Remembering Jim Nabors

There are a lot of issues that divide IndyCar fans. That’s natural. Different people have different likes and it’s hard to get a group of people to all agree on the same thing. Few things will cause all IndyCar fans and fans of the Indianapolis 500 to come together as one. Yesterday was one of those times, however, when we learned that the legendary Jim Nabors had passed away.

Nabors was 87 years-old, so his death should not have come as a total shock – but it was. I had just sat down for lunch at work with my friend, co-worker and One Take Only cohort John McLallen, when another good friend of mine, Paul Dalbey, texted me the news. I was stunned. I just sat there staring at the phone for a few seconds before I read the news to John.

As I pulled up Twitter on my phone, John went to You Tube on his and immediately started playing random renditions of Nabors singing (Back Home Again in) Indiana. As I heard the music from across the table, I saw the tributes pouring in on social media.

I’ve said many times on this site how that one moment just before the firing of the engines was my most cherished moment of each Month of May. It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck and gives me goosebumps on my arms. Hearing Nabors belt out that song in his recognizable style, and seeing the balloons rise towards the sky in the background was the one single snapshot in time that I would pick out to symbolize the entire Indianapolis 500 experience.

Jim Nabors has been part of my Indianapolis 500 experience practically my entire life and an even greater percentage of when I became a race fan. I was there for his first performance in 1972. I had been to a few races before then, starting in 1965. I had heard forgettable versions from forgettable performers like Johnny Desmond, Russell Wunderlich, Richard Plothow, Mack Shultz and Saverio Saridis. As a kid, these performances meant nothing to me. The only thing that enticed me was seeing the balloons.

In 1971, it got worse. Driver Peter DePaolo gave a performance that I remember for the wrong reasons. It was bad – really bad. I remember people laughing, including my own father. As a twelve year-old, I had no idea that he had won the 1925 Indianapolis 500. While I think what a cherished moment that would be now, seeing Peter DePaolo – at the time he was just a bad singer to me.

In 1972, Jim Nabors took the microphone for the first time. Even as a young teenager, I was impressed. I can remember my father leaning over to tell all of us “Now that’s how you do it!”

From that time until 2014, Jim Nabors sang (Back Home Again in) Indiana a total of thirty-six times before the start of the Indianapolis 500. He became as much of a part of the fabric that is the Indianapolis 500 as a cold bottle of milk and the Yard of Bricks.

His voice came to represent the anticipation we all felt in the moments leading up to each race. There was a video produced in 1988 by IMS Productions simply entitled The History of the Indianapolis 500 that begins and ends with snippets of Nabors singing that iconic song, with Tony Hulman’s famous command to start engines in the background. That was done for a reason – because anyone who knows anything at all about the Indianapolis 500 will recognize those two most-cherished traditions.

The outpouring of accolades was impressive, even though we knew it would be when this day came. Of the many I’ve seen, I’ll quote two of them. Donald Davidson said yesterday that “He’s absolutely one of the most beloved individuals in the entire history of the track.” That’s quite a compliment coming from someone who is also very beloved himself.

And the Hulman-George family released the following statement, which pretty well sums up Jim Nabors – not only as a performer and a legend, but also as a person: “Jim Nabors was such a kind, caring man, and we will miss him greatly. Jim was born in Alabama, but he became a Hoosier to all of us almost immediately after he began his superb performances of ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ starting in 1972. He loved coming back home to the Speedway almost every May for more than 40 years and seeing his friends and race fans, who loved him dearly. Jim was not only a treasured friend, but truly a cherished member of our family. We will never forget his genuine kindness, sincerity and loyalty. He was a wonderful man who inspired millions of people across the globe every May and throughout his entire life.”

It’s odd that we longtime fans of the Indianapolis 500 thought of only one thing when we heard the name Jim Nabors – his singing on every Memorial Day weekend. A couple of hours after I heard the news yesterday, I heard some co-workers talking saying they heard that Gomer Pyle died. It’s funny, but I haven’t thought about Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle in quite a while. I connect him strictly with the Indianapolis 500.

At my ripe old age, I’ve (sadly) grown accustomed to seeing drivers die. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen with the kind of frequency it did when I was a kid, but it still happens. It hurts, but over the years I’ve hardened myself to it. I’ve also gotten used to seeing celebrities from my childhood pass away recently. But I’ll admit, this one caught me off guard and has hurt more than most.

There will be other legends from my childhood to leave us over the next few years, but few will have covered a larger span of time at the Indianapolis 500 than Jim Nabors. He is simply a legend and an icon – and I used the present tense intentionally. I feel honored and privileged that I witnessed both his first performance at IMS in 1972 and his final one in 2014, which I have posted below.

Thanks for all of the memories you gave us, Mr. Nabors. Thanks for being a friend to the Indianapolis 500.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Remembering Jim Nabors”

  1. I’m sure someone will disagree with me, but he left a pair of large, awesome shoes to fill and I doubt that anyone will truly measure up to his round, robust, wonderful voice. Ever. I agree with you, George, it wasn’t the 500 until Jim sang…

    I hope either IMS Video or Always Bad Coverage does a good job and makes a nice video tribute to him for the next 500.

