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I was a lifelong Hoosier, and I’d never been to the Indianapolis 500.
Admitting that is almost blasphemous, I know. But it’s not like I had an utter disregard for the sacred Indiana tradition. Every year I would get together with my family, place a few dollar bets on driver names I pulled out of a hat, and sit patiently before a TV waiting for the race to start. I always got excited when I saw Jim Nabors come on the screen, because it meant: 1. The race was about to start; 2. One of my childhood heroes, the ridiculous naif Gomer Pyle, was about to serenade me with his beautiful baritone rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
You see, I grew up watching Andy Griffith Show reruns with my mom most mornings. So it was a real shazam! moment earlier this spring when, as an intern at IM, I got the chance to interview Jim Nabors over the phone for a goodbye Q&A before his final performance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Jim and I had a long, lovely conversation, and I hung up the phone feeling an even greater fondness for the Indy 500 icon. So afterward, when IM signed me up for media credentials to attend my first-ever race, I had a clear mission:
Find and talk to Jim Nabors, in person, at all costs.
As it turned out, finding him was the easy part. IMS had Jim scheduled for appearances throughout the weekend, milking his last visit for all it was worth. I thought his first planned engagement, on the morning of Carb Day, was my best chance. Surely the track wouldn’t be that packed a few days before the race?
Wrong. By 10 a.m., I was surrounded by so many drunks, I felt buzzed from breathing the same air.
It didn’t matter, though, because I arrived just in time to hear Jim answer questions from fans at the Pagoda Plaza. He was his usual charming self, signing autographs and posing for pictures, and he played to the crowd by making golly! the first word out of his mouth. He fielded every random question, from what he’ll miss about the race (“the people” and “the engines starting”) to whether he would consider renting out a room at his home in Hawaii (he laughed and then politely ignored the question). The most moving moment was when the crowd sang “Back Home Again” to him. I joined in, straining my voice to be heard over the chorus.
Next stop was a public meet-and-greet at the Media Center. I raced after his golf cart, jumping through pedestrian traffic like it was a game of Frogger. I charged through the doors, but an imposing security guard, spying my media credentials, turned me away as Jim entered the conference room, with a promise to squeeze me in after the fans went through.
I camped outside and took pictures of Jim interacting with his admirers. Some would call that stalking. I call it perseverance.
But the end was in sight! I waited for more than an hour, until one last man stood in line. He had just won an argument with a lady guarding the front door, over not having an admission wristband. Just as I was about to jump in behind him, giddy as a fan-girl, the already irritated woman caught on to my scheme. She created a human barrier between me and Jim, and said the event was for fans, not the press.
(If I’m not a fan of Jim Nabors, I don’t know who is. I was yelling “citizen’s arrest!” at my parents before the age of 7.)
So I left Carb Day feeling dejected. Just as Helio Castroneves would a couple of days later, I had made it to the finish line but failed to claim the big prize.
I held no delusions about having better luck on race day. I got wind that Jim would be sitting for a press conference just 10 minutes before the session was set to begin. I grabbed a front-row seat and waited, as he reminisced about his first time singing at the Indy 500 in 1972 and admitted that he was trying not to get too emotional before his last race for fear he would “gargle the song.”
I was in perfect position to jump toward him as he exited the podium. I looked for my chance. When the press conference concluded, I sprung into action, yelling, “Hey, Jim, I’m the person who interviewed you for Indianapolis Monthly about a month back!” He came toward me, a big smile brightening his weathered face, and kissed me right on the cheek.
“It’s wonderful to finally put a face to your voice,” he said, and he draped his arm over my shoulders. My day would’ve been complete right there. Getting to hear him belt out Indiana’s unofficial song one last time was merely a bonus.
And I finally understood what makes the Indy 500 so magical: Anything can happen, and anyone can win.
» More: "Golly! Jim Nabors Gets Personal," Fudge's revealing Q&A with the Indy 500 icon.
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