By Les Morris
With Hamilton County buried in snow from an early February storm, it seems appropriate to daydream about May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The roar of cars turning laps at 230 mph in a kaleidoscope of color in front of hundreds of thousands of fans is just months away, even if the frozen landscape indicates otherwise.
The traditions of the month include much more than the automobile race, of course. Central Indiana residents and the visitors who flock here each year recognize a certain cadence to May – the Mini-Marathon, Qualifying Day, “Carb Day,” the parade and, finally, the race – now run in less time than it takes to watch an Indianapolis Colts game.
Because of the pandemic, it’s been nearly two years since many of the events have taken place, but leaders of the 500 Festival, a nonprofit that organizes community events in anticipation of the race, are ready for their return in 2022.
“It’s hard to know how the public is going to respond,” 500 Festival President and CEO Bob Bryant said. “In early forecasting, we thought we’d be at 70 percent of 2019 (numbers), but a lot won’t play out until March and April, until we really see what the response is.”
The 500 Festival has 18 full-time employees who organize nearly 50 events and programs throughout the month of May, impacting more than 500,000 people annually. Bryant, a Carmel resident, said that approximately 1 million Hoosiers have run the Mini-Marathon at least once in its 45-year history.
The 500 Festival has three goals, according to Bryant: positively impact the community, enrich lives and celebrate the Indianapolis 500.
“That’s kind of the mother ship,” Bryant said of the world’s most famous auto race. “The success of the 500 is tied to our success.”
That “ship” is now owned by Roger Penske, and Bryant, who has been leading the 500 Festival since 2013, said it’s in good hands.
“Roger is a very community-minded person, and he absolutely loves the parade and several other events,” Bryant said. “He considers them as much of the tradition as what goes on at the track.”
Many of the 500 Festival’s events were inspired by a trip four Indiana business leaders took to Louisville in the spring of 1956. The businessmen watched the founding event of the Kentucky Derby Festival, a parade held before the famous horse race on the first Saturday in May. In an article earlier this year, the Louisville Courier Journal reported that the initial parade had a budget of $640 and was organized by just a “handful” of volunteers.
The Kentucky event must have made quite an impression. Twelve months later, more than 150,000 parade-goers lined the streets of downtown Indianapolis anticipating the 1957 Indianapolis 500, and a tradition was born.
Learn more at 500Festival.com.