Local 500 Festival princess continues to make community appearances


As a group of fourth-graders recently visited Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a Study Trip, Hannah Romero De Gante led a station sharing how important health and nutrition are to race car drivers.

It was a great opportunity for the 21-year-old Seymour resident who is a junior at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where she’s a health sciences major studying to become an occupational therapist.

She’s also one of the 500 Festival princesses for 2023, and an interaction with one of the young girls on that visit is an example of how rewarding this opportunity is for her.

The very soft-spoken girl who only spoke Spanish asked Romero De Gante, “Can someone like me be a princess like you?”

“Oh my goodness! Let me tell you, I’m an emotional person, so when she told me that, I wanted to cry, and I gave her a big hug and I told her in Spanish, ‘Por supuesto que puede,’ of course you can,” Romero De Gante said.

That story was shared April 13 when she visited Margaret R. Brown Elementary School in Seymour and a student asked her if it’s fun being a princess.

“It is so much fun, you guys,” she said. “It’s very rewarding.”

The 500 Festival Princess Program celebrates Indiana’s most civic-minded, academically driven young women, according to 500festival.com. Each year, 33 college-aged women are selected as 500 Festival princesses and serve as ambassadors of the 500 Festival, their hometowns and their colleges/universities.

Serving as a 500 Festival princess provides young women with once-in-a-lifetime experiences and countless opportunities for leadership and professional development. Since the program’s founding in 1959, more than 2,000 Indiana women have experienced the honor of being selected as a princess, the website states.

Each princess participates in the 500 Festival Leadership Development Program, further empowering them to make a profound impact within their community and the state. In the months leading up to May, the princesses perform outreaches with community organizations, including hospitals, schools and nonprofits.

Romero De Gante’s visit to Brown is one of several she’s making in her hometown. She recently visited her alma mater, St. Ambrose Catholic School, and she has upcoming appearances at Seymour-Jackson Elementary School and Seymour High School, from where she graduated in 2020.

“I’m just trying to give back to the community that shaped me to be who I am today,” she said. “That’s my main goal in being a 500 Festival princess.”

At Brown, after speaking to the fourth grade students and staff and answering questions in the school library, Romero De Gante headed outside and sat in the back of this year’s 500 Festival pace car, a gray Chevrolet Camaro convertible, as students and staff gathered around it for a photo.

Wearing a tiara and a sash, she shared how she became a 500 Festival princess. As a college freshman, her boyfriend’s mother, Jill Baurle, showed her a paper with information about the program.

“My freshman year of college was COVID, and I was very scared to step out of my comfort zone and apply to something when everything was shut down,” she said.

This year, a mentor with whom she did an internship encouraged her to apply. She went for it and wound up being among more than 200 young women from around Indiana to apply. Then 150 were part of an in-person interview, and 66 received a second interview via Zoom.

Then the first week of February, 33 were selected to be princesses. That number represents the number of drivers in the Indianapolis 500.

Romero De Gante said she was in a Starbucks drive-thru when she learned she was selected as a 500 Festival princess.

“I got an email that said, ‘500 Festival princess application selections,’” she said. “I was just sitting there waiting in my car for my turn, so I took a look at it and it said, ‘Congratulations!’ and immediately when I read the congratulations, I knew that I had been selected to be one of the 33, so I was very, very excited. Very shocked but very excited.”

After getting her coffee, she pulled into the parking lot and called her parents. They expressed excitement in the family’s first language, Spanish.

“Their reactions were so great,” she said. “I called my mom first. I could barely understand what she was saying. She is also a very emotional person like me. She was very, very excited, and then when I saw her next, she gave me a huge hug and she almost cried. My dad was also very excited.”

Each princess receives a $1,000 scholarship to assist with educational expenses, made possible by Marlyne Sexton, an Indianapolis philanthropist and president of The Sexton Companies, and the 500 Festival Foundation.

The woman chosen as the 500 Festival queen will receive an additional $1,500 scholarship and get to meet the winner of the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 and hand them the Borg-Warner Trophy. The queen will be announced May 20 during Breakfast at the Brickyard, where mayors from around the state will gather for breakfast at the speedway.

Romero De Gante said it’s up to each princess to decide if they want to apply to be queen.

“I did apply, so you may possibly be talking to the queen. Who knows?” she told the Brown fourth-graders. “But if not, I’m very happy to just be in this position to be able to represent Seymour.”

Leading up to the events in late May, the princesses receive opportunities to create lifelong connections with business and community leaders along with the outreach opportunities.

Soon after becoming a 500 Festival princess, Romero De Gante attended an alumni event, where she got to meet past princesses and queens.

“My own family doctor, Pam Snook-Tidd, she was a 500 Festival princess, and so I got to talk to her about her experience and see her past pictures when she was a princess,” she said. “She was on the court, so back then, there used to be a court with the queen, and I got to see what it was like, what all their outfits looked like, what their activities looked like in the past. It has been really cool to meet all of the past princesses.”

She also has met all of the other 2023 princesses, who she said have the same goals and morals as her.

“They are very, very sweet,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know all of them, and they all have very great aspirations in what they want to do when they grow up — lawyers, doctors, work in finance, sports media, health care. I’ve been able to connect with some of the girls who also want to go into health care. It’s very inspiring to be able to get to know all of these girls who are really hoping to make an impact back into their community.”

She said she also has been very fortunate to make great connections and network with very important people. Each princess gets a mentor who is a 500 Festival board member. Romero De Gante’s mentor is Patrick McGill, vice president of Community Health Network.

Each princess also gets access to a 500 Festival pace car as they make outreach appearances. On the day of the race May 28, she will ride on the back of it and wave to the crowd as all 33 pace cars take a lap around the track, and McGill will drive the car.

“We just get to wave and enjoy being on the track because it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Romero De Gante said.

The day before the race, the princesses and queen will be on a float in the AES 500 Festival Parade in downtown Indianapolis. Then after taking their lap around the track on race day, they will be seated near the IMS Pagoda to watch the 200-lap race.

They also will have access to the garages where the race car drivers will be, and Romero De Gante said she hopes to meet her favorite driver, Patricio “Pato” O’Ward, who is from her parents’ hometown of Monterrey, Mexico. She said this will be her second time attending the Indianapolis 500.

“A lot of the princesses come from race families or they’ve grown up knowing racing,” she said. “I’m very different. My family is from Mexico, and racing is not very huge there, so not until I moved into Indianapolis is when I started to get really excited about it. Fingers crossed I get to meet my favorite driver.”

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