Keep Our Indy Pre-Race Ceremonies Sacred

Even if you weren’t fortunate enough to catch her live, by now most have seen the less than stellar performance of the National Anthem by Christina Aguilera at Super Bowl XLV. Don’t worry, I won’t subject you to temptation by posting a YouTube link to it. If you really want to see it, feel free to Google it.

While everyone talks about how she flubbed the lines, which she did; what got me the most was the fact that even if she had gotten all of the words right – it still would have been a horrible rendition. Words like murder, butcher and mutilate quickly come to mind.

It brought to mind another horrifying National Anthem performance that race fans were subjected to – Steven Tyler’s version prior to the 2001 Indianapolis 500. OK, if you haven’t seen that one in a while, I’ll post it here. In between his mega-hit “Dream On” from 1976 and his latest gig on American Idol, Tyler gave what I considered the worst rendition I had ever heard…until Sunday night.

I understand why events try to get a (semi) big name to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before an event kicks off. It gives the casual viewer or attendee the impression that this is a big time event. What I don’t understand is why performers feel the need to jazz it up and make it their own. This is not the National Pop-Song. This is an anthem. It is to be treated as such.

I heard many military veterans this week, both nationally and locally, saying they were offended by what they heard Sunday. I won’t go so far as to say Ms. Aguilera offended my sense of patriotism. She just offended my sense of hearing.

I believe it was the year after Tyler trampled on the National Anthem at Indy, that the Speedway decided that a military chorus may have been more appropriate. It was. Within the last few years, I recall Jessica Simpson and Julianne Hough giving their atrocious versions prior to the race; but for the last few years, the Speedway has reverted to the military chorus, more times than not. It makes sense, given the military and patriotic theme of Memorial Day.

Probably the best rendition I have heard recently, was before the two home playoff games of the Chicago Bears. Jim Cornelison’s version actually made hair stand up on my arms. It’s worth posting a link as well. Although he was on loan from the Blackhawks, the Bears should make him a staple of their pre-game festivities. If the Speedway wanted to import him from the Windy City every May, I would have no problem with it.

After the ear-splitting screaming I heard before kickoff on Sunday night, we got the futuristic performance by the Black Eyed Peas at halftime. So, Fergie and are what Bridegstone-Firestone are considering spending their marketing dollars on, rather than providing tires for the IZOD IndyCar Series. Hmmm. Anyway, after watching these performances,  I was really thankful for the sacred pre-race traditions we get to witness every May. Even though this will be the fifth race since Tom Carnegie retired (is that possible?), we still get the enjoyment of hearing his booming voice over the PA system, if only for a far too quick hello to the fans. (Update: Sadly – since writing this, Tom Carnegie passed away this morning. I had considered taking this part out, but thought it may actually be appropriate to leave it in. He will be missed.)

There is the solemn moment of the playing of Taps, which always amazes me how that simple tune has the power to silence 250,000 drunken fans, if only for a moment. The balloons fly just before the firing of the engines. Mari Hulman George gives the command to fire those engines. Then there is my personal favorite, Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again in Indiana”. Each year I cherish that moment as if it is the last time I’ll ever hear it live. That’s because it’s entirely possible that will be the case. Nabors will turn 81, just two weeks after this year’s race. At some point he will turn that microphone over to someone else. Unfortunately for whoever gets the honor, it will never be the same.

I cringe at the thought of an Aguilera-like performer getting their hands on that song and that moment. Hopefully, the powers-that-be at 16th & Georgetown will recognize that this is more than the chance for some starlet to promote an upcoming album. This is a singular moment in sports that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

We Indy 500 fans take our traditions seriously. We get offended when someone doesn’t. Leave the glitz and glamour to the Super Bowl and the NFL. When it comes to our Race Day ritual every May, we prefer to play it straight.

George Phillips

20 Responses to “Keep Our Indy Pre-Race Ceremonies Sacred”

  1. Mike Silver Says:

    The prerace ceremonies have become too long. It seems to drag on and on. We don’t need a pre race”concert by some unknown mediocre band like Caleb’s Ear or Belly-button Lint or whatever some of those things are called. Go back to the traditional ceremonies and then let’s race!

