The Balloon Spectacle

bal1996 (2)
One of the long-standing pre-race traditions at the Indianapolis 500 is the Balloon Spectacle. Thousands of multi-colored, helium-filled balloons are released into the air above the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The tradition dates back to the late 1940s. Anton “Tony” Hulman Jr. bought the Speedway in November 1945, shortly after the conclusion of World War II, and the first Indianapolis 500 held under the ownership of the Hulman family was in 1946. While it is slightly unclear which year the Balloon Spectacle was first performed, by most reputable accounts, the tradition first occurred in 1947. The idea for a balloon release on race morning was said to be a suggestion of Tony Hulman’s mother, Grace Smith Hulman [Star 5/29/1959].

On or around 1950, the Balloon Spectacle – which it became to be known as – became tied to another popular Indianapolis 500 tradition, the annual singing of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana”. During the singing of the song, when the vocalist recites the line “The new-mowed hay sends all its fragrance” that is the customary cue for the balloons to be sent skyward [Taylor, pg. 171]. The balloons are released from a double-wide tent in the infield and rise high above the track, carried only by the wind. In many cases, owning to the typical weather patterns of the region, the balloons tend to blow eastward or slightly to the northeast. That usually takes them away from the main straightaway (where most of the spectators are sitting, and where the field is gridded), across the backstretch, and over the Speedway’s golf course. On a clear day, they can be seen for quite some time after the race begins. As they continue to rise, after about twenty minutes, they begin to disappear from view of the naked eye.

History

From approximately 1957 through 1999, the balloons were housed in a tent(s) located behind the steel & glass Master Control Tower, in a grass square that was known as the Flag Lot. Releasing the balloons from this location was particularly picturesque, as it was right at the start/finish line, appearing as almost a backdrop behind the tower and pit area. In some years, the balloons were contained in one large tent, in other years, multiple smaller tents were used. For a few times in the early 1970s, the balloons appear to have been put up in a black and white checkered canvas tarp or bag. In 1972, the entire “bag” was let go, and it opened up 50-100 feet above the ground, releasing the balloons (when empty, the “bag” fell back to the ground). In most years, however, the staging place for the balloons has been an inconspicuous tent, properly anchored to the ground.

Customarily, the balloons are inflated the night before the race by a large crew of volunteers. The job begins sometime around 5 p.m. the day before the race, and typically runs well into the evening. These days, the job is completed around 8:30 or 9:00 p.m., but in past years the task went late into the night [Star 5/25/1985]. The company that is currently in charge of the balloons and arranges the tent setup is All-American Tent & Rental of Terre Haute, Indiana. Since at least 2008, the balloons have said to be “biodegradable”. When the cue is given to begin the release, the canvas roof of the tent is quickly pulled back by several workers. The roof is designed to split into sections. Once the roof is pulled back, the balloons quickly become aloft, and usually within seconds have cleared the frame of the tents.

A different company, Terre Haute Tent & Awning Inc., also known for its balloons, had a long history with the Speedway. In 1953, that company first provided more than 40,000 balloons for the release. They would continue to do so for the next 49 years. In 1990, the company claimed to have released its one millionth balloon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That company supplied the balloons until about 2002.

backtower91
The back side of the steel & glass Master Control Tower in 1991. The Flag Lot was located behind the base of the tower.

After the Master Control Tower was demolished and replaced with the modern day Pagoda (as well as the subsequent construction of the new Pagoda Plaza), the location for the balloon release tent was moved. In 2000, it appears the location of the tent was behind the new Pagoda. In 2001-2002, the tent was located in the Pagoda Plaza near the edge of the garage area.

By 2004, the tent was relocated to a fairly wide-open spot in the infield on what is called New Meyers Drive. It is located behind the Media Center and the Tower Terrace Suites, near where the midway is set up, and close to the pedestrian walkover bridge over the backstretch of the infield road course (Hulman Boulevard).

