A Day of Good News And Bad

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First, the bad news…

Late yesterday afternoon, I saw the news that I never wanted to admit would someday come. This year’s Indianapolis 500 will be the last time that Jim Nabors sings Back Home Again in Indiana. I was there the first time when he sang it in 1972, and I feel honored that I will be there when he sings it for the thirty-fifth and final time. People have their personal favorite traditions for the Month of May. Some live for the release of balloons. The command to start engines always brought tears to my father’s eyes. For me, it’s always been the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana that makes the goosebumps appear. To hear that distinctive baritone voice of Jim Nabors reverberating through the stands has always been the signature moment for the Indianapolis 500.

No one wins the race against Father Time. We all knew this day would come. Even though it had to come, this scenario is the best it could be under the circumstances. Instead of something happening over the offseason, making it impossible for him to ever do it again – this way, we get one more performance to savor the moment. With an encore performance, we all get a chance to thank Jim for enhancing our memories of this great event.

Given the relatively happy set of circumstances, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to mention possible successors for the future. Notice I said successors and not replacements. Jim Nabors will never be replaced. But someone needs to sing it. As much as I enjoyed hearing his voice, I only want to hear it live. They’ve tried playing recordings twice and they were both dismal failures. They will need a live voice. Curt Cavin suggested Sandi Patty, who sang the National Anthem at last year’s race. Others probably have someone specific in mind. It may be a good idea to try several for the next few years before a regular emerges – so long as it is not a Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus type.

My oldest brother had a unique suggestion that could possibly even have a business tie-in. Did you know that Mike Rowe, of the Ford commercials, has an opera-trained voice? I’ll admit, I did not until my brother brought it to my attention. I did a You Tube search of "Mike Rowe singing" and found many examples. He actually has a beautiful booming baritone voice. If Cosworth ends up badging their engine as a Ford – it could satisfy a sponsor tie-in as well.

As they pointed out on Trackside, last night – Jim Nabors will get an unbelievable send-off. To those of us who actually want to hear him and appreciate the moment, it may be too big of a send-off. There’s nothing wrong with cheering and clapping, but I hope the drunken clowns will give the moment the respect it deserves.

I hate hearing the news, but at least we get one more time. We also get the satisfaction of knowing that Jim Nabors gets to go out on his own terms. At 83, he can still make the trip from Hawaii, but it’s getting tougher. No one wants to see him labor through the performance, just to chalk up another one. His voice is still strong and you can bet this one will sound better than ever. In future years, he can stay home and tune in to watch someone else carry on the tradition. He has earned the opportunity to rest. Thanks for the memories, Jim. Enjoy your retirement.

Now, for the good news…

Many of us, myself included, thoroughly moaned and groaned over every perceived misstep that the new group at Hulman & Company took throughout the offseason. Not to backtrack or minimize them, because there were missteps and gaffes – but in the interest of fairness, I like to point out the good along with the not so good.

Yesterday, they did a good thing when they announced on Good Morning America, that Dario Franchitti would drive the pace car for the 98th Running of the Indianapolis 500. It won’t take out the sting that Franchitti will surely be feeling as he experiences his first Month of May as a former driver. But it is a nice gesture, not only for the retired Scotsman; but for the fans.

Franchitti’s last race in the Indianapolis 500 was bittersweet. As the defending winner, he had a rough day that ended on Lap 198 when he hit the wall after a re-start. However, his late-race caution guaranteed that his friend Tony Kanaan would earn his long sought-after Indianapolis 500 victory. Little did we know that moment would signal the end of Franchitti’s career at IMS – a career that saw him become a three-time winner in a six-race span.

Like many of the great drivers, we probably won’t fully appreciate what Franchitti accomplished until time moves us further away from his driving days. While winning four series titles and three Indianapolis 500 championships was impressive at the time, it’ll become iconic as the years pass by.

