The Balloons Will Soar No More

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Some will say this post is nothing more than an old man screaming at a cloud. In actuality, it’s an old man screaming about an empty sky. I was going to write about the Open-Test at IMS for the past two days. That can wait until Monday.

If you go back and watch old videos of the Indianapolis 500, occasionally you’ll catch play-by-play announcer Paul Page using the phrase Tradition usually rules at the Indianapolis 500. Apparently, that is no longer the case.

What I have feared for the past few years has finally happened. We learned on Wednesday that the traditional pre-race release of balloons has been "paused indefinitely". That’s code-speak for "We finally caved, and it’s never coming back".

This was already a long-standing tradition, when I first started going to the Indianapolis 500 way back in 1965. In fact, every year from 1947 until 2019, the colorful balloons moving skyward had been a symbol that the long-anticipated race was about to start. For the past two years, COVID protocol was blamed for the absence of balloons on Race Day. Race officials were forced to make a decision for this year, and in my eyes – they made the wrong choice.

Over those seventy-two years, drivers like Mauri Rose, Bill Vukovich, Rodger Ward, AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Jim Clark, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk, Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti among others; all started their winning runs in the shadows of the balloons. Simon Pagenaud will be the answer to a trivia question one day, as he was the last driver to win when the balloons were launched.

This move is mostly in response to environmental activists that have been squawking about balloon releases for years. I’m sure someone will claim that my stance on the balloons says that I enjoy watching wildlife die, or that I hate our planet. Obviously, that is not the case at all.

My problem with these types of groups is that they act on emotions instead of facts. This article posted by The Indianapolis Star uses the words “may”, “might” and “can” when describing the potential threat to wildlife and what could happen. There is no data backing up their claims that wildlife will eat the balloons, killing them in the process. They are strictly acting on hypothetical scenarios – quite loudly, I might add – on what might happen, and they have finally taken away another tradition that many of us consider sacred.

He may no longer publicly admit it, now that he works for IMS – but I remember several times over the years hearing Curt Cavin on Trackside; say that his favorite moment for the entire Month of May was the releasing of the balloons. When I attended my first Indianapolis 500, my brothers had told me about the balloon launch; but as a six year-old, I was not prepared for what I saw. To this day I vividly remember the explosion of color rising just behind the Master Control Tower, as if it happened yesterday.

As you can imagine, the reactions to this have been all over the place. There are those of us that are sad to see another long-time tradition being done away with – especially by a self-serving group of outsiders that seem to be more concerned with their own publicity, than they are with their actual cause.

Then there are those that claim our infatuation with tradition is “absolutely laughable”, which is an actual quote from one social media troll – who thinks it’s funny that we are getting worked up over this. I expressed my disappointment with his quote on Facebook Wednesday night. His sarcastic response to me was “I apologize for not having the passion you guys do for balloons. I know they can be twisted into animals and sometimes filled with water to be thrown, but I’ll try to be more sympathetic to the balloon enthusiasts out there during this time of personal tragedy.” Seriously?

For the past couple of days, I’ve seen a lot of the dismissive “OK, Boomer!” – a phrase that gets Mrs. Oilpressure’s blood boiling – by those poking fun at us who want to see our Indianapolis 500 traditions preserved. In all honesty, I think they are fabricating more outrage than actually exists, just to show how above the fray they are to not be concerned with old traditions. Most of the reaction I’ve seen from traditionalists, including myself, has been more disappointment than outrage. Yet the other side seems to claim there is outrage and hysteria among all of the inflexible IMS crowd; so that they can show us how superior they are to not care about traditions that need to go away, in their mind.

Over the past two nights, I saw this playing out, over and over on social media. Someone would bemoan the fact that another tradition had gone away. Suddenly, they would be viciously attacked by the self-righteous who want to show that they place a possible threat to wildlife, over any stodgy old tradition that makes no sense in their eyes. When the traditionalists tried to explain their side, their opinion didn’t matter. These nut-jobs wouldn’t listen to another opinion. Theirs was the only opinion that mattered.

Not only am I disappointed, but my fear is…what’s next? The trouble with environmental activists is they are never satisfied. They have been pushing for this for several years now. On Wednesday they finally won the battle. You are very naïve if you think that their war is over and they will now go away quietly. All this does is affirm to them that they have found a group that will give in to their demands – sort of like a petulant child.

Will they next focus on the natural resources expended to make all of the sets of tires that are used in the Month of May? What about the unnecessary toxins released into the atmosphere by the ethanol exhaust of thirty-three cars throughout the month. To placate the fans, a second flyover will be performed at the end of the traditional singing of (Back Hone Again in) Indiana. A flyover probably does more ecological damage to the environment, than scattering biodegradable balloons over the countryside. Will they work to ban flyovers next?

