Tony Kanaan recalls friendship with late Indy 500 legend

Tony Kanaan, KV Racing Technology, Indy 500, IndyCar (Photo by Paul Warner/Getty Images)
Tony Kanaan, KV Racing Technology, Indy 500, IndyCar (Photo by Paul Warner/Getty Images) /
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Few Indy 500 traditions run deeper than the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana. Tony Kanaan recalled his friendship with the legendary Jim Nabors.

Before the 1972 Indy 500, Jim Nabors thought Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman was asking him to sign the Star-Spangled Banner. When informed he was actually being asked to sign (Back Home Again In) Indiana, he had reservations at first, being a native of Alabama.

Little did anyone know that his appearance more than a half-century ago would be the first of 36 appearances Nabors made before the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”, singing the traditional song that opens the iconic motor race.

Nabors, the actor who starred as Gomer Pyle on the ageless The Andy Griffith Show and then the show’s first spin-off, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., made his final appearance at the speedway in 2014. He passed away at the age of 87 in November 2017.

Tony Kanaan, who was the reigning Indy 500 winner when Jim Nabors sang his final verse of the song in May 2014, was a friend of the Back Home Again singer.

“We were really good friends, and actually the year before he passed, I was scheduled to go to Hawaii to visit him, me and my wife,” Kanaan recalled to Beyond the Flag. “He always invited us, and Jim, I mean, Jim — what can I say about Jim? You cannot think — my generation, and even generations prior to me — you cannot think about the speedway without him.

Nabors’ legacy lives on in 2023. While the song was not sung by a new “regular”, per se, until 2017, Jim Cornelison has done a fantastic job as his successor — there can be no true “replacement” — and is set for year number seven next weekend.

“Even the guy who replaced Jim [Nabors], he tries to sing the song like Jim!” Kanaan mentioned. “So, it’s just there!

You truly do have to talk about Jim Nabors when it comes to Indy 500 legends. On IndyCar’s online store a few years ago, there was a poster featuring pictures of 100 legends. If Jim Nabors wasn’t on it, I wasn’t buying it. After all, PFC Gomer Pyle was the reason I first watched the Indy 500. Suffice it to say that there was never a doubt.

Kanaan is one of many drivers who feels the same way.

“You talk about the 500, you have to talk about Jim Nabors — an iconic person, great person. He was a good friend, a huge race fan, and we definitely miss him a lot.”

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