Actor-entertainer Jim Nabors, one of the most beloved figures in Indianapolis 500 history for his stirring prerace rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” passed away Thursday at his home in Hawaii. He was 87.
Nabors sang the iconic tune 36 times between 1972 and 2014 during prerace ceremonies for the Indianapolis 500. Although born in Alabama, Nabors was considered a true Hoosier due to his performances at the Indy 500, but even more so because of his warmth, grace and generosity, and his very close relationship with the Hulman-George family, owners of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Jim Nabors was such a kind, caring man, and we will miss him greatly,” the Hulman-George family said in a released statement. “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.”
Nabors was best known for his television portrayal of bumpkin Gomer Pyle in the “The Andy Griffith Show” in the early 1960s and for his starring role in the popular spin-off television comedy “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” from 1964-69. His catchphrase on both shows, “Gollllll-ly!” was flavored with the Southern drawl of his native Alabama.
But Nabors also had an extensive background in singing with his rich baritone in cabaret and nightclub performances before his acting career. He sang on episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and on televised variety shows and theater performances for many years.
Nabors’ journey to performing “Back Home Again in Indiana” was an anecdote he enjoyed telling. He was the guest of casino magnate Bill Harrah at the 1972 Indianapolis 500 when, on race morning, Nabors was approached shortly before prerace ceremonies to sing during the festivities. He presumed he would be asked to perform the national anthem.
Instead, race officials asked Nabors to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana.” He didn’t know the lyrics, so he scrawled them on the palm of his hand and wowed the huge crowd with his performance.
Nabors returned to sing each year from 1973-78, becoming a big hit with fans and the Hulman-George family. Other singers performed the song from 1979-82, with Nabors returning in 1983 and 1984. Nabors was in Indianapolis to sing in 1986, but the race suffered two full days of rain delays. He was unable to return to sing when the race ran the following weekend.
In 1987, Nabors began a run of singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” for 27 of the next 28 years. He missed the 2007 race due to illness, and his rendition in 2012 was taped in advance and shown on the track’s video boards since Nabors couldn’t travel from Hawaii due to illness.
Nabors’ final performance came in 2014, when he also joined IMS Chairman of the Board Emeritus Mari Hulman George to give the command to start engines for the 98th Indianapolis 500.
That gesture was a prominent example of the extremely close friendship between Nabors and the Hulman-George family, especially Mari Hulman George. Nabors, fellow actor and entertainer Florence Henderson and Mari Hulman George enjoyed spending time together for decades as an almost inseparable trio of best friends during all race weekend activities, such as the public drivers meeting, 500 Festival Parade and victory celebration.
Nabors’ common touch and humility also were displayed annually to thousands of IMS fans who loved him dearly as an institution of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He always had a kind word for everyone and posed for countless pictures and signed seemingly limitless autographs. Nabors often visited the gift shop in the IMS Museum on Saturday of race weekend after the 500 Festival Parade, unassumingly walking in, waving and greeting excited IMS employees with genuine affection and enthusiasm about making his annual return to the speedway.
“Everyone at IMS is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our dear friend Jim Nabors,” IMS President Doug Boles said. “Jim’s stirring rendition of ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ became as much of a tradition of the Indianapolis 500 as the command to start engines or the winner’s bottle of milk.
“But more importantly, Jim was such a nice man. He was beloved by our fans because he loved the speedway and the 500 just as much as them. He wasn’t born in Indiana, but he was a true Hoosier. We always will remember Jim and extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.”
Nabors is survived by his husband, Stan Cadwallader.