INDIANAPOLIS – He may have been born and raised in Alabama but it didn’t take long for Jim Nabors to become a true Hoosier – the term for a native of Indiana.
Nabors had already earned fame on television as “Gomer Pyle USMC” on the long-running CBS comedy, when he was invited to the 1972 Indianapolis 500 and told he was singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” by a conductor for the Purdue University Band.
“I thought I was going to sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” Nabors recalled. “Whenever I got over there to meet the conductor, I said, ‘What key are you guys doing this in?’ He looked at me and said, ‘We only have one key.’ I said, ‘No, The Star-Spangled Banner has two keys.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re not singing that.’ I said, ‘What the hell am I singing?’ It was only five minutes before race time.
“I’d never seen that many people before in my life, and so, I said, ‘What am I singing?’ He said, ‘You’re singing the traditional song that opens the race (Back Home Again in Indiana).
“I looked at him kind of funny and I said, ‘I’m from Alabama. Do you still want me to do it?’ Right after singing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ for the first time, I became a total Hoosier – I really did.”
Nabors would become a part of Indianapolis 500 lore singing the sentimental ode to Indiana a record 37 times over a 42-year period.
“I had no idea that it’d be all these years later and I’d still be doing this,” Nabors said. “I feel very grateful and I’ve been totally blessed in my life with getting to do things like this, and getting to know all the people that I’ve known and become friends with. It’s been an amazing trip. It’s been a great run for me.”
On Sunday, Nabors sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” for the final time at the Indianapolis 500. He was honored before the race with a ceremonial Pace Car ride in front of the massive crowd of 300,000 fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and later joined IMS Chairman Mari Hulman George to give the command to fire engines.
“It’s going to take me a long time to sort it all – it was so incredible,” Nabors said. “I had tears when they took me around in the Pace Car and everybody stood at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That broke my heart.
“But 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 kind of hard to travel and there’s just a bunch of reasons. This is really the highlight of my year (is to come here).
“It’s very sad for me but there’s something inside me that tells me when to go.”
Nabors lives in Hawaii, so the long plane flight from the middle of the Pacific to the Midwest of the United States has taken its toll on the man who enjoys his “Lifestyle In Paradise.”
“It’s been a good one, man,” Nabors said. “I’ve really had a good time. When it started, I would have never dreamed I’d still be doing this 42 years later. I didn’t even know I’d do it the first time.”
At Monday Night’s Indianapolis 500 Victory Awards Celebration, Nabors hinted that he would consider coming out of retirement to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” for the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016.
“That all depends on my health,” he admitted. “They might have to carry me up there.”Indianapolis 500, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar, Jim Nabors