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Associated Press
Jim Nabors gets a warm reception at the drivers meeting Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Nabors ‘back home’ to bid farewell

– Jim Nabors is back home again in Indiana, this time to say farewell.

The actor whose bumbling character Gomer Pyle endeared him to an entire generation, and whose rich baritone has provided the soundtrack for the Indianapolis 500 for more than four decades, will perform “Back Home Again in Indiana” on Sunday for the last time.

“I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t want to stay too long at the fair,” the 83-year-old Nabors said with a hearty chuckle. “Everyone has been so incredible to me so many years. The first time I was here was 1972, so I guess most people have grown up with me.”

Indeed, millions of race fans have come to know Nabors not for his character on “The Andy Griffith Show” and its spinoff, “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C,” but for his Memorial Day weekend tradition.

“To many Indianapolis 500 fans, the pre-race pageantry is as important as the race itself,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles said this week, “especially as the lead-up reaches its highest point with Jim Nabors singing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ and Mari Hulman-George giving the command to start engines.”

People tend to forget that Nabors was born in Alabama. He moved to California when he started out in show business. He was performing in Lake Tahoe when Bill Harrah was in the audience. The casino magnate happened to be a car aficionado, and he invited Nabors to attend the Indy 500.

Nabors was supposed to be there as a fan, but Tony Hulman had also seen Nabors perform in Lake Tahoe, and the speedway’s owner asked if he would sing along with the Purdue marching band prior to the race.

“So to the conductor of the Purdue band, I said, ‘What key do you do this in?’ And he looked at me funny and said, ‘We only have one key.’ I said, ‘No, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has two keys.’ And he said, ‘You’re not singing that!’ And I said, ‘Well, what the hell am I singing?’ It was only five minutes to race time, too, and there’s 500,000 people here,” Nabors said.

“He says, ‘It’s the traditional song that opens the race, “Back Home Again in Indiana.” ’ I kind of looked at him and go, ‘I’m from Alabama!’ And he started laughing and asked if I knew it. And I said, ‘Well, I know the melody, but I don’t know all the lyrics.’ So I’m writing them on my hand. The first time I ever sang it, I wrote it on my hand.”

While missing the race a handful of times over the years because of illness and other conflicts, Nabors’ rendition of the Hoosier State’s unofficial anthem is as much a part of race day as the milk swilled by the winner in Victory Lane.

His health is a big reason why he’s stepping away.

“I had a liver transplant, then I had a pacemaker put in, then I had a new knee put in, then I had a heart valve put in,” he said. “I’m almost brand-new. I have a lot of new parts.”