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An Indy Love Story: Florence Henderson Was One of Us

The quintessential Florence Henderson Indianapolis 500 story doesn’t originate from inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Race Day, from the 500 Festival Parade or the Indy 500 Fashion Show that she attended for so many years.

The story began at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

In 2016, on the Wednesday before the 100th Running of the Indy 500, Henderson had her final connection to Indianapolis canceled due to weather, and the next day’s flights appeared unlikely to have open seats. The grand marshal for the milestone weekend was stranded.

Fortunately, she wasn’t alone. Rhody Hayes of Pasco, Washington, was at the same airline counter, trying to figure out a way to get to his annual Indy 500 meetup with friends. When he learned of the shared plight, he suggested carpooling the rest of the way.

And with that, Henderson, the beloved “Mrs. Brady” to millions and a treasured part of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” to hundreds of thousands of race fans, hit the road with someone she had never met. It was not until after they were already on the freeway that she casually introduced herself, to the surprise of Hayes, who surely knew who she was but hadn’t realized it yet.

But we won’t say it was a stranger. Because when it came to the Indianapolis 500 and its fans, no one was a stranger to Florence Henderson.

For the record, Henderson performed 23 times at the race between 1991 and 2015, singing either the national anthem, “God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful.” At the 100th Running, her grand marshal duties included delivering the “drivers to your cars” command and serving in other honorary roles.

That’s the agate-type roundup of her Indy 500 career.

But this is the legacy: It’s hard to remember pre-race at the Indy 500 before her, and after her death in November 2016, it’s still painful to think of the proceedings without her.

“She became one of us at the Indy 500,” longtime Indianapolis sportscaster and IMS public address announcer Dave Calabro says. “She made you feel special because you were part of her family, and she considered race fans her family.”

Henderson, a native of Dale, Indiana, never saw the Indianapolis 500 as just another appearance on the calendar, just as fans don’t view the event as just another sports weekend. After 109 years and soon-to-be 104 editions, the Memorial Day weekend tradition is the fabric of a city, of families, of being a Hoosier. As she was.
So Henderson would come in midweek before the race (barring travel hiccups), stay at the old Speedway Motel (then the Turn 2 suites after the Motel was no more) and soak up every piece of pageantry, never failing to return a fan’s smile or greeting along the way.

“As popular as she was in career, to be there at the event we all love, fans easily gravitated to her and appreciated that she was there,” Mario Andretti said. “Everybody could identify with her.”

She never accepted a dime to appear; instead she left money behind, often shopping at the IMS Museum gift store for T-shirts and tchotchkes to take home to family members and friends. Fellow pre-race fixture Jim Nabors would often be alongside doing the same thing, by the way. 

One of us. 

“That authenticity is it,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles says. “She didn’t just show up, do her part and leave. She came and did the entire experience, and people notice that. She understood it.”

Henderson not only enjoyed a strong bond with fans, but also the Hulman-George family.

When not serving the “500” in an official capacity, she spent virtually all her free moments in town with the family, from evenings at the “Mouse House” outside Turn 2 to other family functions.

“She was just family,” said Nancy George, daughter of late IMS and Hulman and Company Chairman Mari Hulman George. “She looked after my mom; they were buds. She was just very considerate, always wanting to take care of people.”

Ask any member of the family or the extended IMS family, and there’s a story.

Claudia Prosser, a longtime employee in the IMS executive office, took her niece Rachel to see Henderson in New York in the late 1990s when the television legend worked on the third hour of NBC’s “Today.” They all met after the show, and Henderson was a part of Rachel’s life from that point forward.

Prosser, who had a close friendship with Henderson, says the last text message she received from Henderson was asking for Rachel’s new address, wanting to send a gift to mark the birth of her second child.

“She was just a wonderful human being,” Prosser said.

Of all the little things, Calabro remembers the lip gloss.

In the moments before the pre-race ceremonies would begin, Henderson would pace around the green room and hum the notes of the song she would be performing.

“She was always working that lip gloss, then she’d come up to Jim (Nabors) and I and ask, smiling real big: ‘Look at my teeth! Is there any lipstick on my teeth?’ She would always want her lipstick-check,” Calabro said. 

Henderson, the consummate professional, would rarely have lipstick on her teeth. Call it more of a mood-lightener, a method to keep everyone loose before greeting the world’s largest single-day sporting event.

“I was always nervous,” Calabro said. “She’d grab me by the arms, look at me and go, ‘You’re going to do great, just go out there and be yourself.’ She was always making people feel special and good about themselves.”

That was quintessential Florence Henderson.


One of us.

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