Purdue brings continued impact to Indy 500
The ties between Purdue University and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including the Indy 500, are many and very significant. From the Purdue All-American Marching Band to the technology that fuels the cars on the track to members of the teams looking to take the checkered flag, the Purdue presence at the Speedway is very big.
“Purdue is part of the fabric of the Indianapolis 500,” said Jay Gephart, director of bands at Purdue. “I can’t think of the Indianapolis 500 without actually thinking about Purdue being a very important part of it, and I think that’s what a lot of race fans feel also.”
It all started in 1919. The Purdue All-American Marching Band paved the way as the first band to play as part of Race Day ceremonies. And over a century later, the tradition continues.
Gephart said Purdue participating in the 500 festivities isn’t just important to the race, it has become an important tradition for students.
“My students who are selected to play in the ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ band consider it to be one of the greatest honors that can be afforded as a Purdue band member, of course accompanying some of the great artists to singing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana,’ ‘God Bless America,’ ‘America the Beautiful,’ [and] ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,'” Gephart said.
Gephart, who has been involved in nearly 30 Indy 500 race weekends, said each year is just as exciting as the first. He said Jim Nabors, who famously sang ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ at the race for decades, told him the story of Nabors’ first performance.
“When he came to Indianapolis the first time, he thought he was actually going to sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and it wasn’t until he arrived that he found out that he was singing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana,'” said Gephart. “And he said he didn’t know the words…so he wrote them on the palm of his hand, and as he performed, he was singing and looking at his hand. So that’s one of the most fun stories.”
But Purdue’s ties to the track don’t end with the band.
Over the years, Purdue has sent hundreds of engineers to the Indy 500, and a lot of those engineers got their start in a go kart on campus. Purdue’s own big race, the annual Grand Prix, also dubbed the greatest spectacle in college racing, is a tradition that started all the way back in 1958.
That engineering tradition has spurred some of the greatest minds in racing. Angela Ashmore is a Purdue graduate and the first female IndyCar crew member to win it all when Marcus Ericsson took the checkered flag last year.
Ashmore said she wanted to be involved in racing when she was five years old. She decided to study mechanical engineering at Purdue.
“The education [at Purdue] is second to none,” said Ashmore. “It’s a great engineering school. Coming out of Purdue, when you have that on your resume, there’s not really a question about where your skill set is.”
When asked about her favorite part of the job, Ashmore said she loves Race Day.
“You win publicly and you also fail publicly, but I just like starting the day on even terms with let’s say 30 other cars,” she said.
Ashmore said she wants to help her team become a repeat Indy 500 winner. While there’s still more than a week left before the race, the team is making good on that effort; Ericsson topped the speed charts on Thursday’s practice with a 39.1974-second lap at more than 229 miles per hour.