KOKOMO, Ind. — Jayden Emenhiser will attend her first-ever Indianapolis 500 this weekend in style, as a 500 Festival princess.
“I can’t wait to experience the race, meet people who also enjoy the traditions of the 500, and spend it with the other 32 other women I’ve had the opportunity to get to know for the past few months,” said the Indiana University Kokomo freshman.
“I’ve heard the race day festivities are second-to-none, and I’m very excited to see it in person,” she said.
Emenhiser, from Lafayette, and recent graduate Mattie Tom, are among 33 princesses representing 15 Indiana colleges and universities and 22 cities and towns across the state during 500 Festival activities this month.
For Tom, from Carmel, the highlight of the weekend will be riding in the 500 Festival Parade through downtown Indianapolis Saturday afternoon.
“Seeing everyone come together all across the state, in person, is going to be a very exciting time,” she said.
This week caps a busy month of activities leading up to the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 29. Their agenda includes the American Legion 500 Festival Memorial Service Thursday at the Indiana War Memorial, and an event Tom is hosting with Gian Paolo Dallara, president of Dallara IndyCar, to showcase virtual reality technology at its museum in Speedway.
For Tom, being selected as a princess brings her family history full circle. Her grandparents fled genocide in Macedonia, immigrating to Speedway in 1912. One of the ways they embraced their new hometown’s culture was by attending the race that year, a tradition their family continues to this day.
“I’ve been to the race every year since I was born,” she said. “When I was chosen as a 500 Festival Princess, it made my dad cry. It’s very special to me, too. Being able to celebrate my family’s history and the history of the Indianapolis 500 is really special.”
A biology major from Lafayette, Emenhiser applied for the program for the opportunity it gave her to advocate for the social platforms that matter to her including community service, leadership, mental health awareness, and education.
“The 500 Festival uses these as key pieces to help the community,” she said. “They allow us to engage with people who can help you create a better tomorrow. It’s an absolute honor to not only represent IU and IU Kokomo, but to represent the people, the experiences, and the opportunities I’ve had leading up to this that have shaped me and given me the chance to be where I am today. I’m loving every minute of it.”
She’s combined 500 Festival activities in May with Mental Health Awareness month in her outreach programs for children. She’s also helped at a Mini 500 tricycle race at a day care and cheered for participants at the Rookie Run children’s race that is part of the festival.
“My favorite part of being a princess is meeting new people and sharing their stories,” Emenhiser said.
Tom’s outreach programs have included a music and art therapy event with veterans at the VFW post in Carmel, and a Pay It Forward Friday, with a florist donating flowers to give away. She’s also used the opportunity to educate people about healthy lifestyle choices.
“My family has been affected by diabetes, so educating Hoosiers to take care of themselves, both mentally and physically, was really important to me,” she said. “Being on the forefront and being proactive to encourage people, or help drive them to possibly change their lifestyle, would mean a lot to me.”