  2. I think a cool thing to do next May is have Jim Cornelison sing along with a recording of Jim Nabors in a duet.

  3. The spirit of Jim will fill the hearts every May at the IMS for the fans until they stop running the Indy 500 . Maybe the IMS can run a Back Home Again in Indiana with Jim on opening day or carbday after final practice to stoke the fans and touch their hearts as a tribute . The power voices of Tom Carnegie and now Jim Nabors have left the track , The IMS has so many sounds from Tom’s and Jim’s voices , The whistles around gasoline alley , Air guns in the pits , Sound of the cars coming down the straight away from behind the metal stands north of the Pogoda I have often thought about going the month of May with a boom mic to capture all the IMS sounds . I have seen drunk growing men come to tears when Back Home in Indiana was sung by Jim before the race over the years .

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I think one of the most difficult things to explain to someone unfamiliar with the 500 is how beloved Jim Nabors and his performance of “Back Home Again” was. Which I get, telling someone “then the guy who played Gomer Pyle sings this song about Indiana and 300,000 people cheer wildly” does sound a bit unbelievable. But it was something that, once you finally experienced it, you understood… and then joined in the cheering yourself.

    On another Nabors-racing related note – Jim delivered an excellent performance as crew chief Lugs Harvey in Stroker Ace. I remember him for that almost as much as I do for “Back Home Again” or the Gomer Pyle role.

  5. 58 straight races, witnessed all 36 of his years at Indy, yesterday a little piece of me died yesterday. Wheldon’s death hit me hard, but this, receiving a text from my son while at the gym, hit me like a brick. Nobody will ever move me to tears like Jim Nabors. RIP Jim.

  6. George, I was there for the Peter DePaolo debacle. That was MY first 500 at the Speedway. I remember my roommate from Culver Military Academy and I, both native Hoosiers, looking at each other and shaking our heads.

    I was away at college for Jim Nabors’ first performance in 1972, but I was there for quite a few of them in the 70’s and 80’s before I moved south. The PROPER singing of that song has always been an emotional moment for me. In fact, my wife always pokes at me when I shed a few tears during those few moments.

    I think she finally “got it” when she accompanied me to the 2011 race. I was honestly surprised that Nabors returned in 2014 after he missed one year due to illness, knowing his age and that his health had been failing.

    It was a unique and fitting tribute that he shared the mic with Mari Hulman George for the command to start engines, something that, in my lifetime, had NEVER been done by anyone outside “the family.”

    I actually enjoyed the rendition by “Straight, No Chaser,” because of their Indiana connection and their harmonies, but the next year with the Voice winner, left me wanting. Jim Cornelison, also an Indiana connection, is a good choice to follow in the tradition.

  7. One of the biggest surprises for me was realizing that Jim had such a magnificent voice. I think it might have been on the Carol Burnett Show when I was a kid. I think it too bad he is mostly recognized as playing Gomer Pyle. There was so much more to the man. And his singing at the 500 was an amazing discovery. I am sorry I never saw him live. RIP Mr. Nabors.

  8. Mark J Wick Says:

    Seeing this news yesterday set me back for a bit, also. I did shed a few tears as I watched his last performance at IMS again. While I was at the 500 for seven races before 1972, I have no memories of the pre-race ceremonies other than the release of the balloons and the Pace Cars and bands parading around the track. 1967-1969 I was in one of those bands so I was focused on that and not tuned into other pre-race activities.
    My first race as a credentialed member of the media was also 1972 so Jim Nabors and I officially started our associations with the 500 at the same time.
    The list of voices I, and many others, associate with the 500 which are still with us has certainly dwindled.I believe only Paul Page and Jerry Baker are left.
    When the time comes for “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” next May it will probably be the most emotional time surrounding that song ever.

  9. RIP Jim Nabors. And no, I have not gotten accustomed to drivers dying. In fact, it’s gotten worse every time. That’s why these days, I won’t watch races from certain circuits live anymore.

  10. Very well done George. I share the emotion you put into that. With all due respect to the new guy, I will be playing Jim’s version of Back Home Again in Indiana this May. When the cars come roaring into turn one at the start, there is a better than even chance that I may shout out: Gawlee! May God bless you Jim Nabors.

  11. ed emmitt Says:

    Let me share a story about Jim Nabors. It was early 2000’s when I got lucky and got a room at the Speedway Motel for a night a few nights prior to the 500 that year. As I got ready for bed that night I said for all we know Jim Nabors sleeps in this bed. The next morning we had a knock on the door and to our surprise Jim was at the door wondering when his room was going to be ready. We shared with him our story and had a big laugh with Jim over it. Over the years when our paths would cross he would recognize us and we would laugh about it all over again.That post card that is signed Golee, Love Jim Nabors alway had a special place in my Indy collection.I looked at it yesterday and just choked up.Every year Jim sang Back Home in Indiana was and always will be a special part of the Indianapolis 500.

  12. James T Suel Says:

    Well said sir!

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