Since the beginning, the balloons have been multi-colored. For many years, the balloons were a rainbow of colors, but in some years, specific color schemes have been used. On a number of occasions, they have been of a patriotic red-white-blue scheme, and other years they have been a special combination, occasionally mimicking that year’s race logo colors, etc.

flaglot
About the only photo I have taken in the Flag Lot (Pole day weekend of 1991). Note the flagpoles around the perimeter and the hospitality tent in the distance. This is looking northeast. The Master Control Tower would be to the left. (Johnson collection)

While customarily the balloons are to be released during “Back Home Again in Indiana”, there have been years when that was not the case. In 1991, the race was delayed about one hour due to morning rain. The pre-race ceremonies were off-schedule, and the balloons were (probably inadvertently) released during the Invocation. In 1984, it appears they were set off during the national anthem, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

In 1986, the race was rained out on both Sunday May 25 and Monday May 26. The race ended up being rescheduled for the following Saturday May 31. At some point on Monday afternoon, the balloons had begun to lose their helium and were let go. About 21,000 balloons were unceremoniously released, only to see many fall back down to the ground. A few spectators that were wandering the grounds were seen picking some up as souvenirs. When the race was held the following Saturday, a smaller replacement release of at least 5,000 balloons was arranged [Star 5/31/1986].

In 1997, the race was rained out on Sunday May 25 and the start was rescheduled for Monday May 26. The pre-race ceremonies on Monday morning were slightly re-tooled, and the balloon spectacle was retained. The balloons had spent the extra night housed in their tent. Jim Nabors was unable to attend on Monday, but his performance of “Back Home Again in Indiana” was substituted with one of his previous recordings. When the balloons were released Monday, a stiff wind, humid conditions, along with a day’s loss of helium “umph”, saw the balloons take a rare, low path directly to the west. Most of the balloons did not get very high off the ground and many flew directly into the grandstands. Some fell to the ground in the spectator areas as well as the pits and starting grid area. It did not cause a delay of the start, however.

One of the more visually spectacular balloon releases occurred in 1990. As noted live by historian Donald Davidson on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, the rainbow-colored balloons stayed densely packed. They lifted high and just slightly to the west, and they stayed together in a colorful mass for an extended period of time.

In 1976, which took place during the U.S. Bicentennial, three tents were used. One tent had red balloons, one had white, and one had blue. They were released separately in succession, much to the delight of the crowd [Star 5/31/1976].

In 1994, a balloon release was included as part of the NASCAR Brickyard 400 pre-race festivities. However, as “Back Home Again in Indiana” is not performed at that race, the release was instead paired with the starting command. A balloon release accompanied the Brickyard 400 through 2016, but now appears to have been discontinued.

The exact number of balloons released each year is not known, but estimates and statements by management and those involved have placed it anywhere from 21,000 to 30,000 and in some years even upwards of 35,000-40,000. In 1985, the release featured 20,000 normal shaped balloons along with 10,000 Mickey Mouse head balloons for a then-record total of 30,000. In that year, Disney teamed up with the Speedway in a marketing partnership which saw Mickey Mouse as the grand marshal for the 500 Festival Parade and EPCOT Center’s Voices of Liberty sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” [Star 5/25/1985].

In the last decade or so, the balloons have been inflated with helium, and two filled balloons are tied together at their stems, creating what one might call “double balloons.” This method ostensibly is to speed up the filling process. Rather than filling each balloon and tying them off individually, by tying two together, it cuts the knot-tying effort in half. One knot tying two balloons together seals off both balloons in one move. Tying two together also might help them liftoff better, and keeps them a little more densely packed, for visual aesthetics.

Ballooning

NIK_7032
The white barn adjacent to the Brickyard Crossing Golf Course. (Johnson collection, 2017)

While the pre-race balloon spectacle is strictly a post-World War II matter, ballooning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway of a different type dates back to the opening of the track. While the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was still under construction, the first competitive event took place on June 5, 1909. The national championship balloon race, featuring gas-filled balloons, lifted off from the infield of the speedway. Details of the event can be be found at The First Super Speedway. The track surface was not yet completed, but the vast open land of the infield suited the event well. Witnessed by over 40,000 spectators, the Speedway acted as the starting point for an endurance distance race sanctioned by the Aero Club of America. The balloon named “Universal City” of St. Louis was declared the winner. Piloted by James Berry and Paul McCullough, it landed a day and a half later about 382 miles away near Ft. Payne, Alabama [Star 6/5/2014].
Over the years, several gas-filled and hot air balloon events were held at the track, sometimes during the month of May. According to historian Donald Davidson, early balloonist Captain George L. Bumbaugh may have used the iconic white barn at the southeast corner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway property – adjacent to the present-day Brickyard Crossing golf course – for storing a balloon [TOGA, 5/15/2006].