  2. I never really understood why singing the American national anthem is such a big deal. Makes me cringe having to listen to all this jingoism, cant they just get on with the race.

  3. If some one would simply make sure the Mic works, I’d be happy with Jewel doing the anthem every year and let that become it’s own modern tradition.

  4. Nabors is sort of an old-fashioned D-list celebrity that makes the event seem a bit antiquated, but he has done it for so long that it wouldn’t be right to replace him until he can’t do it anymore or doesn’t want to do it. I think while traditionalists love Mr. Nabors, to younger people he’s sort of a mystery.

    • I’m 25, and with the possible exception of Taps, nothing gets to me like hearing Mr. Nabors every year. Of course, I’ve been going to the 500 since I was five years-old and have been a displaced native Hoosier for the last several years, so maybe that makes it different for me. To me, the pre-race ceremonies at the 500 are one of the biggest things that set it apart from other events. It just wouldn’t be the same without them.

      • good to know that. I guess I was basing that on the reaction that a bunch of fans seated near me had to Nabors the last time I went to a 500. they were very vocal in making fun of Nabors and didn’t seem to know much about him.

        and in talking about traditions…RIP Tom Carnegie.

      • I’m 100% w you on this one Adam and very glad to hear someone 20 years my junior say those things. I’ve been going since 1988 with the very same feelings that come up every year. It’s the highlight of my whole 500 trip and, for me, officially signals the start of summer.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Sadly, Tom Carnegie won’t be saying a quick hello to fans at the 500 this year.

  6. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Kudos to Mr. Nabors for his many years of service….
    And hey, if NAPCAR can get Mr. Daniel Rodriguez for the Allstate race at the IMS, why can’t he be had for the 500… See link below…. In lieu of someone like Mr. Rodriguez, I will take my National Anthem via any USA armed forces band and or chorus please and to hell with all the vocal gymnastics from people who should never step behind a microphone to sing anything, never mind our National Anthem… And to our jingoism paranoid, no-name pal above. In case you hadn’t noticed there is a volumn control knob on your TV, use it if our national anthem is too much for you. Or, better yet, move to France…

  7. Brian McKay Says:

    Another good blog post, as usual ~ Thank you.
    I have for decades wanted all of us to sing together our national anthem, rather than have someone ‘perform’ our anthem.
    When I went to ChampCar races in Canada I heard Canadian race spectators singing together their anthem.
    I would like for 280,000 U.S. citizens to sing together our song in Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

  8. George, I agree. A few years back (well, maybe more than a few) I suggested that the National Anthem become the annual purview of native Hoosier Sandi Patty whose renditions were memorable and outstanding, surpassed perhaps only by Whitney Houston’s version at the Super Bowl during Desert Storm.

    As Bent Wickerbill posted above, I could absolutely live with Daniel Rodriguez’ version, or Jim Corneilson’s.

    Goodness knows, no one will ever replace Jim Phillipe’s annual soliloquy surrounding the playing of “Taps,” any more than ANYONE will replace Tom Carnegie.

    After all, tradition is what makes Indianapolis what we all believe it to be, and too many of these traditions have become slave to the television master. Aside from Jim Nabors, (who has missed a 500 or two due to health issues,) many of those traditions have gone by the wayside.

    And, while I acknowledge that Florence Henderson is a native Hoosier, adding her rendition of “America the Beautiful” is one extension of the traditional opening ceremonies that I can live without. Ditto the “Act du Jour” concert as part of the pre-race. Get the ceremonies back to the formerly traditional 20 minutes as it used to be published in the souvenir program every year. During Tony Hulman’s tenure, you could set your watch by where in the opening ceremonies you were.

    I was always much happier when ABC brought me 40 minutes of interviews and features leading up to the 20 minutes of official ceremony, when they turned the program over to the PA system and the late great Mr. Carnegie.

    Maybe that makes me just another old fart, but hey, when I’m gone they can do with it whatever they please!

    And Brian, your suggestion would be very nice, except that “Oh Canada” is one HELL of a lot easier to sing, and I wonder how many American “kids” these days even KNOW the words to our National Anthem.

