Remembering Jim Nabors and his impact on the Indy 500

Jim Nabors
FILE - In this May 25, 2014 file photo, Jim Nabors waves to fans after singing before the start of the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 IndyCar auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis. Nabors died peacefully at his home in Honolulu on Thursday with his husband Stan Cadwallader at his side. He was 87. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – The longtime singer of Back Home Again in Indiana at the Indianapolis 500 has passed away.

Jim Nabors, who sang the famous song at the track for more than 40 years, died at the age of 87 peacefully at his home in Hawaii.

It was a sad day for the racing community and for longtime fans of the Indy 500. Nabors first sang at the race in 1972 and last belted out back home again in Indiana in 2014.

But his memories and his voice will live forever in the lives he touched and on the track he learned to love.

In 1972, the Alabama native was invited to the race as a guest of a Las Vegas businessman.

“There’s just no accounting for why something takes off or why something doesn’t,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian, Donald Davidson.

Little did Nabors know that it would be life-changing.

Asked to sing Nabors agreed. He thought it would be the national anthem, but really it was Back Home Again in Indiana. He didn’t know the words so he had to write them down on his hand.

He wasn’t the first to sing it, but something happened that May afternoon in 1972.

“It was just magic on race day,” said Davidson.

Famous for playing Gomer Pyle on the Andy Griffith Show, a new star was born.

“If he wasn’t doing it, people were like ‘oh my God what are we going to do,”’ said Davidson.

After that he sang his heart out year after year until 2014. It would only last a minute but his impact will last a lifetime.

“When I got the news I thought ‘oh a part of Indy 500 history has gone away from us,”’ said Laura Steele, who has served on the IMS public address team and now as a WISH-TV contributor during race coverage.

He ended up becoming one of the most beloved icons in the history of the track. His death on Thursday, beyond Hollywood, hit Hoosiers hard.

“He loved being at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and you could tell that in the way he embraced you and the way he said hello to people,” said Steele.

So in May there will be a gaping hole during the song, but his presence will echo and usher in The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

The man who will sing Back Home Again in Indiana next year is Jim Cornelison, an Indiana University graduate who sang it this past year. He also sings the national anthem for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Cornelison tweeted his gratitude for continuing the tradition Nabors carried for so many years.