500wonderOne of the more notable items in Indianapolis Motor Speedway lore is the link to Wonder Bread. In 1921, Elmer Cline, vice president of the Indianapolis-based Taggart Bakery, was responsible for naming the new white bread load his bakery had begun producing. He attended that year’s Indianapolis 500, watching a balloon race being held as part of the festivities. The site of the colorful balloons in the sky caught the eye of Cline, who said he was ‘filled with wonder.’ The many balloons created a kaleidoscope of colors, inspiring the name and the now-familiar red, yellow, and blue balloons featured on the Wonder Bread logo.

balloon
A hot-air balloon painted on the restroom building in the turn four infield, memorializing the 1966 balloon incident. As seen from the Speedway bus tour. (Johnson collection, 2005)

Through the 1960s, various balloon events were held from time to time, and then an incident occurred. On May 15, 1966 a balloon race was being held as part of the time trials weekend festivities. One of the balloons, that owned by Don N. Kersten, blew in the wind against a couple of parked cars, knocking the pilot from the gondola. The now-unmanned balloon began to sail aimlessly and out-of-control. In the turn four infield, it toppled a wooden restroom building, injuring two women inside. It then struck a concession stand, and wind carried it away from the track where it ultimately crashed into trees [Star 5/16/1966]. A little-known “memorial” existed at the track, memorializing the incident. The present-day restroom buildings were constructed in 1985, replacing the notoriously detestable and dilapidated bathhouses [Star 5/10/1985]. On the side of the restroom building which is located in the infield of turn four, a red, white, and blue hot air balloon was painted on the side. This colorful, somewhat cartoonish image, while unmarked, seldom noticed, and rarely acknowledged, remained for many years.

PICT0127_zpsb7c8dbfb
The turn four infield on Pole Day 1988, as seen from the Northwest Vista. The restroom building of the turn four infield is on the left. The hot air balloon image is visible on the side of the building. Downtown Indianapolis, including the Hoosier Dome (a.k.a. RCA Dome) is off in the distance. (Johnson collection, 1988)

In 2007, the restroom building in the turn four infield was renovated and converted into the Miller Lite Party deck. At first, the balloon image was retained, and it appears that it remained visible through the 2012 race. In 2013, the entire building was repainted (in Miller Lite colors) and the original balloon image was finally painted over.

2009balfest

Hot air balloon events continued at the Speedway for the next few years in the late 1960s, but eventually disappeared. The Inaugural Speedway Lions Club Balloon Fest was held May 11-12, 2001 in a field across the street from the track. The event returned for second time on May 4-5, 2002. In 2009, the Centennial Era Balloon Festival returned professional ballooning to the infield of the track and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first balloon race in 1909. The event returned in 2010, and even included a nighttime “glow” session.

Scrutiny

Going back many years, the traditional balloon release has been the subject of scrutiny. Most of the criticism stems from environmental concerns including litter produced and the subsequent effects on wildlife [Star 5/21/2018]. The balloons are said to be biodegradable, and as of 2019, the Speedway has calmly rebuffed the complaints. Also of concern is the ongoing global helium shortage.

In the past, balloon releases were very popular. In the 1970s and 1980s, they were featured at many events, large and small. School children commonly released balloons carrying note cards, hoping they would be found and contacted, to see how far it traveled. However, after the ill-fated Balloonfest ’86 in Cleveland, and increased environmental awareness, the practice has fallen out-of-favor for many. The Indianapolis 500 remains one of only a handful of events (as of 2019) that still regularly maintains the practice of a large-scale balloon release.

One of the first grassroots efforts to end the Balloon Spectacle came in 1991. A local Girl Scouts Brownies troop made a public request to the Speedway. The local newspapers picked up the story, and it received a fair amount of attention [Star 5/8/1991]. The Speedway politely acknowledged the request, but did not take any action. Ultimately the effort failed, and the story went away.

A renewed amount of criticism of the Balloon Spectacle has come in recent years, led mostly by grassroots organizations. Billboards, word-of-mouth, and social media campaigns have sharply condemned the tradition. Going into the 2019 race, there has been no announcement of a cancellation of the balloon spectacle.

