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Thunder Over Louisville flirts with record turnout

LOUISVILLE — When all the counting is done, this year's opening ceremonies of the Kentucky Derby Festival could be the biggest ever.

With the Louisville metro area having some of its best weather of the year and people looking for free entertainment during a national recession, the situation was perfect for setting a record.

An estimated crowd of 800,000 turned out in 1997, said Thunder Over Louisville producer Wayne Hettinger.

The high temperature was in the mid-70s Saturday and the sky was clear or partly cloudy all day, which also helped keep the air show segment of the celebration on schedule.

"It's going picture perfect," Hettinger said. "We're nailing the time slots we had them scheduled for."

Fans came out early Saturday and kept on coming right up to the fireworks show.

"We're looking over the crowd here, and it continues to build for the fireworks," Hettinger said about 8 p.m.. "It looks like we're going to match or exceed (the record) because there's wall-to-wall people."

Sean Kuyper, 27, traveled about 180 miles from Lafayette, Ind., to arrive in Louisville about 9:45 a.m and stake out a space at the edge of the Ohio River, right under where the fireworks would be going off about 12 hours later. He was ready to spend the day, equipped with chairs, a grill, an umbrella, a table, cooler and storage bin.

Kuyper has been to nearly every Thunder Over Louisville since it began 20 years ago, he said.

"It's a great show," he said. "I'm getting to the point where I like both the fireworks and air show equally. Before it was just for the fireworks, but now the air show is really good quality too."

Kuyper wasn't nearly the first one there, he said.

People had staked out and roped off plots on nearly every square inch of the Great Lawn by 11 a.m. Shirtless men and women in bikini tops enjoyed the early sun before clouds dotted the sky.

Daryl Arend, 53, of Louisville was enjoying a deal offered by the Louisville Bats baseball team. A friend of a season ticket holder, Arend was able to park in the Slugger Field lot, watch the game between the Bats and the Indianapolis Indians, and afterward watch the show from the ballpark or walk to the riverfront.

"For $5, I'm practically there," he said.

The crowd that was attracted by the spring weather was also expected to clog up the streets as people tried to get home.

One tactic for Thunder visitors to navigate the crowd was not to get in it.

Kuyper would stay in his spot on the river for about an hour after the fireworks and wait for the rush to subside before making his way home.