Columbus native Tony Stewart will be near the front of the pack, but moving considerably slower than he is accustomed, when the 26th annual Festival of Lights Parade winds its way up Washington Street.
The car-racing champion, who just wrapped up his 18-year career as a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, will be the special guest of Mayor Jim Lienhoop for the event, which will find rows of spectators lining Washington and Third streets along the 6 p.m. parade route.
Stewart, Lienhoop and the mayor’s wife, Pam, will share a blue Indy 500 special edition Chevrolet Camaro convertible provided by Chevrolet of Columbus, dealership spokesman Fred Armstrong said.
The limited-edition 2016 model is one of 100 made.
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Stewart last appeared in the Columbus parade five years ago to the day, following his third and final NASCAR series championship as a driver, riding in a Camaro with Armstrong, the city’s mayor at the time.
Santa, at the back of the lineup — where the slowest driver in a NASCAR field would be placed — will be the final entry in the parade, as always.
Parade organizer Joyce Lucke is expecting 5,000-plus people for the event, figuring the crowd will be 2-3 people deep over much of the one-mile route.
In years past, Lucke has estimated crowds as high as 10,000 when the first-Saturday-in-December weather is mild.
The weather forecast for tonight calls for temperatures in the low 40s for the parade kickoff, nicer than most years — especially 2013, when nearly a foot of snow and temperatures around zero forced the city to cancel the parade.
But it’s a different story this year, with a star in its midst and favorable weather.
“I know with Tony Stewart, there’s going to be a bump-up (in crowd size),” Lucke said.
“Significantly more people,” chimed Columbus Police Chief Jon Rohde, who will be providing a bumped-up police presence in the crowd.
Columbus police officers will be alongside Stewart’s parade vehicle, as well as other places downtown, to keep the crowd off the street and out of the way of traffic, including large entries such as firetrucks.
Lucke said the turnout was exceptionally high when Stewart was in the 2011 parade, right after his three-peat NASCAR championship.
“People can certainly wave to Tony and say hi, but they should know that he will not be shaking hands or signing autographs,” Lucke said.
Not today, anyway.
Stewart is flying in just before the festivities from NASCAR’s Champions Week in Las Vegas, which ended Friday night, said Mary Ferdon, the city’s executive director of administration and community development director.
“He’s got a really hectic schedule he has to follow,” she said.
But city officials are planning a special career salute to Stewart sometime in late winter or early spring, Ferdon said.
“We will work that around his schedule,” she said.
The pole position in tonight’s 100-entry parade will be occupied by Bella Newman-Stump, a fourth-grader from Mt. Healthy Elementary School.
As the QMIX Musical Fireworks poster contest winner, Bella serves as grand marshal. She’ll be in a lighted float with reindeer pulled by a new Chevy Silverado pickup truck, Armstrong said.
Three marching bands — from Columbus North and Columbus East high schools, and the Bartholomew Consolidated Middle School Marching Band — will be a part of the procession.
More businesses than last year will participate, as will a number of Scout troops and fire departments, Lucke said.
Preceding the parade will be the free, annual Festival of Lights Christmas Village from 1 to 5 p.m. at The Commons. That event — featuring children’s games and activities, a variety of holiday-oriented vendors, music and treats — generally attracts a few thousand visitors.
QMIX Christmas Musical Fireworks, which starts right after the parade, will close the evening.
What: 26th Annual Festival of Lights Parade, featuring 100 entries.
When: 6 p.m. today. Normally runs more than an hour.
Where: Begins at Fifth and Brown and heads south; east on Third Street; north on Washington Street; west on Eighth Street.
Grand marshal: QMIX Christmas Musical Fireworks poster winner Bella Newman-Stump, a fourth-grader from Mount Healthy Elementary School.
Special guest: Columbus native and retiring NASCAR driver Tony Stewart.
Caution: Organizers are issuing a warning for viewers to remain on the sidewalks along the route and to not step into the street during the procession.
QMIX Christmas Musical Fireworks: Following the parade at Second and Washington Street.
What: Annual Festival of Lights Christmas Village, featuring about 20 vendors with crafts, jewelry, apparel, Christmas treats and more; live music; children’s games.
When: 1 to 5 p.m. today.
Where: Inside The Commons, 300 Washington St. in Columbus.