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Nabors Sang His Way into Hoosier Hearts for 36 Years before Indy 500

Tuesday, April 28, 2020 John Schwarb

Jim Nabors 2014

It's hard to believe Jim Nabors singing "(Back Home Again) in Indiana" was accidental. What's harder to believe is how that man became as much a part of the fabric of the Indianapolis 500 as fast cars and Foyt.

The pre-race ceremonies for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge today are meticulously scripted. From the 6 a.m. cannon through "Lady and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines," everything is the result of a plan that was months in the making. No vehicle is on the racetrack that should not be, and certainly no one unexpected is in front of a microphone.

So, one can hardly imagine the scenario in 1972 when Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman went into the grandstands on race morning to ask a celebrity if, by chance, he would like to sing a quick song for the hundreds of thousands in attendance.

That's hard enough to believe. What's harder to believe is how that man became as much a part of the fabric of the Indianapolis 500 as fast cars and Foyt.

Jim Nabors, the only man to sing "(Back Home Again in) Indiana" before the Indy 500, was an accidental legend.

Nabors, who died in November 2017 at age 87, was not the only person to sing the beloved Hoosier hymn before "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." He was just the one that became synonymous with it.

James Melton, a New York Metropolitan Opera singer, performed the song with the Purdue University band in 1946. He and two other singers, Indianapolis-based Frank Parrish and nationally renowned Morton Downey Sr., handled the song through 1954.

Then, for the next 18 installments, "Back Home Again" was a rotating job. From Dinah Shore (the only woman to sing it solo) to Mel Torme to 1925 Indy 500 winner Peter DePaolo and others, the microphone was passed around. 

"It was always popular, an emotional part of the day," Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson said. "But many years we'd arrive at the (IMS Radio) Network office on race morning, and we still didn't know who was going to sing it. It was last minute."

So it was, too, in 1972, when Nabors attended the race as a guest of businessman and casino magnate Bill Harrah. Nabors was content to take in his first Indy 500 without obligations until Hulman asked him to sing. Sure, Nabors said, he'd be happy to, and left his seat.

Nabors didn't find out for a while that morning that he was tabbed to sing "Back Home Again" and, knowing the tune but wanting to be extra careful, had to scribble the words on his palm. He then delivered a stirring rendition that belied the comic genius of his characters on "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C."

The rendition earned a return invitation for 1973 -- the first time in 20 years a "Back Home Again" singer repeated the performance -- and then another invitation. And another.

Nabors would sing the song 36 times from 1972 to 2014, becoming as much of a "500" institution as the field of 33 and the winner's milk.

"Jim Nabors was definitely someone who made the Indianapolis 500 even bigger and better than it was," said three-time winner Helio Castroneves. "I knew every time he sang that song before the race, it would be one of the final moments of calm before we started racing. It helped set the stage and was always a great reminder to me of how powerful 'Back Home Again' was due to its meaning for the race." 

“For those 90 seconds every year, because that song is so important to the Indy 500 fan, there was no better Hoosier than Jim Nabors," IMS President Doug Boles said, smiling while knowing the inaccuracy in that sentence.

Nabors wasn't a Hoosier by birth or residence. He was born in Alabama and lived for decades in Hawaii, taking the long plane flights to Speedway every year. When he landed, he was just another person who embraced race weekend.

Like Florence Henderson, another beloved pre-race performer that became intertwined with the event, Nabors had time for every fan while soaking in all the festivities around race weekend.

He would stay in the old Speedway Motel (then the Turn 2 suites), attend the traditional Saturday drivers' meeting, ride in the 500 Festival Parade and then come back to IMS, entering the Hall of Fame Museum through the back door. He would greet gift shop employees with a hug and then spend hundreds of dollars on souvenirs for friends back home.

In 2014, at the 98th Running of the Indianapolis 500, Nabors sang for the final time, telling IMS officials in advance that it would be his last appearance. Adoring fans were able to say goodbye to the man who first took the microphone as a last-minute favor and gave it back as one of the most beloved figures in race history.

"We loved that voice, but what we loved more was the heart," Boles said. "The heart of a man who understood what that moment meant."