If you have visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing at any time between 1985 and the present, you have most likely heard the smooth, warm voices of Dave Calabro and Jim Nabors.
Calabro, a fan of the Speedway first before eventually joining the public address team in 1985, was fortunate enough to befriend the legendary Nabors through years of announcing him to the Indianapolis 500 crowd before the singing of (Back Home Again in) Indiana.
From what started as a professional affiliation at the track grew into a friendship that spanned over 30 years, coming to a close with Calabro breaking news of the late Nabors’ death this past Thursday. Recalling the emotions of the day, the impact that each man had on the other could be felt in Calabro’s words following the announcement.
“It was just great sadness for everyone involved in IndyCar that we lost a good friend and a huge supporter of open-wheel racing and the Indy 500,” said Calabro. “He was just a gentle, compassionate guy. You would never know how famous he was and how big of a Hollywood star he was if you just sat down and had lunch with him, because he was just such a normal, down to earth guy.”
During Calabro’s first Indianapolis 500 as a member of the public address team, one of his three jobs that day was to announce Nabors preceding his performance of Indiana. “I just remember I was nervous as all get out that I was introducing this guy because I knew of the tradition,” Calabro recalls. “It went okay and when I got done, (Jim) looked at me and shook my hand. He said ‘hey kid, you’ve got a great voice, you should keep doing this!’ So that was kind of our running joke.”
Over time the two would become friends through their encounters backstage at the 500, killing time while they waited patiently to step into the madness that is pre-race at the Indianapolis 500. Eventually becoming close with each other’s families, they developed a friendship that is as unique as any that Calabro has.
While songs such as Indiana and Taps hold a special place in the hearts of many during the pre-race festivities, it is Nabors’ performance that would draw the most emotion from the ever-focused Calabro.
“I grew up two miles from the track and I have been a track rat since I was a kid… I still remember being at the race in 1977 in the infield singing along and being a fan,” says Calabro. “Having a chance to (announce the Indiana singer), it is emotional for me too. I have to keep my emotions in check and when I do all of that, I have to go moment-by-moment because you can get overwhelmed.
“It’s family, it’s tradition, it’s quite an honor to get to do that.”
In 2012, Nabors was unable to travel from his Hawaii home to Indianapolis for the race due to impending heart valve surgery. Calabro was tasked with visiting “Gomer” and bringing him to a recording studio so that a copy of Indiana could be played before the 2012 Indianapolis 500. Citing a lack of communication, what followed was a story that the two would laugh about for years.
“The year he didn’t sing, I flew over to Hawaii and met a photographer. It was hilarious because Jim thought we had arranged for a recording studio, and we thought that Jim had arranged for a recording studio,” said Calabro, chuckling as he tells the story. “I walk into his house and he’s talking about, ‘Hey! Where are we going to dinner, how long are you staying, how is your family?’ And I said well, we have to get this song recorded first, and then we can do all of that. He says, ‘Cool, where are we going?’ and I ask ‘I don’t know, where are we going?’ and he says ‘Oh (crap).’”
Calabro continues the story, telling of how Nabors didn’t have a piano at this home in Diamond Head and that they staged the performance in an entryway within the house. “It was just beautiful, and the acoustics in there were incredible,” recalls Calabro. While Nabors is preparing for the recording, he asks if Calabro can help him get on pitch. Dave responds that he “can’t sing a lick,” and they ended up using a recording of Indiana on Calabro’s iPhone to help Nabors set the tone.
“He sang it twice… It took us ten minutes and we were done,” said the longtime WTHR anchor.
Recalling various visits to his friend’s homes in Hawaii, Calabro speaks to the impressive collection of memorabilia found within Nabors’ residence. “He has a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii on the ocean that is straight out of heaven… This guy’s house was like a museum of Hollywood, politics and sports.
“I remember he had a Michael Jackson Thriller album that Michael had sent him, and it said ‘Hey Jim, I just recorded this album. Give it a listen and see what you think, love, Michael.’” Calabro, inquiring on the late Nabors unique piece of music history asked, “how do you know Michael Jackson?” Jim calmly responded that Jackson “grew up around the corner from me… (Michael) used to ride his bike in my driveway in California.” Nabors even had autographed cleats from football legend Johnny Unitas.
While you may know him from either his role as “Gomer Pyle” on the Andy Griffith Show or as the singer of (Back Home Again in) Indiana at the Indianapolis 500, it is easy to understand that there are people that cannot be replaced in this world, and Jim Nabors is one of them. As it were, he was just a guy that happened to be famous, and each of us are better for knowing him. Dave Calabro was even luckier to call him a friend.
“He had an incredible life, he did so many incredible things.”
From all of us at Open-Wheels and on the behalf of fans of the Indianapolis 500, rest in peace Gomer.