Walking in footsteps of 81 years of band students preceding them, members of the Purdue "All-American" Marching Band takes its own parade lap around the famous 2.5 mile oval track at the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 27, and plays for the race’s opening ceremonies.
Purdue’s band and its World’s Largest Bass Drum - which celebrates it’s 80th birthday in 2001 - are also featured in the 500 Parade which begins at noon Saturday, May 26, at North and Pennsylvania and winds its way through the downtown Indianapolis.
It was the marching band’s first director, Paul Spotts Emrick, who forged the initial relationship with the Indianapolis 500 in 1919, the race’s ninth year of existence. Always interested in promoting his band and Purdue, Emrick leapt at the chance to be associated with the young race that was quickly establishing an international reputation. At that time the band was a military unit of men enrolled in Reserve Officer Training Corps at Purdue.
"We played for the Indianapolis 500 every year," recalled Marcus Gilbert, a 1925 graduate in the band’s history book Hail Purdue. "We’d ride down on the Monon railroad or buses the day before, and the boys would get to see the town. The Purdue Band always leads the parade."
In 2001, there are 21 bands participating in the Parade of Bands that begins at 8 a.m. at the track on race day. "That’s the most bands we’ve had in the last decade," says Purdue director David A. Leppla. Each year Purdue invites bands to participate in the event dominated by high school musicians.
This year Tri-County High School from Monon represents the Greater Lafayette area. For the first time, a junior high band will join the parade, the Batavia Middle School Marching Band from Batavia, Ill. The only other university participating is Ohio State which brings its Spring Athletic Band.
Only the Purdue band plays for the opening ceremonies. It will back up Steven Tyler, lead singer of the 1980s rock group Arrowsmith, in the National Anthem. Following tradition, it will perform "America the Beautiful" with Florence Henderson and "Back Home Again in Indiana" with Jim Nabors.
A new configuration of the grounds allows the band to play for the ceremonies in an area below the track’s pagoda shaped tower, rather than on the track itself as in years past. "It’s a much better position. We can set up so we can play better and sound better," Leppla says.
The 500 Parade was added to race activities in the mid 1950s, and the Purdue Band has performed in every parade. This year it will be one of 15 bands in Saturday’s two-hour parade themed "Home of Champions." A crowd of 300,000 is expected for the annual event, which is broadcast live on Channel 18 out of Lafayette, and tape delayed on Channel 8 out of Indianapolis (check your local listings for exact time.)