August 1, 2017
The phrase "To the Track and Back" often describes the route of the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon; the half marathon tradition that travels to Indianapolis Motor Speedway and back. This story isn't about the Indy Mini. It's about a different tradition, a different race, where the phrase "To the Track and Back" has even more meaning.
Chris Morris grew up on the north side of Indianapolis. His father was an Indy 500 fan. Naturally, he was, too. The two bonded over the race and attended qualifications when Chris was a kid; a valuable part of his childhood memories.
The family would spend race day at his' grandparents' house in Pendleton. They'd listen to the race on the radio and release black and white balloons to celebrate. Cookouts and summer weather. Good food and good company. A typical Hoosier-style Memorial Day Weekend; physically together with family, mentally engaged at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"Sneva, Mears and Mario were the family favorites," Chris said.
Chris had the same emotional connection to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing that so many in Central Indiana share. It had been a part of him for as long as he could remember, but he hadn't been as invested in the race since becoming an adult. Then came the nudge.
"I saw Augie's interview and discovered the Education Program," Chris said. "I didn't know it existed before then. I remembered how I felt the first time I had been to the track and thought that I might be able to help other kids have the same experience that I did."
August "Augie" Ebeling - the 2016 500 Festival Volunteer of the Year - was featured in a WTHR story in April. He discussed his passion for volunteering with the 500 Festival over the past 10+ years, specifically with the 500 Festival & Indianapolis 500 Education Program, presented by IU Health. The Education Program brings thousands of Indiana's 4th Grade students out to the Speedway for a field trip and history lesson at the world's largest sports venue. Augie's passion found Chris, and Chris found the 500 Festival.
"Volunteering reignited some great memories for me. Years had come and gone since I'd spent any appreciable time at the track and my interest had waned. Being a direct part of the pre-race festivities invigorated my affinity and pride for Indianapolis and the Greatest Spectacle in Racing... I smiled a little each day because I knew how proud my Dad would be. He'd have been blown over by an opportunity to go where I got to go and see what I got to see."
Chris aided the 500 Festival during the month of April when all of the students - more than 12,000 during the month - came out to the Speedway for their study trips. Day after day, the buses filed into the Speedway next to Gasoline Alley. Some days, Chris would serve as a school guide leading students through the museum, the pagoda, the garages, or pit lane, watching their smiles as they experienced the track for the very first time. He had many different roles and memories as a volunteer, but one in particular stood out.
"At the start/finish line, I'd tell the kids about Victory Podium and that only the greatest racers in the world from the greatest race in the world got to go up there. Then, I'd pretend I could sneak them up if they could be very quiet and well-behaved. They loved it because they felt like they were getting away with something really cool that only they got to do."
From his first memories at the track to teaching the kids everything he knows, Chris' passion for Indy's most storied sports tradition came full circle. He's now a father to two boys who have been able to experience the track for themselves.
"... and they love it!"
Not only that, Chris was awarded the 500 Festival's "Outstanding New Volunteer of the Year" award and plans to continue volunteering in the years to come.
Welcome back to the track, Chris!
"Chris' story of why he decided to volunteer was awesome!... I happened to be in the Need for Speed station with Augie when Chris' school visited. Afterwards, he went up to Augie and told him how he saw his TV interview and heard his story of volunteering with the Education Program, and that is why he decided to get involved. After seeing that interaction and seeing how excited Chris was about the Indy 500 and the program, I knew he had to be a station leader. Chris came back to a handful of the remaining Study Trips and led the Yard of Bricks Experience station. His presentation was wonderful and he really engaged the students. The Education Program Study Trips wouldn't be possible without volunteers like Chris who take their time to share their passion and stories of the Indy 500 with the students."
Lauren Coyle, 500 Festival Education Program and Event Manager