INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Jim Nabors’ final performance of “Back Home Again In Indiana” at the Indianapolis 500 left some race fans mourning the end of a long-running race tradition.
The swan song from the 83-year-old Nabors was a touching moment for Cindy Fiddler, a 58-year-old from Houston who was attending her first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She said she’s always looked forward to the song and Nabors’ deep voice as he crooned the ode to Indiana.
“It’s really sad because it’s like a tradition that’s now died, it’s gone,” she said. Fiddler said whoever is chosen to succeed the man best-known as TV’s Gomer Pyle in singing “Back Home” needs to be talented singer who means something both to Indiana and to race fans.
Nabors, who first performed the song in 1972, received a roaring appreciation from the crowd after he performed the song for a final time Sunday. He then stood by Mari Hulman George’s side as they spoke in unison, “Lady and gentlemen, start your engines!”
Bob Curtner, an 82-year-old from Sidney, Ohio, who attended his first Indy 500 in the late 1940s, said he’ll miss Nabors’ distinctive baritone rendition.
“That’s going to be very sad when he’s not here anymore to sing that because everybody waits for that to happen, it’s just before the race starts. I just like to hear him sing. I don’t know who they’re going to find to replace him,” he said.
This year’s race weekend was marred by violence, with the fatal shooting early Saturday of a 25-year-old man in one of several parking lots near the speedway where for decades thousands of fans have camped out and partied on race weekend. Early Sunday, the same sprawling lot was the scene of a robbery and shooting that left two men injured.
The fatal shooting was unusual, Indiana State Police Sgt. Brian Olehy said. In 2012, a fan was hospitalized after he was shot in the chest after an apparent altercation across from the speedway.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was tapped to wave the green flag starting the race and took time to meet with drivers and rapper/actor Ice-T. He declined to answer any questions Sunday about the NBA owners’ upcoming vote to oust Donald Sterling as the Los Angeles Clippers’ owner over his racist comments.
Cuban, who also apologized last week over his own comments addressing bigotry and prejudice, said during the pre-race red carpet walk that he just wanted to talk about Sunday’s race. Cuban said he’d been asked twice before to wave the green flag, and was able to take part this year only because the Mavericks are out of the NBA playoffs.
“I told them this case hinged on Dallas not making it any further in the playoffs,” he said. “So it’s unfortunate that I’m here, but I’m also really excited to wave the flag.”
Rapper and actor Ice-T and his wife Coco Austin joined Cuban on the red carpet walk. Ice-T said he’s been to the Indy 500 before, but it is still amazed by the size of the track and roar of the cars once the race begins.
“Until you actually see the cars live, you don’t realize how vast this place is. And I love the sound of the cars,” he said.
State Police Sgt. Rich Myers said officers had arrested only one person Sunday: for a pickpocketing charge at the track, but Indiana State Excise Police arrested 94 people overnight for alcohol violations. Myers said fans appeared to have had an easier time getting into the track than before last year’s race, when new security procedures for ice coolers following the Boston Marathon bombings created long backups and delays for hundreds of fans. Myers said he’d heard of no such repeat problems this year.
The speedway opened eight more gates for Sunday’s race, bringing the total number to 26, and adopted a faster ticket-verifying procedure to speed entry into the 253-acre infield. Staffing at the gates was also more than doubled to nearly 700 this year.
Some fans didn’t need to worry about waking up early Sunday morning and joining lines of traffic to get into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — they were already in place after spending the night “glamping” within the track’s vast infield. Speedway officials said all 70 of the upscale tents offered for the first time this year sold out. The tents, for use for four nights, came with cots or a bed, a table and chairs, race day tickets and a place to shower and use the bathroom.
Indianapolis residents Crystal Swartz, 29, and her 43-year-old boyfriend, Rock Frese, spent $1,100 on the “Queen” tent package featuring a queen bed nestled within their tent.
Frese, who was frying up bacon and eggs for the pair on a small propane grill Sunday morning, said it was fun Saturday night in the encampment next to the speedway’s golf course because everyone was there to have a good time. He said the bed was comfortable but loud fireworks at 5:30 a.m., when the gates opened to the track, were a bit much.
Swartz said there was plenty of hot water in the showers, but complained that the site needed bathrooms.
“It’s kind of a long walk when you’re drunk and you have to go. I made that long walk a couple times last night,” she said.
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