My generation grew up with the names of Foyt, Unser, Andretti and Rutherford. While growing up, I occasionally heard the names of Wilbur Shaw, Louis Meyer and Mauri Rose; but I wasn’t quite sure who they were, exactly. It wasn’t until I got older and took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about them. The new generation of racing fans will have heard those names I grew up with. They still see Foyt as a comical overweight Texan whose team rarely wins. Mario is still driving the two-seater and poses for a lot of pictures, while his grandson still races. As strange as it seems, the names of Unser and Rutherford may be fading from the forefront of newer fans. So what name will they use as the standard by which all future drivers will be judged? Dario Franchitti.

The pace car driver is mostly a ceremonial position; but there is some skill involved to keep it off the walls. Donald Davidson cringes when someone brings up Eldon Palmer. It is an unfortunate footnote that the only reason Palmer is remembered in Indianapolis 500 lore, is because he crashed the pace car into a photographer’s stand set up at the end of the pits just as the field was taking the green flag.

His passengers included Tony Hulman, astronaut John Glenn and ABC broadcaster Chris Schenkel. Twenty-nine people were injured as Palmer tried to slow from a speed of 125 mph before crashing into the temporary stand. Donald doesn’t like talking about it, because he feels that Palmer was unfairly labeled for the rest of his life, but it is a subject that gets brought up at least once every May on The Talk of Gasoline Alley.

Those in charge at 16th and Georgetown have made some curious decisions over the past fifteen or so years about who will drive the pace car. From the 1920’s through the 70’s, the pace car driver was usually a former driver from the “500”. There were exceptions; like the aforementioned Eldon Palmer or other high-ranking auto executives. In 1977, actor James Garner was chosen to drive the pace car, but he did have some racing experience of his own. In the eighties, Garner drove it again along with other non-drivers such as Gen. Chuck Yeager and Pontiac’s John Callies.

The great Carroll Shelby drove it in 1987 and again in 1991, after a heart transplant.

After Parnelli Jones drove the pace car to start the 1998 Indianapolis 500, the flood gates opened for a parade of celebrities and semi-celebrities behind the wheel. Some of the better-known names to pace the field since 1999 include Jay Leno, Morgan Freeman, Robin Roberts and Gen Colin Powell. A few of the head-scratchers were Elaine Irwin Mellencamp, Jim Caviezel, Josh Duhameland Guy Fieri. The original choice for the Centennial Celebration in 2011, Donald Trump, was wrapped in controversy. He conveniently withdrew just a few days before the race, citing a scheduling conflict. AJ Foyt was drafted as a last-minute replacement for a job he should have been given all along.

As Foyt was in 2011, Dario Franchitti was the obvious choice for this year’s race. The problem was – I thought it was too obvious. I figured that with Franchitti out there, they would make some obscure choice for some semi-famous pop-culture has-been. During the last decade, they would have.

While Curt Cavin gives credit to Chevy’s Jim Campbell for this move, I have to think that IMS President Doug Boles has something to do with this. As successful as he has been as a racing executive, he is a fan at heart. He knows this sport and he appreciates the history of the Indianapolis 500 as well as anyone. The significance of having a recently retired three-time winner pace the field for the first year of his retirement wasn’t lost on Boles. He understands what hard-core fans want probably more than anyone else in this regime. He has other marketing people to make the decisions what might draw in potential new fans, but Doug Boles is one of us. He gets it. It’s strictly a guess on my part, but I feel quite certain that he is the reason we’ll see Dario Franchitti behind the wheel of the pace car in May.

Lately, we’ve been seeing and hearing more good than bad coming from Mark Miles and Company. That’s a trend that needs to continue.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “A Day of Good News And Bad”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    I freely admit that the annual singing of Back Home in Indiana by Jim Nabors always brings a tear to my eye. My grandparents, aunts and uncles were Indiana farmers in the Frankfort area. I spent summers on my uncle’s farm as a boy. So the classic images within that song resonate with me as they do with so many people.

    Jim sings the song straight up as it should be sung. He does not add vocal embelishments or try to impress folks with his voice as so many national anthem singers feel the need to do. There won’t be many dry eyes in that Indiana home this year. Another strong baritone would be my choice to succeed Jim.

    Having Dario drive the pace car is good news indeed. Did anyone seriously think that having Guy somebody drive the pace care made people tune in or buy a ticket. Sheesh! That reminded me of when the wife of a Harley-Davidson executive chose Elton John as the main act for the 100th Harley reunion/celebration. Say what?!

