By: Tanner Watkins
June 13, 2018 | 10:47 AM
Following the 2014 Indianapolis 500, fans of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing felt like they had said goodbye to an old friend.
Jim Nabors had performed “Back Home Again in Indiana,” a pre-race staple before the ‘500, for the 36th and final time. One of the iconic personalities from the Indy 500’s most popular years was about to retreat to his Hawaii residence and after paying his final respects to the Hoosier state.
In 2015, a capella group Straight No Chaser would take the stage in the unfavorable position of following Nabors for the first singing of the historic song following his retirement. The young men did well enough, but certainly something was missing from the grand old tune.
The following year in 2016, Indianapolis native Josh Kauffman was tabbed to sing “Back Home Again” for the race’s 100th running. Joined by the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, the season six winner of NBC’s “The Voice” brought a hometown feel to the song but the vibrato and punch was still absent since Nabor’s final note.
Continuing a search for the next Indy tradition, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president J. Douglas Boles tabbed a unique performer to face the challenge in 2017.
Jim Cornelison, best known for his National Anthem renditions for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, was Boles’ bold new choice. Cornelison began performing the “Star Spangled Banner” for the Blackhawks on a part-time basis all the way back in 1996, and has become a fan-favorite of the historic franchise ever since.
A graduate from Indiana University, Cornelison employs a powerful, commanding style of singing that grabs the attention of all who surround him in a stadium. For his first singing of “Back Home Again,” the crowd was awed with the same booming feel that we became accustomed to with Nabors. Many thought, “could this be our guy?”
Just after Thanksgiving this past year, the sad news was released that Jim Nabors had passed away at the age of 87. Fans remembered Nabors’ by-golly charm, moments as “Gomer Pyle,” and performances at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
As many thought Cornelison’s performance in 2017 was the best since Nabors’ departure, fans were pleased to hear the announcement that brought the other “Jim” back for year two.
Performing “Back Home Again” for the second time this past May, Cornelison blasted away any doubt that he is the man for the job moving forward. It was another wonderfully-executed rendition and with the Purdue Marching Band serving as a backdrop, Boles may have found the next great tradition in Indy 500 lore.
Thankfully for Cornelison, he was able to enjoy this year’s race weekend a bit more than in 2017.
“In 2017 I had my mother’s memorial service the day before the race in Washington state, so I didn’t get into Indy until 1:00 a.m. on Sunday morning,” Cornelison explained. “This made for an abbreviated race experience. I showed up at the track at 8:00 a.m. to rehearse with the Purdue band and then just kind of went wherever I was told until I was done singing: red carpet, interviews, credentialing, etc.
“This year I arrived on Thursday at noon and was able to take in concerts, the Carb Day (Freedom 100) race, be in the parade, drop in on a Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing dinner as well as one for Gallagher. I was at the track by 9:00 a.m. on race day and was settled in because of on track sound checks and a dress rehearsal with ABC the day before.
“It was an awesome experience because the energy through out the weekend was so intense and of course the event size is overwhelming.
It was after his performance in 2017 that Cornelison could really feel the impact that song has on thousands of people. From social media mentions to well wishes by Blackhawks fans and the thumbs-up by Indianapolis residents, the buzz from Cornelison’s 90-second display was felt all through the Midwest.
“After I sang ‘Back Home Again’ last year I had tremendous social media reaction,” said Cornelison. “Much of that came from Blackhawks fans and much from race fans. People approached me in Chicago about the race… I was surprised at the number.
“In Indianapolis, I come down for a couple Indy Fuel games a year. They are the Blackhawks’ minor league affiliate in Indy and when signing autographs at the hockey game so many people talked about the race and my ‘Back Home Again’ performance. (It was) very cool!”
Growing up in Washington, Cornelison always had an eye on the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. In recent years he had been a part of a few NASCAR events at the nearby Chicagoland Speedway, but the performances in Indianapolis have kicked that interest into high gear.
“I have done some NASCAR races at Chicagoland Speedway since 2010, and slowly have found myself drawn into auto racing,” the renowned singer stated.
“Being part of the Indy 500 has accelerated my appreciation for the sport. I used to watch the ‘500 when I was a kid growing up in Washington State. We’d get excited each year and give the Hot Wheels an extra workout. I remember Mario Andretti the most, but also A.J. Foyt and Al Unser. It’s unbelievable to me that I’m part of the event now!”
If fans of the Speedway have their way, Cornelison will be part of the event for the foreseeable future. As for his own take on returning to IMS each May, the 53-year-old seems ready to take the baton and run with it.
“It is a magnificent event run by great people. What is the downside?”
And it seems that I can see, nothing wrong with that at all.
Images courtesy of Karl Zemlin/INDYCAR Media.