride ever at the Speedway, when he drove the third Lotus 56 Turbine to a 13th place finish.

Alas, sadly Art perished at Indianapolis in '73 during a practice-run, for which he'd recorded a speed over 192mph the lap prior. With his death occurring a week after his 46th birthday...

Tom Sneva
Birthplace: Spokane, Washington
DOB: June 1, 1948 (Age: 67)
IndyCar wins: 13
Championships: 2
Indy 500 starts: 18
Indy 500 Poles: 3
Best Finish: 1983 Indy 500 Winner
Years: 1974-90, 1992

It's funny how the older I get the more foggy my memories get... As I still swear I sat SCREAMING at the family's TV for Sneva to get around that pesky 'lil Pipsqueak! A precocious 21yr old Albuquerque native named Alfred Unser Jr. who as a rookie was trying to play Blocking Back for his father B-I-G AL' who was battling Sneva for the win! For which we know that Sneva managed to pass both Unser's en route to victory!

Tom wore many Hats in education prior to becoming a driver fulltime, i.e.; Math teacher, School Bus Driver and Principal in Eastern Washington before moving East to tackle some racing track at 16th & Georgetown.

As I'm guessing he's the only Indy 500 winner, or IndyCar driver to have driven a School Bus? As I still enjoy the Yarn 'bout him "Stealin'" a School Bus in Mexico City to drive the Drivers back while waiting for the original driver to show up...

As Tom shot to national fame with his spectacularly fiery crash into the Brickyard's catch fencing in 1975 after clipping Eldon Rasmussen's wheel, which he suffered burns to 15% of his Body! And now enjoys claiming he lost a pair 'O lips and nose in the fire which are bigger than ever now; Hya!

And as Sneva points out in Curt Cavin's story chronicling living Indy 500 champions, he's probably the only two-times National Champion (1977-78) to be fired by his owner, somebody named Roger Penske promptly afterwards!

Tom's only one of two drivers to ever finish runner-up after starting 33rd! Having finished second three times in his career, along with not only being the first driver to ever officially lap Indianapolis at over 200mph, and then the first to run 210 at the Speedway!

Yet Sneva  also holds the dubious record of most (race) crashes at Mother Speedway, and bizarrely never once finished another Indy 500 race after his lone victory in '83...

Jerry Sneva
Birthplace: Spokane, Washington
DOB: May 23, 1949 (Age: 66)
Indy 500 starts: 5
Best Finish: 10th
Years: 1977-1980, 1982

Accomplishments: 1977 Indy 500 Rookie Of the Year
I particularly like the symmetry of lesser-known brother Jerry winning Rookie Of the Year the same year his older brother Tom won his first Pole at Mother Speedway, the first of two consecutive Poles for Penske Racing.

Although I know very little about Jerry, who was one of the five racing Sneva brothers, as their younger brother (Edson) :"Babe" lost his life from injuries while racing a Super Modified Sprint Car in British Columbia in 1975.

As it appears that Jerry never had the same equipment as his brother Tom did at Indianapolis, driving year old machinery, i.e.; McLaren-Offy vs. brother Tom's Penske's McLaren-Cosworth...

And then there's Maple Ridge, BC's Greg Moore, who was a victim of the infamous Split and never rightly got his chance to compete at Mother Speedway! For which Greg would have been a Phenom for El Capitano, who the 'KuhNuck had just signed for prior to his untimely death at 24 - before somebody named 'HULIO took over his Penske Racing drive...

(Photo Courtesy of No Fenders ‘Offical Photographer ‘CARPETS)