She used to make believe she was a princess. Now, those fond childhood memories are giving way to a real-life royal experience. Franklin College sophomore Elaina Connell from Martinsville was selected as a 500 Festival Princess in February.
“I have known about the program my whole life. My mother was a Princess in 1996 and growing up I used to try on her sash. And my family has always been super into IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500,” Connell said.
When Connell became eligible to apply for the program for college-aged women, there was one factor motivating her above all. “My late grandfather, my mother’s father, was a huge racing fan. I thought becoming a Princess would connect me to him in ways no longer possible. It has been really emotional for me getting to engage in this role.”
Each year, hundreds of applicants vie for the opportunity to serve as a 500 Festival Princess, but only 33 women are chosen. The criteria include communication skills, academic performance, community involvement, commitment to service and leadership. Once selected, Princesses serve as ambassadors of the 500 Festival, their hometowns and their colleges/universities during the months leading up to the race. Princesses have many opportunities for leadership and professional development.
“We’ve been able to meet so many professionals who can open doors for us, from CEOs and 500 Festival Foundation directors to Indianapolis Motor Speedway staff and drivers. It’s cool to network with people I never would have met if I hadn’t been part of this program,” Connell said.
Connell has organized several activities to help spread the 500 Festival spirit.
“My favorite activity so far has been going back to my elementary school and visiting classrooms. One time I read the kids a book about racing and another time a book about princesses. We’ve also done coloring sheets and made tiaras. Each time, I explained the race on an elementary level and talked about how race history has been an important part of being a Hoosier.”
Besides classroom visits, there have been opportunities to pair up with other Princesses for events in their hometowns.
“Princesses are so diverse it’s amazing. We’re all pursuing different careers and representing different parts of Indiana. We realize we’re all in this together, yet we’re all so different,” Connell said.
“The Princess experience is so much more than I expected it to be, but in the best way possible,”
Another benefit is the college scholarship provided by the 500 Festival Princess Program. Connell majors in biology with an emphasis on biomedical sciences, and she is part of the pre-veterinary medicine program. She works part time at an animal hospital in Franklin. She also is a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority, Passion for Paws and Best Buddies; the latter two are advocacy organizations.
From among the Princesses, the 500 Festival Queen will be selected and announced during Breakfast at the Brickyard on May 20, the week of the race. Racing fans, business leaders and Indiana mayors will attend. Regardless of the outcome, Connell is grateful to be part of the 500 Festival Program legacy started in 1959.
“Getting to share excitement about the Indianapolis 500 racing tradition that has been so important to my family is the best part of all,” Connell said.
On race day, Connell will join all the Princesses to watch from a suite overlooking Victory Lane. She will be rooting for her favorite IndyCar driver, Hélio Castroneves, to achieve a record-breaking fifth win.
For more information, contact the Franklin College Office of Communications at (317) 738-8185.
POSTED May 2, 2023