History of 500 Festival

Celebrating the Spirit & Legacy of the Indianapolis 500

For more than six decades, the 500 Festival has shown commitment and excellence by producing a wide range of programs and events to unite the community in celebration of the Indianapolis 500.

In 1957, four Indianapolis businessmen got together and organized a parade and square dance gala, celebrating the Indianapolis 500. The men who set the framework for what is now one of the largest festivals in the nation are 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.

The parade was the 500 Festival’s first event back in 1957. More than 150,000 spectators lined the parade route in downtown Indianapolis. All 9,000 reserved chair seats were full. Just as today, the Boy Scouts handled seating. Indianapolis Power and Light had a float in that parade, and it has continued to participate in the parade ever since then.

Later that evening, over 500 people danced to Woody Herman’s Orchestra on the fifth floor of the Indiana Roof Ballroom for the Governor’s Ball. Tickets to the gala were $5 a couple. More than 60 years later, this pre-race Red Carpet event continues on under the name Off the Grid.

By the end of June 1957, 500 Festival organizers met to debrief and began planning for the next year’s events. Their mission was to create a bigger and better festival in 1958. This devotion and diligence continues to set the tone for the 500 Festival and our lineup of nearly 50 different programs and events held year-round. 


Interested in even more history?

You can view the timeline of the 500 Festival HERE.

To view photos, past programs, and other 500 Festival archived items, make sure to check the 500 Festival Digital Archival Collection, hosted courtesy of IUPUI’s Center for Digital Scholarship.


Parade History

It began in 1957 with four men who recognized the need to create a special event preceding the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. The committee felt the project should be a civic-oriented, annual activity keyed to the 500-Mile Race. The deadline to complete all the needed details for such an undertaking was set in stone to be up and running within 60 days. It was a mighty task, but where there’s a will, there had to be a way. The “dream-makers” conceived the name “500 Festival” and charted the steps they felt would be needed to launch the project. For the first Festival, only a parade, a ball and a square dance were planned.

One of the three original events produced by the 500 Festival, the Parade, has grown to be one of the signature events in the U.S. each year. The AES 500 Festival Parade consistently ranks among the nation’s top three parades, among the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

The first year, both the parade and the ball were held on the same evening at 7 p.m., the night before the race. Units of the parade included nearly every high school band in the Indianapolis area, the Purdue University Marching Band, various marching units and clowns from the Murat Temple, the Indianapolis Police Department Motorcycle Drill Team, the Culver Military Academy Black Horse Troop, marchers from the Guard’s 38th Division and other local military organizations, 20 floats and all 33 pace cars. Actress Cyd Charisse, wrapped in ermine, and Hugh O’Brien, television’s “Wyatt Earp,” perched on the backs of convertibles and waved to a crowd of over 150,000 people lining the parade route.

Today, the 500 Festival has grown to encompass the nation’s largest half marathon and one of the nation’s premier parades. The month-long celebration culminates a year of planning by volunteers guided by the 500 Festival, a not-for-profit organization directed by a board of 35 community leaders and operated by a full-time staff of 18. Approximately 3,000 volunteers help coordinate the AES 500 Festival Parade, while nearly 300,000 parade goers line the streets of Indianapolis to watch. Today’s Parade is made up of more than 80 entries, including celebrities, race car drivers, floats, bands, balloons and specialty units.

The journey that started with a handful of civic-minded individuals has created a history that all Hoosiers can look to with pride, a sense of involvement and a growing feeling of community accomplishment.


100th Running Celebration Mural at the 500 Festival Building

Artist Carl B. Leck pays homage to the historical significance of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the 500 Festival by contrasting the past and the present.

This vibrant mural design highlights the evolution of the Indy 500 by representing the original Pagoda, the Marmon Wasp, and the winning Indy car from 1969, which marked a turning point in IndyCar design with the addition of bolt-on wings and rear-mounted engines.

Sitting proudly, front and center of the mural design is the modern IndyCar adorned with the 500 Festival’s logo on the nose, as it crosses the finish line first. Following in step, the marching band signifies one of the 500 Festival’s original events, the AES 500 Festival Parade. Racing to the finish line, runners from the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon signify one of the nation’s most beloved half marathons. Both events representing the 500 Festival’s mission to produce life-enriching events and programs while celebrating the spirit and legacy of the Indianapolis 500 and fostering positive impact on the city of Indianapolis and state of Indiana.