    • As evidenced by whatshername at the Super Bowl…

      Joe Walsh sang the National Anthem at the LBGP one year, and while Joe doesn’t exactly qualify as a crooner, at least he didn’t try to give it a Steven Tyler “flair”. He did it with some evidence of reverence, for lack of a better word. I was pleasantly surprised…after kinda holding my breath when he started to sing.

      I agree with pretty much all of the comments here about the traditions at the Speedway. They were a part of what made it feel so much more special than “just another race”. I also agree with ditching the performances by the not-ready-for-BigStar-status bands.

    • “I was always much happier when ABC brought me 40 minutes of interviews and features leading up to the 20 minutes of official ceremony, when they turned the program over to the PA system and the late great Mr. Carnegie.”

      100% agree w you on this! It’s almost as if the TV coverage has now dictated the pacing of the pre-race with 2 minute breaks between the events. I remember maybe 1995 or 1996 being the last year that the annoucers got out of the way and covered everything including the Chaplain’s prayer, etc. It was the last time the TV audience could experience the actual green flag build-up. I assume Paul Page had everything to do with that.

  9. Pre-Race ceremonies @ Indy, well no other sporting event has or will ever match them. Television has tried to ruin it with all the breaks/commercials. It always flowed so easy and it crescendoed up from the “Anthem” to “Taps” to “Back Home Again in Indiana” to “Gentlemen,Start Your Engines”. All Indy needs to do is take back it’s Pre-Race ceremonies from TV, and all the worlds will align again.52nd straight year and looking forward to it and many more.

  10. The pre-race pagentry is something that is as much a part of the Indianapolis 500 as the awarding of the Borg-Warner Trophy and a bottle of milk. Someone will replace Jim nabors and someone will oneday replace Indiana’s very own Florence Henderson with God Bless America, but as for our National Anthem, maybe we should have someone special sing it and stay with that person as well.

    Now, as for the singing of our National Anthem, I think it is something that should be song as it is intended. It is too pretty to have someone like Christine Aguilarra or Justin Timberlack hiccup through it (as for Miss A’s miscue at the Super Bowl, hey, she is Christine Aguilarra and she has NO EXCUSE. She is SUPPOSED to get it right!). I like hearing the Anthems beauty performed with emotion and sung by someone who knows that it is the song itself and not them. Great singers know that it is always about the song. Sinatra was good at that.

    In Chicago, the screaming at the Blackhawks games goes back to 1991 when we were in the Persian Gulf war and the fans at the NHL All Star Game could not contain their emotions about how much they loved this country. The singer then was Chicago Cubs announcer, Wayne Messmer, who sings the Anthem at Wrigley Field throughout the year. In those days he was the Blackhawks singer. Messmer’s performance of the Anthem is always finished with his trademark flourish on the final word “Brave” in which he forcefully flips the “r” and sings the word on the same pitch as the Anthem is begun. Enjoy it:

    • When the National Anthem is sung with emotion then my emotions get boiling and some times I let it rip a joyous shout when the words “land of the free..” are sung and I vigorously start clapping. Bringing those emotions out in my is how I like the National Anthem sung and a good singer never has to have an instrument of any kind accompany them.

  11. The Lapper Says:

    If you don’t have the pre-race festivities then cancel the race.

  12. I tear up every year when Jim Nabors sings Back Home Again In Indiana. We should play a recorded rendition of it when he departs. As to the National Anthem, it should be sung “straight”, NO DEVIATION, and is offensive otherwise!

  13. Paul Hudson Says:

    I couldn’t figure out why they had someone who is not American sing our national anthem (maybe Seal has become one and I just don’t know it). I was on pit road when all 3 performers arrived. An older lady (50-ish) came up to Seal and asked for an autograph and picture. He absolutely went off on her. Threatened to kick her *&% , told her how she was disrespecting him, etc… I and 2 other pit officials stood there in shock to what we saw and heard. I thought about confronting him but didn’t want to get booted. During the race he was in a suite with some friends of mine. I commented what a jerk he was and they said he was AWFUL in the suite. His bodyguards were extremely rude and intimidating. Let’s have real Americans sing our anthem in a respectful way
    PS. I was also disgusted how he was dressed.

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