IndyCar: 10 years later, an Indy 500 legend's impact is still felt

Two-time reigning Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden never got the chance to meet the late, great Jim Nabors, but he wishes he had had that opportunity.
Jim Nabors, Indy 500, IndyCar
Jim Nabors, Indy 500, IndyCar / Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday, the day before the 108th running of the Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, marked the 10-year anniversary of Jim Nabors' final appearance at the "Racing Capital of the World", where he had sung (Back Home Again in) Indiana dating back to 1972.

Nabors, the actor who starred as Gomer Pyle on the ageless The Andy Griffith Show and the show’s first spin-off, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., made a total of 36 appearances ahead of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" from 1972 to 2014.

When he was first approached by track owner Tony Hulman in 1972, he thought he was being asked to sing the Star-Spangled Banner. Being a native of Alabama, he had reservations about singing the signature Indiana song, which had been sung ahead of the 200-lap race around the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Speedway, Indiana oval since 1946.

But he sang it, and the tradition stuck, with Nabors only missing a few races at the speedway over the course of four-plus decades.

Jim Nabors passed away in 2017.

Speaking to Beyond the Flag ahead of his own final Indy 500 start last year, Tony Kanaan, who was the reigning Indy 500 winner when Nabors sang for the final time, recalled his friendship with the late, great Indianapolis Motor Speedway legend.

“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 said. “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."

After Nabors' retirement, the song was sung by a cappella group Straight No Chaser in 2015 and The Voice winner Josh Kaufman, accompanied by the Indianapolis Children's Choir, in 2016. In 2017, Jim Cornelison made his debut, and he has become the annual singer.

He made his eighth consecutive appearance this past Sunday.

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

Two-time reigning Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden was making only his third Indy 500 start on the day Nabors made his final appearance in 2014, and he never got the chance to meet him before he left the speedway.

But like most drivers who did not get that opportunity, he wishes he had.

"I did not, unfortunately," Newgarden told Beyond the Flag. "It's tough to meet everybody who comes to the Indianapolis 500. There are so many people there, and you don't cross paths with everybody, and I never got a chance to interact with him, unfortunately."

However, that did not stop Newgarden from appreciating Nabors' long-lasting impact on the greatest race in the world.

IndyCar driver returning for first appearance in seven years. dark. Next. IndyCar driver returning for first appearance in seven years

"I always watched him from afar, not very far, but always appreciated his involvement. I know he was a fan-favorite and a passion point for a lot of people, so yeah, it was cool to be there while he was there, but I never got to interact."