News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

May 24, 2014

Editorial: Never too late for another tradition at the Indy 500

Nabors’ swansong opens door for change of tune

TERRE HAUTE — The Indianapolis 500 endures on a unique mix of tradition and change.

The infamous infield “snake pit” added a wild element to race days for decades, but disappeared amid beefed-up security in the 21st century. The iconic “Gentlemen, start your engines” command by late Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman later evolved into “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines” as female drivers began competing. By 1961, all but a one-yard-wide, finish-line section of the bricks — which gave The Brickyard its nickname — were paved over with asphalt.

The 1972 Indy 500 illustrates that paradox. Memorable names dominated its action, with winner Mark Donohue outlasting rivals Al Unser, Gary Bettenhausen and Joe Leonard. But race day that year, as in 1971, was scheduled on a Saturday, breaking from the Sunday tradition.

Few participants from that ’72 race will fill the same roles at today’s race. Jim Nabors is the exception. The former star of television’s “Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” in the pre-race festivities for the first time that year. With no preparation, Hulman asked Nabors that morning to sing “the song” before the 500. Nabors thought he meant the national anthem. The director of the Purdue University band, which accompanies pre-race singers, informed the baritone crooner that “the song” was “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and the stunned Nabors quickly scribbled the lyrics onto his hand.

His rendition turned into another Indy tradition. Nabors has performed “Back Home Again” all but seven times since then. Twice, for health and scheduling reasons, the Speedway used a recording of Nabors. Otherwise, he has grabbed the microphone and boomed out the memorable chorus of that song live and in-person.

Today marks Nabors’ swansong at the Speedway. Now 83, retired and living in Hawaii, Nabors travels rarely. He told Indianapolis Monthly he still enjoys making the appearance, but flying is difficult for him and “as the old song goes, I don’t want to stay too long at the fair.”

His niche as an Indy fixture seems unusual. Nabors holds no other connections to the Hoosier state. He grew up in Alabama and graduated from college there, worked in New York and Tennessee, pursued his film career in California, and made the Aloha State his residence. He came to the 1972 race as a guest of the owner of Harrah Casinos in Las Vegas, where Nabors regularly performed.

Hulman’s impromptu request, though, anointed Nabors as a Hoosier, and now he’s an Indiana legend.

The Speedway is giving Nabors’ finale special treatment. Officials are giving race-goers a chance to meet him today at the track.

As the IMS brass looks ahead to 2015, they should consider a change to this tradition. Though many other singers delivered “Back Home Again” at the 500, Nabors literally owns it. The world connects Nabors’ version to the 500. With that era ending, the track leadership should open a new tradition by choosing another singer — perhaps a Hoosier — to serenade the crowd of 300,000-plus with Indiana’s actual state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” (from which the writers of “Back Home Again” borrowed heavily). Its songwriter, Paul Dresser, hailed from Terre Haute, just like Tony Hulman.

New vocalists attempting “Back Home Again” will always be seen in Nabors’ shadow. A twist on the past, just like the one Hulman came up with on the spot in 1972, would be better.

 

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