AMA, Chris Gahl, Rev Chair

The executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Visit Indy had a personal reason for taking on the formidable task of running this month’s fundraising gala at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 4.
Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

With your big job at Visit Indy and a busy family life at home, your plate was full. Why add Rev to your to-do list?
I was asked last October by the immediate past chair of the event, Melina Kennedy, if I had an interest in taking the reins. I’ve attended Rev every year since its inception, and I care deeply about it. I spent a weekend praying about taking on the responsibility and felt moved to do it because Rev is a fundraiser for the Indiana University Health Foundation.

Why was the IU Health connection so important?
Melina unknowingly approached me immediately after I was released from my IU Health oncologist’s care for testicular cancer after some five years of treatment. I guess you could say I felt called to the task. I first saw Dr. Larry Einhorn within a week of being diagnosed. I’ve never felt so loved so quickly by another human being. Within minutes, he put my mind at ease. Through my work as an advocate for Indianapolis, I discovered he was one of the world’s leading oncologists, that men come from everywhere to be treated by him for testicular cancer.

Were you changed by that multiyear travail?
When I heard I had cancer, there was an immediate refocusing of my entire life and a reassessment of what’s important and where I want to invest my unrenewable resource— time. Although that focus has ebbed and flowed through the last five years, it still guides my thinking. I have my wife Catherine and 17- and 15-year-old sons, and nothing’s more important than them.

How does one orchestrate an event like Rev?
I started working on it in November! But I should mention that Rev has a full-time executive director, Carol Howard. She does year-round planning for this event. Over the past 10 years, it’s grown from about 1,000 attendees to more than 3,500. A lot of effort is put into making sure the best chefs donate their time and energy to make food, and we also place a big focus on getting great performers and artists for the two stages at the Speedway and the top IndyCar drivers to attend and mix and mingle with our community. It’s an incredibly impactful night for a cause that’s very close to me.

Anything new to look forward to this year?
Yes, nonalcoholic cocktails through a partnership with local company Loren’s Alcohol-Free Beverages. Also, we’re putting a Love Indy Lounge into place, open to all attendees. It’s a space celebrating all the art, culture, music, sports, and people who make Indy vibrant and welcoming to our visitors. And we hope to see Colts quarterback Anthony Richardson walk the red carpet, as well as Crime Junkie podcast host Ashley Flowers.

Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

In your opinion, what’s the best thing about Rev?
The behind-the- scenes access to the famed oval as the excitement of May is getting started. You are standing in the shadow of the Pagoda as the sun sets, tasting the best food in Indy with IndyCar drivers buzzing around. It’s a unique experience to be at the IMS at night and walk up to Scott Dixon or Hélio and ask how they’re feeling about May and take a photo. Dancing on the Yard of Bricks as the evening winds down puts you in the same spot that one driver, someone likely also at that dance party, will kiss just a couple of weeks later.

Guests can also go around the track in a two-seater race car. Have you done that?
This year’s IndyCar event co-chairs are Ed and Heather Carpenter, a couple Catherine and I are proud to call friends. More than 10 years ago, Ed, an IndyCar driver, drove me around. He didn’t waste time peeling out of pit row and onto the track. The right side of the car was inches from the bright white wall. It’s wild to go into a 90-degree turn and realize you’re blind to what’s ahead. The backstretch is peaceful. You hear wind. I vividly remember wondering, How does Ed do this for three hours with 32 other cars vying to get past him?

How different is Rev from the events you run with Visit Indy?
It actually mirrors how we pull off major events inside the Indiana Convention Center or at a hotel. This just happens to be at the IMS. In both cases, professionals set up and tear down everything. The difference is that with Rev, the majority of them are based here.

Is there a personal stamp you’d like to put on your edition of this event?
Two, in fact. I want everyone who sets foot at Rev to know the power of IU Health to save lives. I also want attendees to become more boastful, humbly boastful, about Indianapolis as a city. We’ve seen a decline in residents loving on Indy on social media. Some of that is lingering from the pandemic, but it’s also due to misperceptions about how our city is doing.

And how is our city doing?
Tourism is on the rise. Indeed, research shows that 2024 will be the city’s busiest year ever. Yet, there’s other research showing that the vibe of our residents is to be defensive or apologetic about the city. We’re looking to change that. That’s why I want to rally those who attend Rev to raise their voices a little more proudly about Indianapolis.

Nobody can say you don’t walk the walk, given that you and your family moved back here from Hawaii.
Catherine and I met at Butler. At the time we got married, my mom lived in Hawaii, so Catherine and I lived there while I was part-owner of a marketing firm promoting Hawaii tourism. In 2005, we decided to start a family, so I took a job at Visit Indy so that I could advocate for the city I grew up in and that I wanted my children to grow up in.

How’d you shift from selling Hawaii to selling Indianapolis?
Every city in the world competes for tourism and convention business. The main difference is with whom. Hawaii competes with Fiji, Tahiti, and Australia. Indy competes with San Antonio, Denver, and Dallas.

Do you think you’ll chair Rev again?
With Melina asking me to do this within two days of being declared cancer-free, now felt like the perfect time. However, this will likely be the only year I help out in an official capacity. Regardless, I’ll always look forward to being out at the most famed racetrack in the world kicking off the [Indy 500] Month of May.