Jim Nabors, who played Gomer Pyle on “The Andy Griffith Show,” was in the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway one day in 1972. Then the venue’s owner, Tony Hulman, ventured over to ask if Nabors would like to sing a song for the gathered fans.
Nabors, who died in 2017 at age 87, agreed to sing the Hoosier hymn “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” before the Indy 500 kicked off. Now, Nabors was far from the only person to do that. But he soon became the person most fans associated with the task, according to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s blog.
Nabors reportedly wrote the lyrics to the song on his hand, afraid that he’d forget them. But he needn’t have worried. Nabors’s rendition of the song was so impressive that he received a second invitation to perform at the Speedway. It was the first time in 20 years that a singer had repeated their performance.
The “Andy Griffith Show” star would go on to sing the song 36 times from 1972 to 2014. He became a beloved institution at the Indy 500.
“Jim Nabors was definitely someone who made the Indianapolis 500 even bigger and better than it was,” three-time winner Helio Castroneves told the blog. “I knew every time he sang that song before the race. It would be one of the final moments of calm before we started racing. It helped set the stage and was always a great reminder to me of how powerful ‘Back Home Again’ was due to its meaning for the race.”
‘Andy Griffith Show’ Star Was Not a Hoosier
“For those 90 seconds every year, because that song is so important to the Indy 500 fan, there was no better Hoosier than Jim Nabors,” IMS President Doug Boles told the blog.
Yet Nabors was not himself a Hoosier. The “Andy Griffith Show” star was born in Alabama. And he lived in Hawaii as an adult. Still, he braved the lengthy plane rides to the Speedway every year to sing the song for Indy 500 fans and drivers.
Once there, Nabors stayed in the Speedway Motel, then the Turn 2 suites. He took part in the traditional Saturday drivers’ meeting. He rode in the 500 Festival Parade. Then he returned to the Speedway. Once there, he went into the Hall of Fame Museum, hugged the gift shop workers hello and dropped hundreds on souvenirs for friends back home.
Boles said that they all miss Nabors’s voice. But what they miss even more is his heart, which understood how much that pre-race moment meant to Indy fans.