Photo credit: Indianapolis Star/Mykal McEldowne Photo credit: Indianapolis Star/Mykal McEldowne

Unless you live under a rock (and who doesn’t want to sometimes?) you know this past Memorial Day weekend was the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. I’m about to use a word that I use sparingly and judiciously, because when you use it, it should really imply something monumental: epic. This event, and weekend, was epic. (People, I beg of you — please use “epic,” “awesome” and “literally” with caution. The universe like totally thanks you.)

On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to be a volunteer for my 10th year with the 500 Festival Parade, and then a spectator at the 500 on Sunday. I started thinking about all the people and situations I ran across and the different takeaways I gleaned.

1. Ingenuity

Every year when I work the parade, something unexpected takes place that causes fear and trepidation to strike the hearts of intrepid volunteers, and makes a mockery of the promises made by deodorant companies of 24-hour dryness. The drivers’ meeting at the track will, without fail, run late, making us worry that the drivers won’t show up in time to get in their cars (it’s always closer than this year’s 500 finish). We can’t find Mario, or Florence, or those guys in the kilts with the bagpipes. (Hint: always look in the Elbow Room first.)

This year, working in the library getting the celebrities into their cars on time, I ran into situations like this:  three people were to ride in a two-seater car. We found another car for the second person, and then discovered there was an additional person for that car, too. Another celeb showed up at the last minute with a large entourage that he insisted also ride in the parade; we had one car planned for him. Someone else didn’t show up — what to do with the car? Send it empty or leave it out? My fellow volunteers were, meanwhile, experiencing their own special “what the heck?” moments.

Time after time, cool heads prevailed and creative solutions were implemented to make sure the parade experience went off without a hitch for the TV and live audiences. Behind the scenes is a mad volley of walkie-talkie conversations, golf carts zipping here and there to get things or people where they needed to be, and decisions being made on the spot.

When we’re faced with those situations, do we bring out the red flag, frozen in our inability to make a decision, be creative? Or do we trust our gut, and our team, to find ingenious ways to keep running under the green flag?

2. Inspiration

Photo credit: Indianapolis Star/Kelly Wilkinson Photo credit: Indianapolis Star/Kelly Wilkinson

This year’s grand marshal of the 500 Festival Parade was Emma Stumpf. I am embarrassed to admit that sitting in a meeting a few days before the parade, when I saw the name of the grand marshal, I asked “Who the hell is Emma Stumpf?” I was expecting a name I was familiar with, and since I sometimes live under a rock, I hadn’t read about this amazing girl. Shame on me.

Emma is a 14-year-old who has been a Riley patient since she was seven when it was discovered she had a brain tumor, deemed inoperable because of its size and location. She underwent 70 weeks of chemo (that’s 70 weeks, folks) and six weeks of proton radiation to stabilize the tumor. During all of that, Emma found comfort through art therapy.

She wanted to give other Riley patients the same gift that had given her an outlet, so she partnered with her school art teacher to collect art supplies to donate to the hospital. The program, called “Emma’s Art Cart,” gives other kids the chance to have even greater access to the art therapy that helped Emma during her treatment.

Named a Riley Champion in 2014, Emma is the youngest grand marshal in the parade’s 60-year history. “Emma’s strength and resolve, coupled with her generous spirit and desire to put others before herself, make her an inspiration” said Bob Bryant, president and CEO of the 500 Festival.

It was my privilege to meet Emma and her parents last weekend. I hope I’m as courageous and inspirational as her when I grow up.

3. Insight

When you get 400,000 people into one place, on a hot, sunny day after they’ve been sitting in mostly stop and a little go traffic for an hour or two, have paid too much for their ticket and may or may not have been imbibing what my son Jackson and I like to call “the breakfast of champions,” it could be easy to understand why folks might be a tad cranky. Or feisty. Or intolerant.

Breakfast of champions!

What I have experienced time after time at the race is that the reverse is true. People are generally in high spirits (so to speak). They’re kind to strangers. They do their best to help people out when they’ve gotten lost or separated from their party, need to borrow sunscreen, an extra hat or a cell phone when theirs has died from selfie overdose. Last year, a veteran we were sitting next to asked my son if he would mind going down and purchasing a seat pad for him, which he happily did. We offered food and shared water with him. What did I get in return? The opportunity to watch him salute and his eyes fill with tears when the Star Spangled Banner played. That moment gave me more than we even began to give him.

A grand spirit of community filled this epic event. We were all in it together, proud of our city, proud of our country, realizing how fortunate we were to be there to witness a historic event. The insight I got? Not to be political here, but what I saw is that America is pretty damn great, right now.