Change And Tradition At The Indy 500

One major change at the Speedway this May, while many other traditions stand the test of time.

For the first time since 1971, “Back Home Again in Indiana” will be sung by someone other than Jim Nabors at the Indianapolis 500.  To put that in perspective, none of the 33 drivers in the field for Sunday’s 99th running of the Indy 500 were even born the last time Jim Nabors wasn’t at the mic*.

The famous tradition began in 1946, with James Melton, of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company singing along with the Purdue University Marching Band.  It was so well received by fans, the singing of “Indiana,” as it was called then, was pushed closer and closer to the start of the race with an array of well-known singers at the helm.  When Jim Nabors sang in 1972, “ somehow or another, [he] just clicked,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson.

Award-winning a capella group Straight No Chaser will sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” before the 2015 Indy 500. Formed at Indiana University in 1996, the all-male, all IU-alum group’s Indiana ties were a catalyst in being chosen to perform before the race.  “It’s probably the greatest honor you can bestow on a bunch of guys from Indiana that just started doing this for fun,” said SNC’s David Roberts.

But while this famous tradition will be getting a new spin, many remain the same. From the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, here are some continuing traditions:

  • Borg-Warner Trophy – Louis Meyer first hoisted the trophy in 1936.  The base of the trophy features the likeness of each winning driver; it’s had to be extended three times to accommodate winners.
  • Tony Kanaan enjoying the historical taste of victory after winning the 2013 Indy 500.
    Tony Kanaan enjoying the historical taste of victory after winning the 2013 Indy 500.

    Milk in Victory Lane – Another tradition started by Louis Meyer in 1936.  Why Meyer requested a glass of buttermilk after winning the race, we’ll never know, but the tradition stuck (save for Emerson Fittipaldi’s famous faux pas in 1993).

  • Balloon Spectacle – Timed to be released during the final notes of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” Tony Hulman’s mother Grace suggested the release to her son in 1947.
  • Victory Wreath – Common in Euro circuits, Indy 500 winners started donning a victory wreath in 1960.  It’s now commissioned by Borg-Warner, the same sponsor of the trophy.
  • Starting Command – “Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!” is a cry heard around the world on race day.  Its origins are fuzzy; the first documented call was made by track announcer John Horan in 1950.  Mari Hulman George, Chairman of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has made the call every year since 1997, when she took over for her mother, Mary F. Hulman.
  • God Bless America and Taps – Honoring Memorial Day’s theme of military remembrance, “Taps” has been played since at least the 1960s.  Indiana native Florence Henderson has sung “America the Beautiful” or “God Bless America” nearly every year since the 1991 race.
  • 500 Festival Parade – Month-of-May festivities, including the parade, began in 1957, largely as a response to the Kentucky Derby’s week-long pageantry.  While the original 500 Festival was a small parade, a square dance, and a ball, the current parade draws close to 300,000 spectators, and festival activities take over the city for the entire month.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay and his family kiss the bricks after his 2014 win.
    Ryan Hunter-Reay and his family kiss the bricks after his 2014 win.

    Kissing the Bricks – A bit of a newer tradition, this didn’t even start with the Indy 500; NASCAR Brickyard 400 winner Dale Jarrett did it in 1996. 2003 winner Gil de Ferran was the first Indy 500 winner to do so.  All traditions start somewhere, right? 




*Nabors was having surgery during the 2012 race and was not physically in attendance; the Speedway played a recording of Nabors over the loudspeakers instead.