Two voices echo above all the engine noise, across the expanse of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and into Indianapolis 500 lore: The thunderclap bass of retired track announcer Tom Carnegie and the baby-pacifying baritone of entertainer Jim Nabors.
Both have long been traditions during the month of May — Carnegie’s calls and Nabors’s song — the same as a cold drink of milk for the champion after Louis Meyers’s swig of buttermilk for winning the 1936 Indy 500.
But for Nabors, who gained fame in the early 1960s as the affable bumpkin Gomer Pyle on “The Andy Griffith Show” and a spinoff, “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” it was a tradition interrupted last year due to health concerns. Just before he was to leave his home on Hawaii’s big island of Oahu, Nabors suffered a heart episode, and doctors would not allow him to fly.
It was one of only a handful of times that Nabors has missed the race’s opening ceremonies since former Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman asked Nabors to sing “the song” before the race in 1972.
“I was sitting there on the start-finish line — it was before they had the suites and all that,” Nabors said. “Mr. Hulman came over to say hello and he recognized me from my shows in Tahoe, and he said, ‘Hey, would you like to sing the song?’
“I thought he meant ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ so I went over and asked the Purdue band conductor what key they did it in, and he said they only had one key. I said, no, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ has two, but he told me I wasn’t singing that.”
The song Hulman was referring to was and is “Back Home Again In Indiana,” a jazz standard composed in 1917 by Ballard MacDonald and James Hanley that became a Indy 500 staple beginning in 1946. It is not Indiana’s official state song, but since Nabors’s first rendition of it — with the lyrics written on his hand — that day, Nabors’s singing of it has grown into a unique Hoosier an Indy 500 love affair.
Nabors, who moved to Hawaii around the same time he started his one-song, one-key Indy 500 career, was born June 12, 1930, in Alabama, about 20 miles from where Talladega Superspeedway now stands. But for at least one day, Nabors is a Hoosier, born and bred, adopted by a throng of basketball-loving, car-racing Midwesterners.
“I feel like I am an Indianan now. I feel like they truly adopted me,” said Nabors, who moved to Southern California and then Hawaii because the climates help him deal with severe asthma. “If I didn’t live in Hawaii, I’d probably live there.”
If Nabors needed proof of the affection Hoosiers and the Indianapolis 500 organizers have for his annual performance, he need look no farther than last year. Instead of replacing Nabors with, say, Sandi Patty, a Grammy award-winning Christian artist from nearby Anderson, or rocker and Seymour native John Mellencamp, the Hoosiers filling up Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 91st running of the Indy 500 sang for Nabors.
He was touched.
“They all sang to me. It was pretty impressive,” he said. “That’s got to be a record of some sort.”
Nabors said missing last year’s race was upsetting and he is excited about returning to his familiar pre-race role among his adopted fellow-Hoosiers, singing their state song.
“I’m looking forward to it more than I probably have any other year,” he said. “Missing last year really upset me.”
Nabors, now semi-retired as an entertainer and owner of a large macadamia nut farm in Hawaii, is looking forward to a long list of Indy 500 memories. Among his favorite is one of the latest.
“When Danica Patrick, in her first year racing there, was leading for 28 laps, I looked across in the stands and every woman in the stands was standing up beating on their husbands,” he said. “I thought that was funny.”
Over the years, Nabors, who recorded 46 albums and acted in more than 300 films and television episodes, said he has met and gotten to know many of the Indy 500 champions who have competed, but he doesn’t like to pull for one over the other. Instead, he quietly surveys the field and usually makes a pick for the winner on Carb Day. Then, he keeps it to himself.
“I like them all — I don’t want to make anybody mad,” he said. “I just pray for a safe race.”
The beginning of that race will be back to normal this year when Nabors once again takes the stage and sings one song for a crowd of some 400,000 people.
“When I’m singing, I don’t think of that,” he said of the electricity and anticipation generated by the crowd in the moments prior to the race. “My biggest jolt is when Mary (Hulman) says, ‘start your engines,’ and there’s that crack when the they all start.
“You can’t help but be excited. I tell everybody they should experience it one time.”
“Back Home Again In Indiana”
I have always been a wand’rer
Over land and sea
Yet a moonbeam on the water
Casts a spell o’er me
A vision fair I see
Again I seem to be
Back home again in Indiana,
And it seems that I can see
The gleaming candlelight, still shining bright,
Through the sycamores for me.
The new-mown hay sends all its fragrance
From the fields I used to roam.
When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash,
Then I long for my Indiana home.
Fancy paints on mem’ry’s canvas
Scenes that we hold dear
We recall them in days after
Clearly they appear
And often times I see
A scene that’s dear to me
— Composed by Ballard MacDonald and James Hanley, 1917.