Mixed Feelings on a Lost Tradition

Photo: Matt Kryger, Indystar

Balloons will no longer fill the race day sky over IMS after the singing of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced earlier this week that the traditional balloon spectacle is “indefinitely paused.” The spectacle which inspired Wonder Bread is no more.

A speedway spokesperson said the “pause” is a result of environmental and wildlife concerns. Penske Entertainment will have a news conference tomorrow afternoon to announce key sustainability initiatives. The balloon halt is likely na part of that. The balloons haven’t been released on Race Day since 2019. the last two years the launches were cancelled as part of the Speedway’s COVID protocols.

I have mixed feelings about not seeing the balloons. It is one of the things I really look forward to in the pre-race ceremonies. Seeing the balloons means the command to start engines is just seconds away. The balloons were a fitting ending to the song, celebrating the fact that we have alln gathered again for the Memorial Day Classic.

On the other hand, I do recognize the environmental issue that balloons cause. I am glad the track is taking steps to be good corporate citizens. There are other environmental issues associated with the race that can’t be avoided, like vehicles and waste material.

The bigger issue I have is with the erosion of tradition. Over the years, traditions relating toi the 500 have disappeared or changed beyond recognition. Practice for the race used to begin May 1. Now there are four days of practice before qualifying. Qualifying itself has gone through numerous changes in the 105 year history of the event.

Some have suggested alternatives like hot air balloons or tethered balloons that can be popped after the race starts. I like those ideas, but I think it would take a long time for either one to gain acceptance. I don’t care for the speedway’s plan for a second flyover. That seems like an empty gesture with no real feeling of joy like the balloons deliver.

Pre race ceremonies as a whole have undergone a transformation over the last 60 years. There was not an invocation before 1974, when the race was moved to Sunday. The pre race used to be a tight 20 minute affair with just the national anthem, “Indiana”, and Taps. I am nt a fan of the extended pre race that we have now. I find it too long and drawn out.

Over time, everyone’s feeling about the balloons will subside. After Jim Cornelison belts out the last note of the word home, no one will be complaining about the lack of balloons. It will be time to go racing.

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