Indy 500 balloon release at IMS suspended indefinitely

There will be no balloon releases at this year’s Indianapolis 500 in May, officials told IndyStar in an exclusive interview.

For those keeping track, this will actually be the third year in a row that the race has been held without the long-standing tradition of releasing thousands of balloons during the pre-race celebration. The reason this year is different, though, and it could stay.

For the past two years, Indianapolis Motor Speedway has delayed pre-race ball release largely due to COVID-19 protocols limiting the number of on-site personnel.

But this year, according to vice president of communications Alex Damron, the decision took into account the impacts on the environment and wildlife – issues that critics have been raising for years.

A tradition that divides

Speedway officials said they want the pre-race events to bring unity to honor military heroes, celebrate athletic excellence and build excitement.

“We recognize that the release has become more controversial in recent years,” Damron said. “We have received significant feedback from groups and individuals who oppose it, as well as a growing number of our fans. Our goal with the pre-race celebration is always to bring people together.

The balloon release has been a staple of the event for more than 70 years — a tradition that’s on par with the winner’s celebratory milk bottle, kissing the bricks and singing “(Back Home Again In) Indiana.”

Environmentalists have been calling for an end to the release – one of the few regular releases of large balloons still happening across the country – for years. In 2018, the IMS spokesperson said it had no plans to end the practice. Later, however, he said he was reassessing.

Still, this is the first time the Speedway has said environmental considerations played a role.

Indy 500 balloons: Why there will be no balloon releases at the Indy 500 in 2021

How far do balloons travel and how do they affect the environment?

Although balloons are released in Indianapolis, they can travel quite a distance. In 2018, a woman even found what she believed was an Indy 500 balloon in Ohio, 100 miles away.

When the balloons land, they enter the ecosystem and the food chain. If they land in lakes and rivers, they can also flow into the ocean. Along the way, they can be eaten by turtles or other animal species who suffocate or starve to death as the debris builds up in their stomachs, the US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist previously told IndyStar. , Emma Nelson.

IndyStar environmental reporter Emily Hopkins presents the results of an 11-month experiment testing the biodegradability of balloons, at IndyStar in Indianapolis on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. In light of conversations over the past year surrounding the balloon launch Indy 500, Hopkins set out to find which environments and elements cause balloons to break down the fastest.

As part of a citizen science experiment, IndyStar conducted a test in 2018 to analyze the claim that balloons released by IMS each year are biodegradable and therefore pose little risk to wildlife. IndyStar used the type of ball used in the 2017 version and immersed the balls in fresh and salt water, soil and compost.

After 11 months, the balloons were dug up and examined. Some of them have degraded, but not enough to eliminate the risk to wildlife. Even now, nearly four years later, those water-submerged balloons are still largely intact – they sat in jars at the IndyStar office during that time.

Indy 500 balloons: IMS claims the balloons are biodegradable. We tested them.

According to reviews, it takes several years for the balloons to degrade enough to not be dangerous to wildlife.

Movement to ban balloon releases

There is a bigger movement against balloon releases across the country. Such discharges have been banned in a handful of states and cities, according to the anti-balloon organization called Balloons Blow. The group’s founder funded a billboard calling on IMS to end the campaign in 2019, though it was taken down by the billboard company shortly after it was deemed a “dirty ad.” ‘offensive”.

A billboard message calls on Indianapolis Motor Speedway to retire its decades-old tradition of releasing thousands of race morning balloons, seen on 16th Street just west of the intersection with Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis on Monday, March 18, 2019. The billboard, commissioned by environmental education and activism website, was funded by donations and a grant from the Wilderness Fund.

The Balloon Council, which represents the balloon manufacturing industry, also publicly opposed the release of rubber balloons in 2018. It recommended that balloons be weighted or tied, then popped and disposed of properly.

Reduce the IMS environmental footprint

Damron said IMS is “committed to increasing the sustainability” of the Indy 500 and reducing its environmental footprint. It goes beyond releasing balloons.

“That’s why we recently made changes that increase the efficiency of our energy and water use and reduce food waste on site,” he said.

IMS has installed LED lighting, water-saving faucets and paperless hand dryers in the facility. He provided used banners to People for Urban Progress, a nonprofit that creates bags and other items from recycled materials. The Speedway also created a month-long food redistribution effort to donate unserved meals to Second Helpings.

He strives to encourage spectators to cycle rather than drive to the event. And the electricity used at the venue on the race weekend was carbon neutral thanks to the purchase of certified renewable electricity.

All of this effort has earned the 2021 Indy 500 race a certification from the Council for Responsible Sport. This makes IMS the first motorsport facility to receive this certification, Damron said.

Another first, an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions was carried out for the event. This provides a basis for developing new approaches to energy and fuel consumption, team travel as well as spectator travel at future events.

IMS photographer Chris Jones stands atop the media center as balloons are released behind him prior to the start of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 26, 2019.

Damron said they were comfortable saying the environment was part of the decision to suspend the balloon release for the time being. IMS understands the historic connection the ball release has with many Indy 500 fans. Still, he said “we are confident that this year’s pre-race activities will be as exciting and celebratory as any we have had.” had at IMS.”

While the Speedway is not committing to never do the ride again, Damron said, it will continue to evaluate how to celebrate the Indy 500 and its traditions in the future.

Instead of balloons this year, the Speedway will continue to add a second flyover to the pre-race show at the end of the Back Home Again song.

Forgoing the release also provides “operational flexibility” in terms of the personnel required and the space needed for the balloon tent, Damron said. By not having the version, he added that it will allow expanded activities for fans halfway where the balloon tent was.

Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar environmental journalists: join The Scrub on Facebook.

The IndyStar Environmental Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the non-profit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.