500 Festival History

Where It All Began

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 continue 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?

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.

By offering a wide variety of cultural, educational, and social events, the 500 Festival touches more than 500,000 people annually…and in meaningful ways. Its signature events – like the AES 500 Festival Parade and OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon – connect the community in large proportions…and showcase our city on a world stage.

As one of the nation’s largest festivals, 500 Festival events draw both exposure and people. Families from across the globe attend the AES 500 Festival Parade, which is nationally televised on NBC Sports Network. The AES 500 Festival Parade is one of the nation’s three largest, along with the likes of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Pasadena Tournament of Roses. One of only a few nationally televised parades, it attracts an estimated 300,000 curbside spectators – locals and tourists alike.

With over 30,000 participants, The Indy Mini is one of the nation’s largest half-marathons and one of Indiana’s largest health initiatives. The OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon alone draws more than 20,000 participants from outside greater Indianapolis, becoming more and more of a valuable tourism and economic impact driver. By getting nearly 35,000 people moving, we’re helping people focus on their health and well-being.

The 500 Festival is a self-funded, not-for-profit organization deriving its revenue streams from ticket sales, event registrations, sponsorship, and corporate memberships. Hundreds of local, regional, and national companies participate in a variety of ways. And it works.

 

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
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 represent the 500 Festival’s mission to produce life-enriching events and programs while celebrating the spirit and legacy of the Indianapolis 500 and fostering a positive impact on the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana.