Jim Nabors, whose renditions of ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ anchored the build-up to the Indianapolis 500 for four decades, died on Thursday at the age of 87.
The Alabama-born singer and actor was best known in showbusiness for his role as Gomer Pyle in the Andy Griffith Show and spin-off series Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. in the 1960s, although he was regularly cast in on-screen and voice acting film and TV roles through to the mid-1990s, and continued to make stage appearances into the 2000s.
But in the motorsport world, Nabors will forever be associated with singing Indiana’s unofficial anthem during the pre-race ceremony at the 500; a tradition that began when he was asked on race morning in 1972 whether he could perform the song that day – a feat he was reportedly able to achieve with the help of lyrics written on his hand – and continued, with a handful of interruptions due to clashing commitments or ill health, until he retired in 2014.
“You know, there’s a time in life when you have to move on,” he told USA Today ahead of his final performance at the Brickyard. “I’ll be 84 this year. I just figured it was time. This is really the highlight of my year to come here. It’s very sad for me, but nevertheless there’s something inside of me that tells me when it’s time to go.”
The Hulman-George family, which owns IMS, paid tribute to Nabors in a statement:
“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.”
Nabors, who lived in Hawaii for much of the second half of his life, is survived by his husband Stan Cadwallader.
This story has been updated since it was originally published to include the statement from the Hulman-George family.