Full throttle: 500 Festival’s full slate returns to benefit community, promote state’s most iconic event

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By Les Morris

For the first time in three years, the month of May will have a cadence with which central Indiana residents are familiar, the beat largely set by the extensive work of the 500 Festival, which since its founding has contributed more than $500 million in economic value to the community.

The 500 Festival, a nonprofit celebrating its 65th year in 2022, produces citywide events celebrating the spirit of the Indianapolis 500, which will be run May 29 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The fates of the Indianapolis 500 and the 500 Festival are so intertwined that Bob Bryant, CEO and president of the 500 Festival, refers to the race as the “mothership.”

“The beauty of the 500 is, it happens every year, and the festival is designed to leverage the value of that to ensure positive community development and growth,” Bryant said.

The genesis for the 500 Festival began with a trip a group of Indianapolis business leaders took to Louisville in 1956 to watch the founding event of the Kentucky Derby Festival, a parade held before the famous horse race run on the first Saturday of May in that city. Those four men were former Indianapolis Mayor Alex Clark; Joe Quinn, safety director for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; J. Worth Baker, Shrine potentate in 1957; and Howard Wilcox, promotions director for the Indianapolis Star. A year later, the first 500 Festival Parade was held along the streets of downtown Indianapolis before a throng of more than 150,000 people, and a tradition was born.

The Indianapolis Motorcycle Drill team participates in the 500 Festival parade. (Photos courtesy of the 500 Festival)

Bryant said the 500 Festival has three goals: To positively impact the community, enrich lives and celebrate the Indianapolis 500. Eighteen full-time employees run it all and organize nearly 50 events and programs throughout May, impacting more than 500,000 people annually. Bryant, a Carmel resident, said that approximately 1 million Hoosiers have run the Mini-Marathon, one of the month’s signature events, at least once in its 45 years of existence. This year’s Mini-Marathon will be May 7.

Bryant started as president and CEO in 2013 and is only the fourth person to hold the title in the organization’s history. He came to Indianapolis from Atlanta, where he served as the tournament director for the Atlanta Open, an ATP event featuring the world’s top men’s professional tennis players. He had previously held positions in sports marketing and media.

“The 500 Festival is a nonprofit organization with a mission of enhancing the community and enriching lives,” Bryant said. “That was appealing to me.”

The organization’s board of directors consists of 33 people (the same number of race cars that run in the Indy 500), who serve one term for six years. Bryant credits the group for shaping and framing the future for the 500 Festival. They’re also nimble.

“We have the flexibility to evolve based on what is relevant to the community or where we can make the most impact,” Bryant said.

One example is a focus on youth health and fitness, which has gained visibility in recent years. This year will once again mark the May 15 return of the 500 Festival Rookie Run and Kids’ Day for kids ages 3 to 10 in downtown Indianapolis.

Bryant is ready to go.

“We are very excited to bring back the in-person events and programs conducted by the 500 Festival this year,” he said. “Based on the success of our virtual events and content over the last two years, we felt confident that the community would respond favorably to the return of the events we produce as well as events at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

Learn more at 500Festival.com.

The Indianapolis 500 is set to be run May 29.

A busy month

May was on the calendar the last two years, but because of the many cancelations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it didn’t feel like the busy month it usually is for Hoosiers eager for the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend.

This spring, the 500 Festival’s full slate of May events leading up to the race is set to return, beginning May 7 with the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon and 5K.

More than 20,000 people are expected to participate, and according to Bob Bryant, CEO and president of the 500 Festival, interest is strong.

“We forecasted for numbers in the 75 to 80 percent range from 2019 and are happy to report surpassing those expectations,” Bryant said.

The Rookie Run and Kids’ Day will be held from noon to 4 p.m. May 15 in downtown Indianapolis. The noncompetitive run for kids ages 3 to 10 ranges from two blocks to a one-third mile. Pre-register for $10 through May 11 at IndyMini.com/RookieRun to receive a commemorative shirt and finisher medal. Registration at the event is $5 and only includes the medal.

Former IndyCar driver and current IndyCar analyst for NBC Sports James Hinchcliffe will be the featured guest at the 2022 500 Festival Breakfast at the Brickyard, to be held at 9:30 a.m. May 21 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Individual tickets cost $85.

Race weekend kicks off May 26 with the Memorial Service. On May 28, the AES 500 Festival Parade will march through the streets of downtown Indianapolis before hundreds of thousands of spectators.

Learn more and register for the events at 500Festival.com.

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