Brickyard mythologists say that Tom Sneva, the pole-sitter in this Indy 500, is already among the walking dead.

Therefore, no race car will ever kill him.

Three years ago, Sneva "stuffed it" into the wall on turn two here. In drivers lingo for certain death, Sneva "bought the farm."

His demolished Norton Spirit burst into shrapnel. The car's tub seat, with Sneva burning inside it, skidded to a halt directly in front of the patio porch where his wife, Sharon was watching the race.

Sneva walked away - scalded, unbroken, spared.

Tom Sneva, son of an Indy racer, should be the prototype of the man-on-the-pole for Sunday's 62nd pursuit of the Oily Grail.

Not only was he the national racing champion last year, he won the inside seat on Indy's front row by breaking his 1977 Speedway record with a 202.156 mph mark in last weekend's qualifying.

This man should have scars on his face, gravel in his gut, an STP decal on his forehead and "Too fast to live, too young to die" tatooed on a huge forearm.

Except Sneva doesn't have a huge forearm.

The 29-year-old looks like what he once was - a lean, easy-going junior high school principal. Perhaps no prerace favorite in the 500 has ever had such heretically rational opinions as this former driver's education teacher from Spokane, Wash.

"We're driving much too fast," he said bluntly.

"I don't believe the crowd knows the difference between 200 miles per hour and 180. Or maybe even 150 miles per hour.

"They'd rather see 10 or 15 guys going wheel-to-wheel at slower speeds instead of two or three drivers winning with superior equipment the way it is now."

Sneva, lounging along Gasoline Alley sneakers, jeans and not and advertising sticker on his whole body, relishes the irony of the driver of the fastest car pleading for a slowdown. "I have the leverage now to tell the trugh and have people believe it," he said.

But do U.S. Auto Club officials hear him?

"No," said Sneva. Knowing well that other drivers are not as charmed as legend says he now is. "You don't see drastic changes until you have drastic problems. That's human nature."

Sneva is the hidden star of the USAC championship trail. Mario dretti has continental elegance, Johnny Rutherford has grit-and-grim good looks and cantankerous A. J. Foyt protects his Texas mustique. Sneva gets short shrift.

"I'm workin' on the ol' image," he laughed. "We're making a little progress. I hope someday that somebody thinks I was a fairly good driver."

Nevertheless Sneva is usually damned with faint praise, called a mere cog in the Penske Group racing tram.

"They call him a conglomerate driver," Lee Brown of the Sneva crew said bitterly. "They say he's just a 'steerer' and he'll never be a driving genius like Andretti and Foyt. That burns us up. Tom can drive with anybody, but having good sense isn't fashionable."

Sneva is an unusual blend of cautious strategist, master technician and closet daredevil Murphy's Law hangs on his garage wall: "Nothing is as easy as it looks. Everything takes longer than you expect. And if anything can go wrong, it will . . . at the worst possible moment."

"We're fascinated with competition, not speed," Sneva said earnestly, pearing through frighteningly thick glasses for near-sightedness Sneva always says "We," not "I," but it does not have a pretentious "royal We" sound to it.

"We're more conservative early in the race. We have to finish, be careful with equipment, because the car is 85 percent of USAC racing. The driver's only 15 percent. You won't see us taking any super chances. You can't let your emotions take over when you're racing. That's when you get killed," said Sneva, uttering a word banished from most racer's vocabularies.

Nevertheless, Sneva does not deny being in love with what Indy men call "the ragged edge."

"It's the corners where you feel the ragged edge," he said.

"You're heading up to 230 miles Per hour and your wheel is inches from the wall. You're on the verge of flying. It's not the sensation of a jet plane landing . . . it's more like walking a 40-foot-high fence and not looking down.

"We can't totally forget the accident we had here three years ago, but we have to eradicate it during the race. That's the time we can't allow it to come back.

"The thrill of this race it getting the car set up perfectly, testing it, molding it so that it's perfectly suited.