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Indy 500 will thrive, but it will miss Nabors


Last Sunday was Christmas for gearheads: The Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600, all on the same day. I found a camshaft in my stocking. When I woke up, Bobby Unser already had come down the chimney to polish off the Valvoline and cookies.

Alas, the auto racing season has returned to normal. It’s back on the margins of the sports pages and the highlight shows this weekend while the basketball and hockey playoffs rage on.

NASCAR is running in circles in Delaware.

The Indy cars are racing twice on an island on the Detroit River between the United States and Canada.

Kurt Busch? He’s driving just once this weekend.

Who knows where the heck Formula One is. Probably Bahrain or Singapore or some other exotic locale.

And Jim Nabors is back in Hawaii with his partner, overseeing the (macadamia) nut farm.

It was one week ago that he sang “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” for the last time before the Indy 500.

Grown men sporting farmer suntans, and other grown men, shed tears in the massive grandstands. Thank the Lord for A.J. Foyt and dark sunglasses.

The Indy 500 is built on tradition, and this time-honored one — Jim Nabors crooning “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” before the gentlemen (and women) start their engines — is a tradition the Indy 500 won’t seem quite the same without.

They said that about the turbocharged Offys, too, but now the racing at Indianapolis is better than ever. It’s downright thrilling, with passes for the lead in the grass and whatnot, and now people don’t miss the turbocharged Offys like they used to.

But even if they get somebody such as John Mellencamp to sing next year, people still are going to miss Jim Nabors.

Mellencamp is a native Hoosier. It’s even possible he still lives in a little pink house with an interstate running through his front yard. The gleaming candlelight burns bright through the sycamores for him. He has roamed those fields, smelled the fragrance of the new-mown hay, dreamt about the moonlight on the Wabash.

He would be a logical choice to take Jim Nabors’ place. And if he does, it won’t be the same. It will seem as strange as watching a guy from Japan (Takuma Sato) drive A.J. Foyt’s car across the yard of bricks.

I am of the opinion that nearly every cool sports story has a Las Vegas tie-in, if you dig deep enough. In 1972, Jim Nabors, who by then was famous for being Gomer Pyle on TV, was invited to the Indianapolis 500 by casino mogul Bill Harrah.

But it was speedway owner Tony Hulman who asked the affable TV star to sing. Hulman was familiar with Nabors’ deep baritone singing voice, which reverberated around the sprawling speed plant like one of those turbocharged Offenhausers going through the gears.

Jim Nabors thought Tony Hulman wanted him to sing the national anthem. It was the Purdue band leader who set him straight. “Gol-lee!” He was from Alabama, he said. He didn’t know the words to “(Back Home Again in) Indiana.” So he scribbled them onto his hand.

Last Sunday, he sang the song for the last time.

What an encore. It was like when Paul McCartney returns to the stage for “Live and Let Die” with a horn section. Afterward, the race fans behind the pits thanked him by spelling out his name with placards, and they even asked Jim Nabors to help give the command to start engines.

I was standing in the Southwest Vista, in the short chute between Turns 1 and 2. As I said before, thank the Lord for A.J. Foyt and my dark sunglasses.

A lot of people in the massive grandstands were wearing these blue “Back Home Again in Indiana” T-shirts with soon-to-be-84-years-old Jim Nabors’ picture on front. I made a note to go to the souvenir shop during the first caution period, but the first yellow didn’t come out until lap 150. Which, at Indy, is unheard of.

By then, the nice lady from the Indianapolis square dance group working the souvenir booth by the main gate said they had sold their entire allotment of Jim Nabors “Back Home Again in Indiana” T-shirts.

“Gol-lee!”

Back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Jim Nabors is more popular than earplugs and a giant pork tenderloin sandwich.

While tracking down Bud Tingelstad’s driving record in the 500 before departing for Indy, I had stumbled upon an old radio broadcast of the 1964 race on the Internet. Sid Collins was calling the action in the control tower; Howdy Bell was stationed in Turn 2. It was the Indy 500 the way I remembered it. You could almost smell the corn on the cob.

There’s a new book out about the ill-fated 1964 race called “Black Noon: The Year They Stopped the Indy 500,” written by a fellow named Art Garner. It has been 50 years since popular driver Eddie Sachs and sports car ace Dave MacDonald were killed in a gruesome fireball on the second lap.

So I emailed my racing pal Steve the link to that broadcast, figuring it would lead to a lengthy discourse on the tragedy. Which it did. But not at first.

This is what Steve initially wrote: “Vic Damone singing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana?’ Sacrilege.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.