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Back Home Again
Purdue ‘Back Home Again’ Singers Share Memories of Magic Moment

Picture this: The largest single-day sporting event on the planet is moments away from roaring to life, and the Racing Capital of the World falls silent. The 33 drivers and a crowd of more than 325,000 are ready for an Indianapolis 500 institution: the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

It will be a poignant moment Sunday during pre-race festivities for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge (11 a.m. ET, live on NBC, Telemundo Deportes and the INDYCAR Radio Network).

For the sixth consecutive year, Jim Cornelison will sing the song that has turned into an anthem for millions of race fans. It holds even more meaning this year as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway welcomes its legions of race fans back in full capacity for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although “Back Home Again in Indiana” at IMS can be traced back to 1919, when a trackside brass band performed the song as Hoosier Howdy Wilcox was on his way to victory, it wasn’t until more than a quarter-century later, in 1946, that this beloved Indianapolis 500 tradition became a staple of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

On May 30, 1946, the Indianapolis 500 returned from its four-year hiatus due to World War II. To commemorate the special Thursday morning, famed singer James Melton, of the New York Metropolitan Opera and an avid car collector, performed the ballad about one hour before the race began.

Back in a time when pre-race festivities were not common, Melton’s booming voice over the public address brought the Speedway to a hush. The response to Melton’s performance was so overwhelming that he was invited back for the next few years. In 1949, the performance was moved closer to the start of the race, approximately where it is today, and Melton performed several times between 1946 and 1954.

From that moment on, the beloved Indy 500 pre-race song has been performed by many celebrities, such as Morton Downey Sr., Dinah Shore, Dennis Morgan, Mel Torme and, of course, Jim Nabors, who made the song famous by singing his way into Hoosier hearts 36 times between 1972 and 2014.

There are seven men still alive who sung “Back Home Again in Indiana” nearly 50 or more years ago. Four were celebrities: actors Ed Ames and Peter Marshall, and opera singers/vocalists Saverio Saridis and John Davies.

The Purdue University All-American Marching Band has accompanied most “Back Home Again in Indiana” performers since 1946, and several Purdue alums have even starred as the person behind the microphone thanks to Al Stewart, director of the Purdue Glee Club for years.

While Nabors made the performance a precise and scheduled moment, in the years leading up to 1972, the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” was often a last-minute affair in collaboration with the Purdue All-American Marching Band.

Thanks to that partnership, when a planned singer fell through, the Speedway relied on Purdue to fill the pre-race void, often at the very last minute.

Three Purdue University alums who pre-date Nabors’ performance are still alive today, everyday people who have a miraculous story of singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” before the start of the largest single-day sporting event in the world.

These are their stories:

Dave Cochard (1962)

Dave Cochard essentially lucked into performing “Back Home Again in Indiana” during Indianapolis 500 pre-race in 1962 at age 21.

Cochard was sitting in the Purdue Glee Club director’s office two days before the Indy 500, speaking with his coach when the phone rang. It was someone from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Actor Gordon MacRae, who was supposed to sing the song that year, had come down with laryngitis, and the Speedway needed a replacement. Cochard’s director, Stewart, looked up at him and said, “I’ve got a gentleman right across the desk that could do that.”

Suddenly, Cochard was penciled in to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” that May 30 just days before he was set to graduate from Purdue with a degree in dairy production. He joined the Air Force and later had a career as an airline pilot.

He drove down from West Lafayette, Indiana, with his wife the morning of the race and grossly underestimated traffic. Finally, he worked his way to the facility, only to realize nobody had given him parking passes or credentials.

Cochard spent two hours in traffic and worked his way into the track just an hour before he was set to perform. He had to talk his way past security and made it into the scoring tower just 20 minutes before he was set to perform the beloved song.

It wasn’t his first time singing. Cochard sang with the Purdue Glee Club at the 1959 Indianapolis 500. It has since turned into a family affair as his granddaughter played in the Purdue band during “Back Home Again in Indiana” in 2018 and 2019.

“Many people have sat and shook their head when I tell them, because it was so impromptu that it would be scary for anyone," Cochard said. “It was the most fantastic day of my life. I don’t have any problem saying that to anybody.

“As a farm boy from Greenfield, Indiana, you just can’t imagine a day like that in your life.”

Hear his performance

Russ Wunderlich (1967)

As Russ Wunderlich was told, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway forgot to book a singer for the 1967 Indianapolis 500.

The week before the race, Stewart, still the director of the Purdue Glee Club, called Wunderlich and asked him to sing the famed song. Wunderlich had performed many times at big events as a part of the glee club, and Stewart trusted him to do the song justice.

So, Wunderlich stepped into the spotlight with just one practice under his belt, having been given a head’s up just a couple days before the race.

“It was just a lot of fun and such a great memory,” he said. “It’s a page in my history. It was pretty cool for being 23, to go do that at the Indy 500. I’m humble about it, of course, but I’m very proud of it. I feel very honored. I hold it dear in my heart.”

Wunderlich graduated from Purdue with a degree in mechanical engineering shortly after this performance and went on to have a career with the family business in northern Illinois: garage door openers.

Hear his performance.

Richard Plothow (1968)

Richard Plothow received rather simple instructions one day in the spring of 1968 from Stewart: “Run down to the band rehearsal room and run through ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ with them, and here are two tickets to the Indianapolis 500. Be on the track at 11 a.m.”

The Speedway needed someone to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” that year, and as the Speedway staff often did, they reached out to Stewart looking for someone to fill the slot.

Lucky for Plothow, Stewart deemed him to be the right guy.

Plothow left West Lafayette at 6 a.m. thinking he’d surely beat the Race Day traffic. Instead, he got stuck roughly 10 miles from the Speedway. So, he thought he’d head to downtown Indianapolis to catch a bus. Surely that’d be quicker, right?

Wrong. The line to get on the bus wrapped around the block. Finally at around 9 a.m., he walked onto a bus. An hour and a half later, he was at the racetrack.

With 30 minutes to spare, Plothow started walking through the mammoth racetrack that was filled to the brim with race fans. He got to the pit lane gate at 10:45, and he told the security guard he needed to be with the Purdue band.

The security guard let him through, and when Plothow got to the stage, someone handed him a microphone, and it was time to sing.

“It was such a strange kind of thing,” he said. “I was under so much pressure to get there that when I walked up there, they gave me the mic, and I didn’t even think about the fact there were 250,000 people there. It was a very special event in my life.”

Hear his performance.

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