By TOM MURPHY
Associated Press Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jim Nabors was back home in Indiana on Sunday.
Heart trouble kept the crooner and actor who played Gomer Pyle from singing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year. Sunday, hundreds of thousands of fans welcomed back the 77-year-old for the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500. He performed the traditional “Back Home in Indiana” minutes before the race that was run in near perfect weather.
“It’s always the main part of my year,” the 77-year-old Nabors said. “I look forward to it more than anything.
“It just thrills you to your bones.”
Susan Holdren of Indianapolis hurried past the pit stops before Nabors sang so she could wave her “Welcome back Jim!” sign. He smiled and nodded as he walked onstage to loud applause.
“I’m very much a Jim Nabors fan,” she said. “It just makes the race.”
Nabors has made nearly every race since 1972, but several celebrities, including Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, were at the track for the first time. Actress Jenna Elfman rode in Saturday’s pre-race parade and attended the SnakePit Ball.
“Today’s the real deal,” she said. “When those cars get started, and everyone’s heart gets pumping, that’s what it’s going to be about.”
For regular folks, getting to the track for the first Indy 500 since the reunification of the two American open wheel racing series proved tough. Traffic choked roads near the Speedway hours before the race’s 1:11 p.m. start.
T.J. Perry, of Carmel, said it took him nearly twice as long to make it to the track this year because of the clogged roads.
“It’s just great to see a lot of people out here at the race, the tradition of the Speedway,” said the 33-year-old Perry, as he sipped a beer a couple of hours before the green flag waved. “It’s good to see reunification, now we just need to see a great race.”
First-time visitors Rodrigo Iglesias of Indianapolis and Alddo Molinar of Cleveland took time to cruise past rows of Chevrolet Corvette pace cars parked in an infield parking lot.
“We’re pulling for Danica,” Molinar said.
“’Cause she’s hot,” his buddy added.
“It’d be good to have a girl win this thing, actually,” Molinar said.
The reunification was a hot topic for some veteran fans. Jeremy Dickerson of Lebanon has been to about 10 races and said he was looking for a more competitive field this year.
“You don’t get those fly-by-night guys who only come in for one race,” he said.
Dickerson said the crowd seemed bigger, but he thinks reunification has yet to sink in with all the fans.
“Next year, I think is when everyone will start realizing it’s unified,” he said.
Doug Green of Salt Lake City credited the sunny, warm day for the bigger crowd.
“This is the nicest weather we’ve seen in three or four years,” said Green, who has been to 10 races. “I kind of feel like I’m in San Diego.”
The Speedway doesn’t divulge attendance, but fans packed the bleachers and grandstands and filled the infield inside the 21/2-mile track.
Former Indy 500 champion Arie Luyendyk said the crowd was the biggest he had seen in years. Olympic gold medalist and recent “Dancing with the Stars” winner Kristi Yamaguchi called the track scene “unbelievable.”
“I’ve been to opening ceremonies for the Olympics and everything, but this is just jaw-dropping,” she said. “I’ve never been in front of 400,000 fans before.”
Honored guests also included several recipients of the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest decoration. Tibor Rubin earned his during the Korean War by keeping himself and 40 other prisoners alive inside a Chinese prison camp. The 79-year-old Hungarian native used his experience in the Auschwitz concentration camp as a boy during World War II to help him survive.
“It’s beautiful,” he said of his first Indy 500. “So many nice people.”
By TOM MURPHY