Motorsports is already looked upon as a dying sport of an older and selfish generation. Is their ultimate goal to shut down the event that we hard-core fans build our year around? It may sound outlandish to some, but I’ve lived long enough to see how these groups work. They are never satisfied to the point where they’ll just silently disappear. They are in the business to make noise.

So I’m saddened today. I’m sad to see another one of our Indianapolis 500 traditions go by the wayside. I’m disappointed that the fear of offending a fringe group of outsiders, took precedent over the love of traditions by the longtime fan base of the event. I also fear what might be next on the radar of these groups.

Most of all, I am disturbed by the blatant disregard – and almost disdain – from some, for what is a very important matter to many. Just because tradition is not important to them, does not mean that it is “absolutely laughable” to those of us who grew up embracing these traditions for several decades. If they are not passionate about Indianapolis 500 traditions, I hope there is something in their lives that they are passionate about. Otherwise they lead a more joyless and miserable life than I even suspect. Whenever that something that they are passionate about does get taken away to appease a bunch of outsiders, then they will see how “absolutely laughable” that is to them.

George Phillips

17 Responses to “The Balloons Will Soar No More”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    George thank you for this post. I am 100% with you. Too many traditions have fallen away at the speedway. I think they caved into these wak jobs! Like you I wonder what is next. If they continue to make this great event too plain, they will slowly kill the the very thing we all love.

  2. I am almost as old as you are and I cannot recall how many times I have teared up when Back Home Again is playing and those balloons have been released. I have also known for many years that its truly an awful thing for the environment.

    That latex has to end up somewhere. There is no denying that argument. The fact that the previous regime stated that the balloons were biodegradable, was proven false by the Indianapolis Star.

    Yes, I will miss them. Yes I wish there was a safe alternative. But it’s past time to let this one go.

    Mr. Penske will make sure that all of the important traditions continue as he understands (like Al Jr. once said) what Indy means.

    Continuing to do something because “we have always done it” just does not work anymore.

  3. What’s next? No internal combustion engines, no crowds over 35k, no meat products, public transportation only to the track….and you will like it! 🤦‍♂️

  4. billytheskink Says:

    It is certainly disappointing to lose such a long-standing tradition. Much like the shift away from the command being “ladies and gentlemen” to “drivers” starting the engines, it seems to me that the folks most interested in the change are much less likely to be present or future Indycar fans than those who are unbothered by or supportive of the tradition.

    It would be nice if IMS was able to find a way to honor the tradition in some other way. Bring in some hot air balloons? Launch a coordinated set of balloon-appearing drones? Hand out balloons for the crowd to inflate and release? OK, that last one would be silly and annoy a lot of fans (balloons flying wildly across the stands going “ptbbbbbbb”), though I’m sure the kids would get a kick out of it.

  5. On the other hand, did they really cave in or is it a price cut. I’d hate to think of that expense as helium is outrageous now.

  6. northeastvista Says:

    Being one of the oldest fans posting here I agree with George 100%. I have some audio recordings of previous opening ceremonies that I replay every 500 morning. Listen to Jim Phillipi’s tribute to the fallen servicemen and the “greatest spectacle in racing” and “GENTLEMEN start your engines” by Tony Hulman. Chipping away at the traditions will eventually doom the opening ceremonies and I feel bad for my grandchildren who are building on their own 500 Mile Race traditions. Thank God for the past ceremonies that we were able to be part of!

  7. Welcome to the Penske Regime. They are really taking chances with dumping tradition. Indy is ALL about tradition and history. Major League Baseball is the only other entity that comes close to this. History and tradition are everything. They are currently making an equal mess.

    I think its both a cost cutting move and a cave to a bunch of self-righteous leftists who would do away with anything fun or traditional if they could, including Indy. They could make it a better world by going out and personally helping the poor and disadvantaged. But they wouldn’t bother to do that.

    Indy has used balloons as part of their pre-race festivities for years. There are still a lot of birds and other animals in Indiana (at least there were last time I was there) and I have yet to trip over a bunch of old balloons when I go there in May.

  8. “Helium gas prices have risen dramatically since 2019, when the US government sold at a rate of $280 per million cubic feet (Mcf). Now that figure has more than doubled, selling for up to $600/Mcf.”

    https://www.cips.org/supply-management/news/2022/february/helium-supply-crunch-looms-as-us-alters-storage-strategy/#:~:text=Helium%20gas%20prices%20have%20risen,majority%20coming%20from%20the%20FHR.

