Brains Trump Beauty for 500 Fest Princesses

With selection of the 500 Festival Queen set for Saturday, contestant Sydney Willmann details the rigors of competing for the honor.
2013 500 Festival Princesses

Hasn’t anyone ever told you that looks aren’t everything? Girls, put down your mascara and pick up your pencils. In today’s world, brains trump beauty. But what about the pageants? you wonder. For 500 Festival Princesses, the glamorous ambassadors of racing’s greatest spectacle, a pretty face is only a small part of the equation. Among the college-aged women who compete each year for the 33 coveted positions are future doctors, lawyers, and teachers.

Becoming a princess requires a solid resume. How solid? Oh, you know, just the typical stuff: Several internships, community leadership roles, school involvement, and an honors society membership. Just to name a few of the criteria. The 237 girls who didn’t make the cut this year can attest to the difficulty of qualifying.

Some will be back to try again next year. That’s what IUPUI journalism student Sydney Willmann did, before receiving her tiara this year. The 21-year-old senior is president of her sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha, heavily involved with student life, and juggling two internships. “I decided to apply again because I love racing, and I didn’t want to give up on something I’ve wanted to do for so long,” says Willmann.  

The competition is grueling. Each year, in late January, candidates face two interviews on the same day by separate judges, but only after filling out a lengthy online application, crunching out several essays, and sending in transcripts, references, and a photo (for identification purposes, Sydney says). After the January interviews, the girls wait nervously for results that same evening from the judges. Good news is given to 66 finalists, who are scheduled for a final interview in early February.

Once princesses, the girls attend IMS and Indy 500 events and travel Indiana for outreach activities, visiting nursing homes, reading to elementary-school classes, and spending time with patients at Riley Hospital for Children. “I’ve personally visited elementary schools, cooked breakfast at the Ronald Mcdonald House, done award assemblies, and much more,” says Willmann.

And the contest isn’t over when princesses are chosen. After an additional interview and public speaking competition, the 500 Festival Queen is announced at the annual Breakfast at the Brickyard event, held this Saturday on May 18 at 8:30 a.m. Sure, the $2,500 scholarship, G. Thrapp Jewelers crown, and exclusive honor is enough to make any college girl go coo coo, but for most candidates, the princess experience is rewarding enough. “The ultimate goal of a 500 Festival Princess is not to be the Queen,” says Willmann. “It’s to represent the 500 Festival and Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a positive light.”

Yes, racing remains a male-dominated sport, but the 500 Festival has clearly given girls the right idea of what it means to be a princess. 

Breakfast at the Brickyard:  May 18, 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., $60. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Plaza Pavilion, 614-6400,