INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Nabors became an Indianapolis 500 pre-race tradition that almost didn’t happen.
Forty two years ago, at the request of his friend Bill Harrah, who was a mutual friend of himself and the late Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman, Jim Nabors sang “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
He continued an ongoing racing tradition that tugs at the heart strings of Hoosier and out of town race fans alike.
But Nabors’ part in it almost didn’t happen.
About five minutes before he was to sing the song before the start of the 1972 race, he turned to the Purdue University band director to find out what key he needed to sing in.
“I thought I was going to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, and I got over there to meet the conductor of the Purdue band. I said ‘What key do you guys do this in?,’ Nabors said.
“And he said ‘We only got one key.
“I said, ‘No! The Star-Spangled Banner’s got two keys.’
“And he said ‘Well, you’re not singin’ that.
“I said ‘Well, what the hell am I singing?’ Because it’s only five minutes before race time.
“He says ‘You’re singing the traditional song that opens the race: ‘Back Home Again in Indiana.’
“And I looked at him kinda funny and said “….. Um, I’m from Alabama! Do you still want me to do it?”
Nabors knew the melody, but had to scribble the lyrics onto his hands.
He sang the song in his deep and booming baritone bass voice and was an instant hit.
The song has been an Indianapolis 500 pre-race tradition since 1946, but nobody did it quite like Nabors.
But just like The Greatest Spectacle in Racing itself ends after 200 laps, all good things have to come to an end.
Nabors sang at Indy for the last time on Sunday, but he completely hasn’t ruled out possibly singing at the famed race track again sometime.
It’s anyone’s guess as to who will take his place, but one thing’s for certain: They’ll have some mighty big shoes to fill.
“You know, there’s a time in life when you have to move on. I’ll be 84 this year, and I just figured it was time. It’s kinda hard to travel, … Just a bunch of reasons,” he told a jam-packed room of reporters in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Chris Economaki press conference room. “There’s something inside me that tells me when to go. You don’t wanna stay too long at the fair. … It’s been a good one, it’s been a really great time.”
Always personable and friendly, Nabors greeted each person by their first name as each journalist asked him a question.
And just as quick with a joke, Nabors, who lives in Hawaii and owns a macadamia nut farm, left everyone with a double-entendre joke of sorts.
In his best Gomer Pyle voice, Nabors summed up his career.
“This is all actually sort of a dream for me. I can look back on my life and it’s kinda scary — I’ve realized all my dreams.
“So Now I’ll just stay over there in Hawaii and … raise my nuts.”
Always a gentleman, always quick with a wry joke, and always able to hit the emotions of 300,000 people with a two-minute song, Jim Nabors will surely be missed.