  2. I learned to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” as a youngster in music class at Orchard School. I thought it was beautiful then as I do today. Maybe more so today as my life fills with memories. Jim has been a fabulous presenter of the song and moment and I couldn’t be happier that it was on my watch.

    As for the pace car and it’s driver…..BRAVO!! We get an opportunity to collectively cheer Dario once again and I like the car.

  3. Jay Leno? Could we get someone to convince him to start an IndyCar team? His arch-rival owns one and Leno isn’t doing his talk show anymore; he may have the time.

  4. I’m not the historian you are, George, but didn’t James Garner own at least part of an IndyCar team for a while? I would prefer the mix of famous people and people associated with IndyCar. My preference would be that the famous at least have dome connection with racing. E.G. Owned a team, collected race cars, attended lots of races. Names that pop to mind are David Letterman, the aforementioned Jay Leno, etc.

    As to who should follow Jim Nabors, there is an excellent choice from Indiana. They are an a Capella group known as “Straight, No Chaser” who I’m sure could do the song justice.

  5. Dale Christenson Says:

    This year’s race will be more special than most. It will allow us to thank Jim Nabors for giving us fans a truly special moment before the race. All I know is that when the strains of “Back Home Again In Indiana” fill the air, I can think of no place on earth that I would rather be. Thanks for the memories Jim, you are truly a treasure and you will be missed.

  6. Mike (15daysinmay) Says:

    I like the Mike Rowe idea! I was watching an episode of Dirty Jobs a few years ago when he worked as part of a baseball grounds crew, then sang the National Anthem before the game. Was blown away! But I just hope whoever is brought in as Jim’s successor is someone 1) with a great voice that will treat the song with respect and 2) someone with staying power. This is a beautiful song which for four decades has been sung by a talented (and very humble) man, to just give it to the latest flavor would be a disgrace.

  7. First, the Franchitti choice was an obvious (and, for once,) an excellent one.

    I had pretty much decided to pass on attending this year’s 500. I am now regretting that decision. I was there in 1971 when they handed the job of singing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” to ex-driver Peter DePaolo and to say it was a train wreck would be a disservice to train wrecks. Of course, the next year was the beginning of the Jim Neighbors era during which fans could count on the rendition being as good as it gets.

    I was on both the IndyStar website and Facebook when the news hit the wires that this would be Neighbors’ farewell appearance. Many on both sites were suggesting that John Mellencamp would be a good choice. I like John Mellencamp’s music a lot, but I just don’t see him as a choice to follow Mr. Neighbors.

    On “Trackside” last night, as George pointed out, Sandy Patti’s name was mentioned. I have long maintained that her rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” is among the best, along with Whitney Houston’s at the 1991 Super Bowl, and Renee Fleming’s version this past Super Bowl. There was a series of years during which Ms. Patti sang the Anthem at the 500, as memory serves, in the mid to late ’90’s.

    I have also heard both Mike Rowe and “Straight, No Chaser” and I believe either would be a worthy successor to Mr. Neighbors.

  8. The Archer Says:

    Instead of Straight No Chaser how about an Elvis impressionist?

  9. I am not a Franchitti fan. I do feel bad for him and how his career ended. But I really cannot get behind him as the pace car driver. Such a boring driver, he doesn’t get new fans, he doesn’t move the needle, and I cannot understand why Indycar wants him as the pace car driver. To put it another way, I think Franchitti’s multiple titles in a row dampened any momentum Indycar may or may not have had from 2009-2010.

    • I have never been a fan of his either, but this makes sense. A career ending injury as part of the sport. A three time winner of the 500. This is the year to do it. And we don’ t need Lady Gaga as the pace car driver (and under current management that is possible)

    • Ron Ford Says:

      So you are suggesting that only non-boring drivers should drive the pace car? Only non-boring persons? What? Who? Boring drivers should not be allowed to win because they dampen IndyCar momentum?

  10. Paul Wheeler Says:

    Dario has taken out lots of drivers in this series with his driving. Who will he take out with the pace car?

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