Slideshow

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Balloon Spectacle colors and details

Selected years

  • 1963: Rainbow of colors
  • 1964: Many white & yellow, and other colors (blew south)
  • 1965: Rainbow of colors
  • 1966: Rainbow of colors (blew south)
  • 1967: Rainbow of colors
  • 1968:
  • 1969: Rainbow of colors (blew slightly to the west)
  • 1970: Rainbow of colors (blew north)
  • 1971: Rainbow of colors (lifted fairly straight up, slightly to the west)
  • 1972: Rainbow of colors (contained within a large canvas bag; the bag opened and released the balloons 50-100 feet above the ground)
  • 1973: Rainbow of colors (released Monday; blew low and to the north)
  • 1974: Rainbow of colors (release at starting command)
  • 1975: Rainbow of colors (blew north)
  • 1976: Three tents (one red, one white, one blue; blew immediately to the north)
  • 1977: Rainbow of colors (blew east)
  • 1978: Rainbow of colors (little to no wind; lifted straight up)
  • 1979: Rainbow of colors (lifted fairly straight up)
  • 1980: Rainbow of colors (blew slightly to the west)
  • 1981: Rainbow of colors (blew to the north)
  • 1982: Rainbow of colors (blew to the east; dispersed quickly)
  • 1983: Rainbow of colors (blew east)
  • 1984: Rainbow of colors (released during National Anthem – lifted fairly straight up)
  • 1985: Rainbow of colors – 20,000 round balloons, 10,000 Mickey Mouse shaped balloons (blew to the northeast; dispersed quickly)
  • 1986: Rainbow of colors (blew east)
  • 1987: Rainbow of colors (lifted fairly straight up)
  • 1988: Rainbow of colors (blew east)
  • 1989: Rainbow of colors (lifted fairly straight up; stayed densely packed)
  • 1990: Rainbow of colors (blew slightly west; stayed densely packed)
  • 1991: Red, white, and blue (blew low and to the north; dispersed quickly)
  • 1992: Rainbow of colors (lifted fairly straight up; stayed densely packed; amongst the balloons was a long “chain” of balloons tied together)
  • 1993: Rainbow of colors (blew towards the north)
  • 1994: Red, orange, and yellow (blew towards the northeast)
  • 1995: Red, white, and blue (blew east)
  • 1996: Blue, dark blue, and yellow (blew towards the north)
  • 1997: Maroon and yellow (blew quickly to the west; some fell to the ground)
  • 1998: Red, blue, and yellow (blew slightly west; resembled the Wonder Bread colors)
  • 1999: Black, white, yellow, red (followed the 1999 logo’s colors; blew slightly to the north)
  • 2000: Red, white, and blue
  • 2001: Green, light green, and white
  • 2002: Dark purple, red, a small number of white
  • 2003: Maroon, red, white (lifted straight up like a mushroom cloud)
  • 2004: Red, white, and light blue (blew to the north)
  • 2005: Black, maroon, red, and white (stayed densely packed, lifted straight up; ABC-TV featured a “balloon cam”)
  • 2006: Two tents: Maroon & yellow followed by green & white (blew to the east)
  • 2007: Two tents: Maroon & white and green & yellow (blew straight up)
  • 2008: Two tents: Black & tan and blue & red (blew to the north)
  • 2009: Red, white, & blue (blew straight up and slightly to the northwest)
  • 2010: White, dark blue, and light blue (lifted fairly straight up)
  • 2011: Orange, black, and white (lifted fairly straight up)
  • 2012: Red, white, & blue, with light blue (lifted fairly straight up)
  • 2013: Red, white, & blue, with yellow (blew to the north)
  • 2014: Red, white, & blue, with yellow (blew to the north)
  • 2015: Red, white, & blue (lifted fairly straight up)
  • 2016: Red, white, & blue (lifted fairly straight up)
  • 2017: Red, white, & blue (blew to the east)
  • 2018: Red, white, & blue (blew slightly to the south)

Afterthoughts

As of the beginning of the month of May 2019, management at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has made not made any apparent moves towards ending the traditional pre-race Balloon Spectacle. This despite the aforementioned ongoing grassroots efforts to stop the practice. In 2018, official comments by Speedway director of communications Alex Damron were as follows:

“We have not considered an alternative. The balloon release is a cherished piece of our pre-race ceremony and will continue to be part of Race Day.”

After further developments in the spring of 2019, a follow-up statement was made:

“The balloon release remains a part of the Indianapolis 500 pre-race program. However, we continue listening to and evaluating feedback from multiple perspectives on the topic. We’re reaching out to several stakeholders and talking with experts to fully understand the impact of this practice and determine its status in the years ahead.”

While it appears that there will be no changes for 2019, it is possible that in the foreseeable future, the Balloon Spectacle may be retired. This article is written solely for posterity and informational purposes, and without editorial comment.

Links, sources, and works cited

EDIT: Added photo image of the white barn at the Speedway. Corrected spelling/grammar errors (5/22/2019).