It was during a recent routine drive home when I was taken back to a spring morning in 1987.
There I was, navigating a familiar stretch of Binford Boulevard in Indianapolis in my Grand Cherokee, when I was suddenly transported to the shotgun seat of my mom’s 1985 Chevy Malibu. Music has a way of doing that.
As Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life” streamed through the speakers of my car radio, the memories of 1987 came flooding back to me. I don’t know why that tune struck the chord – its mandolin harmonies were a pedestrian hit 30 years ago – but there I was, reliving the mornings en route to an eighth-grade day at Eastwood Middle School.
Indianapolis was a different place in those days. Steve Alford was the Hoosier hero embarking on delivering Bob Knight his NCAA basketball title with my beloved Indiana Hoosiers. Indiana basketball was the dominant sports story of the era, but there was hope that the recent acquisition of superstar running back Eric Dickerson could elevate the newcomer Colts out of national football obscurity. The programs of the Pacers’ ABA championship days were beginning to fade, and Reggie Miller was just a gangly kid out West rivaling Alford as college basketball’s best sharpshooter before Miller would become Indiana’s first-round pick in that year’s NBA draft.
As a kid growing up in Indiana, I always wore my home state as a badge of pride, hopeful a successful season from one of its teams would give me bragging rights during annual spring break trips in warmer climates.
To live in Indiana is to realize and embrace Hoosier pride as a piece of who we are. Sure, I had moments where Hoosier accomplishment was on display for the world to see. Americans read Kurt Vonnegut by day and watched Dave Letterman by night. But to grow up Hoosier is to grow up with a purpose; a purpose to prove that the pulse of the country can truly emanate from the heartland.
It’s why I love the Indianapolis 500. Regardless of what took place in the rest of the sports calendar, I knew of one sports certainty during my upbringing: one day a year its focus was on the “Crossroads of America.” And unlike the ‘84 Hoosiers or the ‘81 Pacers or the ‘95 Colts, I always knew that the Indianapolis 500 never came up short.
Which takes me to Jim Nabors. It was at the 1972 Indy 500, just four months before perhaps the proudest Hoosier (yours truly) was born in Indianapolis, that Nabors first sang of dreaming about the moonlight on the Wabash. When Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman first asked Nabors to do the honors, on race morning as the story goes, the Alabamian didn’t know it was “Back Home Again in Indiana” that he’d be performing. Yet, he did.
Did he ever. It became a staple at the Brickyard, a fan-favorite tradition at an event steeped in events that capture the depths of human emotion.
It is my opinion that a person’s legacy is measured by the connection they’ve made with people. Jim Nabors’ recent passing was mourned by all who knew of his contributions to the world of entertainment. Even as an American treasure, Nabors left a legacy woven into the cultural fabric of five U.S. states.
You don’t have to stop in his hometown of Sylacauga, Alabama, to see Nabors’ impact. You need only recognize that you drive through it on Jim Nabors Highway. After moving to California, Nabors portrayed his signature Gomer Pyle character on two 1960s TV shows by exhibiting the innocence and congeniality that defines the personalities of North Carolina (where fictional Mayberry was located in “The Andy Griffith Show”). He later retired to his adopted home state of Hawaii.
Yet, it was Indiana that he sang as home. In doing so, his voice annually unified a collection of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom came from the other side of the Wabash. For those 75 or so seconds, he turned everyone into a Hoosier, allowing us native to Indiana to beam with pride that, if for no other time than that moment, everyone came together to be one of us. In the moment of his song, it was we who were neighbors, bonded by a moment we’d waited a year to share once again.
It’s the one moment I never miss on the televised race replay shown on the Indianapolis ABC affiliate that evening. Every year, I watch the camera shots into the helmets of the drivers set to embark on a 500-mile journey, and every year I wonder, “Do they hear him singing?”
And every year, I convince myself they do. Music has a way of doing that – of bringing an emotion that can permeate even the greatest focus.
It was a tremendous gift that Jim Nabors gave to the world’s greatest sporting event. Others will sing the song, but it will always take us back to his magic. Back in the high life.
I’ll think of Jim Nabors during the 2018 rendition. Music takes you back that way. Sure, I’ll wish he was with us. But as I sing along, I’ll do so with a smile.
Jim Nabors is finally back home again.
(Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.)