  9. Tradition USED to matter at IMS. I suppose the beginning of the end of tradition began with uprooting the Race Day morning schedule to accommodate our “partners” at ABC. Time was when you could set your watch by where you were in the morning’s festivities. While NBC has made a good faith effort to reestablish the timetable, it regularly gets “tweaked” to allow for commercials.

    Then, the Jim Phillipi soliloquy seemed to disappear. After his retirement and subsequent passing, remember how many “traditinalists’ demanded that Jim Nabors’ recorded voice be used for “Indiana?”qualifications. (

    And that’s before we even discuss the “games” that have been played with qualificatuons.

    A friend of mine (and former blogger) called some of the anti balloon crowd “ecoscreechers,” probably an accurate and descriptive term. Many of these people would probably prefer that IMS release doves or pigeons or similar poop-filled rats-with-wings. Or maybe they’d like bubbles or foam. Can you imagine the slip and fall litigation that would ensue from surfaces made slippery?

    Meantime, as George said, I hear a lot of mights, mays, and coulds attached to balloons. Is there any concrete documentation of this? If so, I haven’t seen it. It happens once a year, folks; how about all the shopping malls, and businesses NOT named IMS. Any outrage there?

  10. Chris Lukens Says:

    One more tradition tossed on the scrap heap. Soon the goal of many CART partisans will be fulfilled and the 500 will be “just another race.”

  11. George, Recently there was an exhibit here put on buy the world wide balloon artists (who knew there was such a thing) they have been doing these exhibit all over the world and consist of large displays of balloon art, the one here which was the first in the United States completely filled a large gymnasium with a myriad of all kinds of things made with balloons . Walls, ceiling and the floor were were covered and displays and even the floor were covered making the space like a trip through a wonderland.
    In talking with one of the artists I was told that this display used 125,000 balloons. And took a large team of 30 to 40 artists dats to complete. She also told me that when the exhibit was over and all these balloons were “poped” they would fit into 2 large trash bags and were completely bio-degradable.

    Maybe it could be that the speedway didn’t do due diligence and did not know of this type of balloon.

  12. Frank, thank you.
    i did not know about those artists.
    as a result, i learned something new.

    based upon that…Indycar’s balloon just popped.
    no release means it is “every-little-bit” about TV.
    TV says: “our $ pays for who/what/how/when/etc.”

  13. Having never witnessed a balloon show of that magnitude in person, and having watched the Indianapolis 500 only on TV before, where the balloon show is usually only shown shortly, I can only say that I feel indifferent towards it being discontinued. And thus, I won’t miss it.
    However, if a balloon show is anything as spectacular looking from the ground below during the day as a display of fireworks is during the night, I can understand why you will miss it.
    My 1st thought upon reading your headline is quite similar to what some of my forespeakers, Bruce and John, have mentioned: most likely, this is a cost-cutting measure that is being greenwashed by a press release. I can understand why the Speedway wants to invest more effectively.
    However, the sensory overload at the start of the race, to which the balloon display did surely contribute, is one of the things that makes this annual event stand out amongst other annual events and thus makes it special.
    A ballon is probably worth more than my 2c.
    Or so says this viewer from Germany, adding location info, just for the record.

  14. I’ve been to the 500 four times and have always been surprised by how much I enjoy the balloons being let go. It’s signals the start of the entertainment. As Frank above has posted they can be biodegradable so there is no reason to stop this tradition at all. So it’s got to be helium prices I guess.

    We are living in an increasingly puritanical world with a minority being the tail that wags the dog through social media. It will get worse as the narrative is always embraced by big tech, big pharma, the media and bureaucracy’s who like the power and material gains depending on their role. The virtual signalling crowd.

    The pendulum should swing back but by then we will be completely digital and have little freedom. The world economic forum / klaus Schwab will have had their way through Trudeau and its other disciples. The next generations will know nothing else and so won’t mind.

  15. George, all tradition was gone when the month of may was 3 races and a road course race at IMS really kicked off may….

    Heard they might paint The Golden Gate Bridge Purple too ? 🤷‍♂️

    I understand your frustration…it won’t be the same… period.

  16. I am 29 years old and despite our age difference George, we are kindred spirits regarding “change is bad.” I will miss the balloons just as much as you will, I assure you. I grew up watching VHS tapes of the 500 from the late 80’s and early 90’s (one of my favorite moments as a kid was when Al Unser Sr. hit a rabbit at 200+ mph). Tradition IS a big deal!

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