Hornish Celebrates Day

Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. was honored by his hometown of Defiance, Ohio with a parade and rally on July 26.

Commemorative banners attached to lightposts flapped in the mid-summer evening breeze. Downtown merchants’ windows were painted with replicas of Hornish’s distinctive No. 6 Marlboro Team Penske car and congratulatory messages. A DVD of the final 30 laps of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” in which Hornish made a dramatic pass on the frontstretch to win by a car-length, was being looped through a television in another store window.

Thousands mingled on sidewalks and craned their necks out second-floor windows during the 40-unit parade of custom cars, marching bands, Shriners and even the Gordon Pipers. When the Chevrolet Corvette Pace Car of the 90th Indianapolis 500 -- with Sam Hornish Sr. driving and his son atop the rear seat -- passed, children waved miniature checkered flags and cameras recorded the moment.

An hour later, it appeared half of Defiance County congregated in a parking lot of Northtowne Mall for welcome remarks, thank yous and the unveiling of a more permanent recognition.

“Sam Hornish Jr. Day” might have been bigger in scope and civic pride than when President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended ceremonies for the laying of the Defiance College Library cornerstone on Oct. 14, 1953.

“He keeps putting Defiance on the map,” Ron Nagley said of Hornish, who is in contention for his third IndyCar Series championship.

“He’s still a small-town guy,” said Erick McCoy of Defiance, who attended the 500-Mile Race on May 28.

Even a family from Washington State was in attendance at the rally, holding a sign that read, “We drove 2,208 miles to support Sam,” which Hornish noted in his brief remarks to the crowd that spurned umbrellas during intermittent sprinkles. T-shirts reading “Samtastic” and “Sam Hornish Jr.; NW Ohio’s Hometown Hero” also caught the champion’s eye.

“I love Northwest Ohio and being back here as much as I can,” he said to a thunderous cheer. “I have a huge number of fans who have followed my career from the beginning, and I thank you for that. You’re a large part of my success.

“Sometimes at the races, I’m the driver who gets a bigger cheer during introductions than Danica (Patrick). That makes me so proud and the other guys jealous.”

Residents of Defiance, Archbold (where he graduated high school) and Napoleon (where he and wife Crystal live) have followed and supported Hornish since he began making a name in the karting ranks. Bus loads of “Sam Supporters” annually attend the IndyCar Series race at Michigan International Speedway, and more than 300 fans will watch the Firestone Indy 400 this weekend.

Defiance Mayor Bob Armstrong, who unveiled a granite monument recognizing Hornish’s achievement in May, said community spirit was displayed in organizing Sam Hornish Jr. Day.

“If you take a look at our community, something like this wouldn’t surprise you,” said Armstrong, who told the audience the monument would be placed in a city park. “In a happy occasion you see everyone turn out, and in a sad occasion everybody turns out. When we said let’s have a parade, everyone came together to make this the best we can.”

Even the Batmobile – the 1966 vehicle that Adam West drove in the campy TV series – was included in the parade, courtesy of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum in Indiana. “From one Superhero to another, congratulations Sam,” a sign read.

“It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s one of the things that comes with winning the Indy 500 so I’ve enjoyed it all,” Hornish said in a rare quiet moment. “I try to be a normal guy when I’m at home and live my life like anybody else. It’s kind of different for me to sit up there and have all these people waving and stuff. I’m really honored that they wanted to do all the things they have done for me.

“The community has always been a big part of coming to my races and my life outside Northwestern Ohio. It’s been a tremendous experience, and if they have more stuff to do the second time around I’d be more than happy to do it.”

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