Fringe Attacks On Our Sacred Traditions

Many of you will disagree with me on this. Some of you will try and turn this into a political post, but that is not my intention. This is not about politics or left versus right, nor is it about saving the planet. It is about preserving traditions that most of us consider sacred.

About a week and a half ago, the billboard below appeared in Indianapolis on 16th Street near the White River. It’s message was meant to pressure IMS officials to abandon a Race Day tradition that started in 1947 – the release of thousands of balloons into the Indiana sky, just moments before the start of the Indianapolis 500.



The billboard was placed there by a group known as Balloons Blow, an environmentalist group that claims that not only do the balloons become litter as they eventually make their way back to the ground, but they also pose an environmental hazard as a risk to wildlife.

A check of the Balloons Blow website shows that they claim that countless animals have died from balloons. However, in an interview with a Balloons Blow spokeswoman on WISH-TV 8 in Indianapolis (Derek Daly’s favorite station), the spokeswoman said that there is no evidence that the balloon release at IMS has caused any animal deaths.

As quickly as the billboard appeared, it disappeared just that fast. The next day it was gone. Reportedly the ad company, New York-based Outfront Media decided it was an attack ad and took it down. If that’s true, why didn’t they make that decision before putting it up.

Still, it sparked outrage on both sides of the discussion, that continued several days after the billboard came down. Most of you can probably figure out where I stand on the issue, but surprisingly – not everyone was opposed to the idea of abandoning this tradition.

Whenever anyone is using statistics to prove their point, and they use a term like “countless deaths” – I immediately get suspicious. That means they have no facts or data, whatsoever, to present to make their case. Instead of using facts and logic to prove something, they will instead resort to preying on emotions to try and create a manufactured crisis.

Common sense tells you that these balloons will cause litter as they fall back to earth. If that many balloons were released on a daily basis, I’d agree that the litter problem they create would be substantial. But this is only an annual occurrence. While the balloons have to end up somewhere, I’ve never heard a thing about complaints from neighboring counties or states that these balloons are littering their countryside every May.

Common sense also tells me that the threat to wildlife by balloons is greatly exaggerated by this group. Some will say that I don’t know this, so I shouldn’t say it. Well, the same logic applies to them and they should be held to the same standard. If they knew it and had facts and figures to back them up, they would use them. Instead, they are doing what I just did by simply stating my opinion.

Credit their website for offering up some alternatives to balloon releases, although I can’t see them creating the same effect. Some of their suggestions include kites, garden spinners, pinwheels, blowing bubbles or colored lights. If I wanted to get real knit-picky, I could shoot holes in every one of these and point out their own unique threat to the environment. I mean, is it really good to have soap bubbles pop everywhere and coat the track with a film of soap?

One suggestion of theirs that I genuinely liked was bunting. Red, white and blue bunting used to hang from the upper deck of IMS on Race Day for years. Of course, I consider bunting something that IMS should do in addition to the balloons – not instead of.

I say this as a blogger who has certainly gained benefit from the internet…The best thing about the internet is that it has given a voice to those who previously didn’t have one. The worst thing about the internet is that it has given a voice to those who previously didn’t have one. There have always been loons on the fringe, but they are must more visible today than they used to be. The internet has given them power. A billboard was up for one day, yet a week and a half later, it is still being discussed on the internet.

The Speedway has been in the crosshairs before with such groups and they will be again. The vegans will someday decry milk being consumed in Victory Lane as the ultimate evil. The internal combustion engine is always a matter of concern for the crazies, regardless of what type of renewable fuel it burns. Surely all those discarded tires from the Month of May are destroying the planet.

Fortunately, common sense has prevailed this time. I applaud IMS for the stance they have taken. Last week, Director of Communications for IMS Alex Damron issued the following statement to the Indianapolis Star: “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.”

Aside from reaching out, this was a very concise statement saying that they had no plans to abandon this tradition.

Everyone has their favorite moment of the traditional and sacred pre-race ceremonies. My father always blubbered like a baby when Tony Hulman gave the command to start engines. (I imagined him spinning in his grave the last two years when Tony George uttered “Drivers, Start your engines”). Mine is the singing of (Back Home Again in) Indiana. For years, Curt Cavin said the releasing of the balloons was his favorite. I don’t think he is alone.

Everyone these days has to be outraged by something. It seems that the more established a tradition is, the more those on the fringe seem intent on bringing it down. Television and changing economics have already eliminated many traditions surrounding the Indianapolis 500. Please don’t let these lunatic fringe groups succeed in removing any others.

George Phillips

20 Responses to “Fringe Attacks On Our Sacred Traditions”

  1. the anti-balloon lady is getting her money’s worth from that billboard.

  2. Non-story, just something for either side to get riled up about. No tradition is or ever was in harm. When I saw the article I rolled my eyes and thought “Great, this will produce an avalanche of complaints”, and it did.

    I’m in an IndyCar Facebook group, several racing stories are posted everyday. Most of them get 0-5 comments, this story had dozens of complainy comments within a couple hours of being posted. So while they appeared outraged, I think the IndyCar fans were secretly happy about it because it gave them something to bitch about and that seems to be our favorite hobby.

