More than sash and smiles

Meet your  local 500 Festival Princesses

Story by Lindsay Doty

With tiara in tow, 21-year-old Abby Zielinski rushes from her leadership program at Eli Lilly headquarters to a press interview on the west side. In between, she responds to e-mails about her upcoming volunteering schedule. For the 500 Festival Princess, the weeks ahead are jam-packed with school visits, meet-and-greets, fundraisers, a Riley Hospital event, the Mini Marathon, Kids’ Day, the Snakepit ball,  and, of course, preparation for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Zielinski –a double major in Neuroscience and Biology– is managing it all while balancing her class load at IU Bloomington.

“It’s a full-time job,” said Zielinski. “And I love it.”

The young lady from Danville is one of 33 college-aged women selected for the princess scholarship program that focuses on academic achievement, leadership, and community involvement.

She joins Stephanie Forsythe, an Avon native and junior at IUPUI who also has an impressive resume, as ambassadors for Hendricks County. The goal-oriented brunettes have more in common than their hair color and hometown pride. They’re in this with a plan: to advance their resumes.

Zielinski has a summer internship lined up at Eli Lilly and dreams of one day becoming a neurodegenerative scientist. She’s impressed with the business aspect of the crown.

“This program has been unbelievable. The leadership skills I’ve already gained, the network I’ve built in the community outreach that I’ve had the opportunity to pursue, it is such a well-rounded program and it helps bring 32 other fantastic women together and just give them the boost in life they need before they graduate,” said Zielinski.

Forsythe also hopes to benefit from that princess boost. The Avon High School graduate (who recently purchased a home in Brownsburg with her fiancé) is studying Event Management and isn’t afraid of hard work. She’s familiar with the behind-the-scenes of the 500 Festival after interning with the program last summer where she handled everything from major event coordination to trash pick-up. She looks at the crown as a career opportunity.

“For me, it’s a pretty humbling experience because I have seen all the work that goes into all these events and programs that the 500 Festival puts on. So then, to now be able to be on the other side and to give back and volunteer for all those events is so cool,” said Forsythe, who described the princess interview process as “nerve-racking” but worth it.

“I would love to work for the festival. I think my dream job would be to manage the princess program.”

Through their journey as princesses, both young women have discovered the tiara has power beyond business networking. It can make a difference with kids, especially little girls.

“It’s a feeling you can’t describe. The happiness overwhelms me,” said Forsythe who volunteers (in full tiara and sash) with a group of young children at Cedar Elementary in Avon as part of her community outreach. The children have emotional disabilities but Forsythe says they are warming up to their new class visitor.

“There’s this little girl who has come up to me to say ‘hi’ and we either color a picture or do something and she is very quiet,  so just the fact that she has come up to me on her own and been able to talk to me is really cool. It is really nice to see her smile and be that for her,” said Forsythe.

For Abby Zielinski, it was the Flashes of Hope event back in March in Indianapolis that benefits pediatric cancer patients by giving them a “princess day” of pampering that left a lasting impact on her. The college student says she didn’t realize how much of a difference she could make.

“It was the most amazing event that I’ve done. It was so uplifting to see. These little princesses who have gone through more than anyone of us could imagine, to be there just helping make their day. That has been one of my favorite events as a princess.” remembers Zielinski.

Spreading positive vibes and Indy 500 history is a big part of the princess program and being from Hendricks County, these ladies were introduced to race culture early on.

“Ever since I was a little girl my parents pointed the princesses out to me and would say ‘Abby if you continue to work hard in school and be a leader, you can be a princess too,’” recalls Zielinski.

The 500 is basically in her genes. Her parents met on race weekend, exchanging witty banter over their “track burn” suntans. When they had a daughter, she was quickly gifted an Indy 500 onesie and booties from family friend Judge Jeff Boles (his son is Indianapolis Moter Speedway President Doug Boles). Her 500 pride stuck.

“I’m very passionate about the Indy 500 and its history so spreading that and sharing that with 4th graders who might not know about it is fun and exciting for me,” says Zielinski of her many school visits.

Forsythe recalls her earliest 500 memory: The “kinder” races at elementary school.

“You rode a race car out of a cardboard box and then we got to ride around in the cardboard boxes on a makeshift track,” she laughs.

Flash forward to 2018 and it’s the real thing. Both ladies are looking forward to riding on a pace car in front of thousands of fans come race day. They know the title of 500 Festival Princess is an honor. The crown has brought new friendships, job connections, lasting memories, and a feeling of accomplishment.

“It’s definitely a surreal experience I kind of stand back sometimes and look at my life and I say wow,” said Forsythe.

“There might not be more physical crowns in the future, but there are goals that represent that next tiara, that next sash. And that’s what I’m working towards. This is a milestone to keep going and that’s what I remind myself every time I put the crown on,” said Zielinski.

“Honestly it means the absolute world to me.”

NOT AFRAID TO WORK HARD: Stephanie Forsythe pictured here during her 2017 500 Festival internship lugging around safety vests for her crew and gathering receipts of the volunteer food for the parade.
A SHIRT STORY: Abby Zielinski pictured here with her dad in 2016 for the 100th Running of the Indy 500 both wearing matching race day t-shirts. Abby’s grandmother made her dad’s original shirt back in the 80s for the race. After she passed away in 2011, they found some fabric leftover and had a shirt made for Abby.