The Shrinking Role Of The Purdue Band
Long ago, it was well-established how much I dislike change. It’s a fact, I really do. Windows 7 was a perfectly good product. Why did they have to screw it up by replacing it with Windows 8 and then 10? I like traditional football uniforms like the Packers and Bears. I also like for the traditions of the Indianapolis 500 to remain unchanged.
I was appalled when Emerson Fittipaldi broke tradition in 1993 and chose to drink orange juice rather than the traditional bottle of milk in Victory Lane. Apparently others did too. His popularity plummeted in a matter of seconds and his reputation never recovered.
Some traditions have gone by the wayside and no one noticed. One of those is the alternate starter, in case someone is injured or cannot drive for whatever reason between qualifying and the start of the race. I’m not sure when that went away, but it did. Nowadays, teams simply name replacement drivers. Last year, Ryan Briscoe was named as a replacement driver for James Hinchcliffe after Hinchcliffe’s life-threatening crash on the Monday after qualifying. With Hinch injured and an alternate starter in place, that person would’ve gone. Same with Tristan Vautier subbing for Carlos Huertas at the last minute. Of course, it’s hard to have first and second alternate starters, when there are only thirty-three cars trying to qualify. If a qualified car was destroyed with no backup available, I’m not sure what they would do.
There is another tradition that is being more and more minimized as time goes on, and that is the use of the Purdue University All-American Marching Band in the traditional pre-race ceremonies.
Oh, they’re still there alright. Each Race Morning, the Golden Girl leads the band around the track as the “World’s Largest Bass Drum” is driven around in the back of a truck and then on some sort of dolly. But their role in the traditional pre-race ceremony has been greatly diminished. In fact, all I can remember what they did last year was play the traditional On the Banks of the Wabash as the cars are rolled from the pits to their respective spots on the grid. They may or may not have accompanied Florence Henderson’s dreaded rendition of God Bless America. I tend to put that performance out of my mind very quickly each year.
In years past, the band had a much larger role. They usually accompanied whoever was singing the National Anthem. They always backed up Jim Nabors or whoever was singing (Back Home Again in) Indiana and as recently as 2005, they played Taps. In 2006, Speedway officials opted for a solo trumpeter to play Taps from the podium above Victory Lane. I like the haunting sound of the solo trumpeter, but more times than not – they either hit a few sour notes or the sound system goes out.
One of my favorite pre-race moments went away with the death of Jim Philippi in 2003. Every year, dating back to 1965, Philippi would recite the following homage, just after the invocation:
"On this Memorial Day weekend, we pause in a moment of brief silence, to pay homage to those individuals who have given their lives -unselfishly, and unafraid – so that we may witness as free men and women, the world’s greatest sporting event. We also pay homage to those individuals, who have given their lives – unselfishly, and without fear – to make racing, the world’s most spectacular spectator sport."
As soon as he was finished the Purdue All-American Marching Band would ease into their version of Taps. Most will disagree with me, but I prefer their version to the solo trumpet. Then they would transition to accompanying Jim Nabors singing (Back Home Again in) Indiana as the balloons launched just before the command to start engines.
And a note about that…Mari Hulman George seems rather frail these days and had to be accompanied by one of her daughters last year. As hated as he may be by some, I think it may be time for that job to pass along to her son, Tony George. Since Wilbur Shaw was lost in a plane crash in October 1954, a member of the Hulman-George has had the honor of giving the traditional command.
Tony Hulman gave the command from 1955 through 1977. After his death later that year, the honor was passed to his widow, Mary Fendrich Hulman, who gave the command through 1996. Before Mrs. Hulman passed away just before the 1998 race, her daughter Mari had already begun doing the honors a year earlier. Perhaps she wants to give the command one more time for the 100th running. Soon though, I expect Tony George to take on the responsibility.
Whoever does it, I’m grateful that no one in the Hulman-George family has chosen to use the gender-neutral “Drivers, Start Your Engines” that has become so prevalent in NASCAR and other IndyCar races. The command originated at the “500”, and should always contain the word “Gentlemen”. I’m fine with "Lady (ladies) and Gentlemen”. It will be just another chunk of tradition chiseled away if they ever go to the now-popular “Drivers”.
Anyway, back to the non-use of the Purdue All-American Marching Band. West Lafayette is not that far from Indianapolis, but it still must cost a pretty penny to get the entire band there. I don’t know if IMS pays that cost or the university. Whoever is paying it is seeing a dwindling return on investment by hardly using them. Most “artists” that sing the National Anthem these days bring their own accompaniment or sing it a cappella. Last year, the band had no part in the Straight, No Chaser version of (Back Home Again in) Indiana. Chances are, they won’t this year either. I would think they would drown out the wispy sounding Josh Kaufman.
This is a disturbing trend everywhere. Marching bands seem to be going the way of the powdered wig. At my alma mater, The University of Tennessee, the 330-piece Pride of the Southland Marching Band has a history of playing Rocky Top several dozen times per football game, along with the many other fight songs. For the last few years during timeouts, they are relegated to sitting on their collective hands while the PA system blares deafening earth-shaking rap "music". Why even have a band at all, if they spend most of the time playing Lil Jon’s Turn Down for What over the loudspeakers? My fear is that in a few years, marching bands will be a complete and total thing of the past. That’s a shame.
From providing the iconic music throughout the morning just a decade ago, the Purdue All-American Marching Band has now been reduced to just an afterthought on Race Morning. I don’t know if that is by design or an oversight. But they have been an important part of the race memories for a lot of people for a lot of years. It’s sad that their role has now been reduced to what it is. Change is bad!