INDIANAPOLIS — Fifty years ago this month, a last-minute request by the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sparked a tradition that lasted more than four decades.
Jim Nabors was already a star by the time he attended his first Indianapolis 500 in 1972, hoping to enjoy the race as a fan.
(Note: The video in the media player above is a earlier 13News report announcing Jim Nabors' final "Back Home Again In Indiana" performance in Indianapolis.)
"Back Home Again in Indiana" already had a place in the festivities leading up to the 500, having been performed annually since 1946, with stars Dinah Shore and Mel Torme among the performers who led the crowd in the song before the race. Even a former race winner, Peter DePaolo, took a turn behind the mic in 1971.
But it was 1972, before the 56th running of the race, that the tradition changed forever.
On race morning, Tony Hulman himself asked Nabors if he'd help out and sing "Back Home Again in Indiana" before the race. Nabors obliged, scribbling the lyrics on his hand in case he needed a cheat sheet.
The actor best known to America as the goofy Gomer Pyle put on a performance that did not disappoint.
"I became a Hoosier right after I did that song that day. I totally did," Nabors said.
Hulman invited Nabors back the following year and an icon was born. He sang before the race every year from 1972 through 1978, then every year but two from 1983 until 2006.
"Jim Nabors was definitely someone who made the Indianapolis 500 even bigger and better than it was," Helio Castroneves said in an interview with IMS.
Nabors was forced to miss the 2007 race due to illness, but picked back up the following year, singing each year through 2014.
"It's always the main part of my year. It just thrills you to your bones," Nabors said in an interview with 13News.
Nabors passed away on Nov. 30, 2017 at the age of 87, but his voice will forever be linked to the start of the Indianapolis 500, thanks to a chance request 50 years ago.