Unlike many individuals, I don't have a specific remembrance of the first time I heard Jim Nabors sing "Indiana" at the 500. For many of us 30 or 40-something midwesterner types, I suspect that's because it has seemed as if Jim Nabors has always been a part of the Indianapolis 500. It was just a given; since 1972, he's performed just before the race 33 times (a fitting number, I suppose). The years where he wasn't there seemed an anomaly, just a blip in an otherwise solid Indy tradition.
Honestly, for many years, Jim Nabors performing was sort of an afterthought to me--something that I knew was part of the overall festivities, but didn't really do much for me, outside of the fact that I liked the idea of the tradition. As I became a snotty teenager, my interest in the 500 and open wheel racing waned for a few years.
Flash forward a few years, and I am in the middle of a deployment with the United States Air Force. I'm thousands of miles from home, missing my family, my state, and my country desperately. One Sunday, I tune in to a grainy, unreliable Armed Forces Network feed. There on that fuzzy screen, singing "Indiana", was Jim Nabors. I absolutely broke down. In that simple performance, he encapsulated everything I loved--and missed--about home, growing up, and the Indianapolis 500.
Every year, from my seat in J-Stand, I see men and women from every walk of society--biker and lawyer, dentist and couch-burner--tear up when Jim Nabors sings. I know that for many of them, like me, that song is hitting them right in the heart. There's a moment in "Indiana" where all the longing, all the great memories, and the joy of being somewhere special come together into a feeling that can't quite ever be precisely described. Sharing that feeling--even if we can't quite name it--with 250,000 of your newfound closest friends just heightens it.
We live in a cynical world, one where sometimes something simple and sweet can often only be loved if it is in the "ironic" sense. I think there is often a tendency to think of matters such as an attachment to Jim Nabors, or "11 rows of 3", or the Gordon Pipers, as somehow dismissively provincial, equating anything not understood by the wider public as somehow without merit or meaning. How wrong they are.
I've seen people laugh at the idea that there's somehow meaning in having Jim Nabors sing before the race. I've seen people refer to Jim Nabors as out-of-date or needing replaced by some newer act. I don't think that's the case. Whomever follows Jim Nabors (they can't replace him) should have the same sentimentality, the same straightforward spirit in singing, and that same intangible ability to evoke the best feelings of home, happiness, and memory. I like to believe there is still a place for earnestness in the world, for pure enthusiasm and joy, untempered by cynicism or the prevailing fashions of the world. For me, Jim Nabors singing "Indiana" embodies much of that.
We are lucky to have Jim Nabors one more year at the Indianapolis 500. I hope that he finds as much happiness and remembrance in his last performance as he brought to so many of us for so many years.