Good Nabors

Avian refugees, scooter scofflaws, and the Indy 500’s signature song. Ask The Hoosierist.

Q: How did Jim Nabors get the “Back Home Again in Indiana” singing gig at the start of the Indy 500?
Alice P., Carmel

A: TV’s Gomer Pyle owes his pre-race role to an incident in 1972, when legendary Speedway boss Anton “Tony” Hulman asked him to participate in the opening ceremonies. But Tony didn’t approach him months in advance like regular folks would. Instead he walked up to Nabors (who was attending the ’72 race as a spectator) and asked him if he’d like to “sing the song.” Nabors, figuring it was “The Star-Spangled Banner,” said yes. It wasn’t until moments before his performance that he learned it was “Back Home Again in Indiana.” Ever the trouper, he wrote the lyrics on his hand and delivered a bang-up performance, earning a gig he’s honored for the better part of four decades. [Editor’s Note: Nabors won’t make it to the 2012 Indy 500 due to medical reasons.]

Sure his days as an A-lister are long past, but Nabors has never mangled the song by injecting his own “personal flair” into a performance. Which can’t be said for some of the folks tapped to sing the national anthem. Consider the rendition by Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler at the 2001 Indy 500. His putrid version earned him the No. 7 spot on Billboard magazine’s list of the 10 worst national-anthem performances ever.

Q: I think I saw a pelican at Eagle Creek Park. Is that possible?
Tracy K., Indianapolis

A: While most nautical birds see Indiana merely as flyover country, two varieties of pelican routinely make summer stopovers at Eagle Creek: the oceangoing American white and the brown pelican. These migratory waterfowl treat our state as an avian Stuckey’s, stopping to rest and maybe slurp down a couple of bluegill before taking off for parts unknown.

If you’d like to see another nautical refugee, keep your eyes peeled the next time you visit a mall with an expanse of blacktop. You might notice that the birds perching on lampposts aren’t crows or starlings, but seagulls. “You can find the gull in all 48 [contiguous] states,” says Kevin Carlsen, a naturalist at Eagle Creek Park.

Locally, the two most common varieties are ring-billed and laughing gulls. The Hoosierist wonders if some of the breeds he’s encountered during coastal vacations, such as the Crap All Over My Rental Car gull, or the Steal My Sunglasses Off the Picnic Table gull, reside here too.

Q: Do you need a license to drive a motor scooter in Indiana? Any training?
Sheila O., Bloomington

A: All you need to hop on a small Vespa and make like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday is to be at least 15 years of age and possess a valid Indiana driver’s license. No training is required, but if you’re under 18, you have to wear a helmet plus glasses, goggles, or a face shield—an indignity to be sure, but no worse than being seen on a scooter in the first place.

The Indiana BMV doesn’t bother to register scooters with engines smaller than 50cc, so you’re free to roam where you will. Though The Hoosierist strongly advises against major roads or, God forbid, I-465. With a max speed of 25 mph, you’d wind up as a hood ornament on an Escalade.

Q: The downtown canal is once again choked by mounds of disgusting algae. Can it ever be eradicated for good?
Gerald R., Indianapolis

A: During a recent trip to White River State Park, The Hoosierist couldn’t help noticing an unnerving similarity between the sludge at the bottom of the canal and the velvety green grime clinging to the walls of his long-neglected aquarium. According to John Bartholomew, public information officer for the Department of Metropolitan Development, that similarity is no accident. The scum in the canal is basically the same crap that accumulates in fish tanks. Usually it abates during the cold months, but this year’s mild winter gave it a leg up. The entire canal, all the way to Broad Ripple, is lousy with the stuff. It’s only obvious downtown because of the waterway’s concrete bottom and relatively clear water. The green goo will probably abate over the summer, when it’s regularly zapped with chemicals. The city certainly hopes so, because scraping out the canal costs half a million bucks and is incredibly gross. That’s roughly the same reason (the “gross” part, not the “half a million bucks”) why The Hoosierist keeps putting off cleaning his aquarium.

Q: Is the Indy 500 still the biggest one-day sporting event in the world? These days it seems like there are way too many empty seats for that to be true. What’s the story?
Irene W., Indianapolis

A: Nobody knows for sure how many people attend the race, because the IMS doesn’t release attendance figures or reveal how many seats the facility contains. But it’s a safe bet that its position as the world’s best-attended one-day sporting event is firm. It’s all a matter of scale. Unless somebody lines the sides of the Grand Canyon with bleachers, it’s hard to imagine any venue matching the roughly quarter of a million butt coasters at the IMS. That’s the ballpark figure that track officials give, and it was roughly confirmed by a 2004 Indianapolis Star  investigation that counted every single seat, arriving at 257,325. To further put that number in perspective, a sellout at Daytona International Speedway is a comparatively laughable 169,000.

The only sports venue that could have rivaled the track was the Circus Maximus, a Roman chariot-racing facility. During its 4th century heydey, it could allegedly accommodate some 250,000 fans. However, as historians have pointed out, the bathroom lines were appalling, and the snack bars always ran out of nacho cheese.

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Illustration by Shane Harrison.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.