    Nothing personal George, just a sore point for me. That’s why I rarely engage with IndyCar fans outside of this blog, I just can’t handle all the constant complaining. And people with different opinions are not lunatics or crazies, I just shrug my shoulders and ignore them rather than let them drag me down into their Pit of Outrage.

  3. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    George…If the release actually kills animals then it’s time to think hard about changing it. If you want a topic that really upsets me then mine would be, why does Danica Patrick have to be on the broadcast of the race? It’s time for her to fade away and go back to NASCAR or wherever. It’s fine having Dale Earnhardt on the show, but why Danica? Please disappear Danica.

    • Why would you have Dale Jr on the 500 broadcast! Don’t get me wrong, I love Dale, but he has never driven in a Indy 500. Danica on the other hand has been in the race, what 8 times and led a couple of times? Experienced INDYCAR driver covering Indy 500….

  4. balloon releases, military fly-overs, etc. have been banned from our local college football games. the IMS balloons are on their way out. (the same “lunatics” got cities to ban circuses.)

  5. Just can’t believe there is not a earth friendly balloon somewhere in the world

  6. Go ahead write your remarks for next year when plastic straws will be the topic about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway . I have never found a balloon after the race and I live in the suburbs of Indianapolis . .

  7. James T Suel Says:

    Keep the balloons, we have to stop the looney. It is only human arrogance that thinks this will harm the planet. We are like a flea walking on a horses but. The planet and the animals will be fine.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    While I think the reported negative impact of the balloon release is a bit inflated, I’m willing to consider alternatives. I won’t tie you up with the details, but if an idea pops into my head, I’ll be sure to float it out there and not string you all along.

  9. My interest in IndyCar is in the racing, not the lore, so I wouldn’t mind if there were no balloons, no Back Home Again in Indiana, no boogity boogity, oh, wait, wrong series! 😉

    I consider the starting of the engines to be a part of the racing action so some kind of command can be given, preferrably the one which is intellectual property of IMS.

    As I said, I wouldn’t miss any of the lore but I do miss the traditional qualifying format for the Indy500 in which Pole Day was on the 1st day of qualifying and Bump Day on the last day of qualifying, no matter how many qualification days come between these two, if any.

    Regarding balloons, there surely must be biodegradable materials for such things, and if NIMBY rhymes with Indy, IMS might want to give those a try.

    Yet, there is no denying that auto racing is not an environmentally friendly sport. But as long as I use public transport and my bicycle whenever possible and don’t spend money on a car I don’t really need currently in my life (yes, that is possible in Europe, and no, I don’t miss paying the taxes and insurance costs for the car nor the gas bill nor the time spent in crosstown traffic jams), I can watch as much motor racing as I want. If somebody were to complain, I could always ask them if they have a car, and if they do, they’d better shut up.

    Yet, did you know that there is now a hiking path leading around Hockenheim’s Ostkurve where once the long forest straights used to be before Bernie Ecclestone decided the lap is too long?
    Environmentalists there were OK with chopping the forest for the current track which runs through the infield of the old one if the forest gets back the run to and fro Ostkurve. That hiking path around Ostkurve would be an intriguing place to visit someday. The same goes for the Grounds for Sculpture that is now situated on the land of the former Trenton Speedway. But since that is on another continent, I guess I won’t go there anyway. But some of you might want to have a look.

  10. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Do I think the impact of them is enough to warrant immediate change? I don’t know. Like you, I’d love to see some actual data on what happens to the IMS debris. Could be a great STEM student experiment. Regardless, if the powers that be decided it’s time for it to end, I also wouldn’t be opposed.

    It’s a rare day when I see them at all as my seats on the front straight face west and the prevailing wind almost always takes them east before they get high enough to see. I’m also far more interested in looking at the grid with the most eager anticipation of the year anyway.

    I saw a suggestions on twitter how a hot air balloon release would be a nice twist on the tradition and one that also more closely acknowledges the origins of the speedway. If they did, can you imagine a better TV camera view than from the balloon rising from the infield during the last stanza of Back Home Again, and the massive spectacle of the speedway’s 300,000 plus slowly coming into frame?

    Ultimately, I think there’s some possibilities to upgrade the tradition.

    • Certainly a nice idea but I don’t see how the logistics would work. On race day there’s no room to launch balloons from the infield, and hot air balloons aren’t exactly fast rising either so it would take quite a while for the massive crowd to come into view from a balloon.

  11. DZ…what a great idea!
    it takes a greater mind than mine
    to turn a tired tradition into a triumph.

  12. colum1357 Says:

    take away the traditions, spectacle and history and the Indianapolis 500 is just another race. the traditions are the foundation of the importance of the race and the importance of winning the 500 was most recently demonstrated by Will Power’s reaction. having said that, prove that these balloons have a serious impact on wildlife and I’ll be the first to say lose ’em. DZ had a good idea.

  13. 100 years of history & tradition make the race important.

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