Up, up and away: How the balloons began

Published On May 4, 2016 » 4213 Views» By Donald Davidson » Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 25 days to go, IMS Historian Donald Davidson explains another cherished Indy 500 tradition.

More Donald Davidson: Opening with a bang | The Yellow Shirts | Origins of: the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” | “Back Home Again in Indiana” | Brick-kissing | The milk | The Pace Car Why Indy is a 500-miler | Why it’s 33 cars | How “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines” beganMore 100 days blogs

The tradition of thousands of multi-colored balloons being released to the skies just before the start of the “500” debuted in 1947. Because, for many years, the idea was attributed simply to “Mrs. Hulman,” the assumption was that this meant Tony Hulman’s wife, Mary Fendrich Hulman. It later came to light that the reference was, in fact, to Grace Smith Hulman, who was Tony Hulman’s mother. At some point the ascension was timed to take place during the rendition of “Back Home Again In Indiana,” approximately with the line which begins, “When I think about the moonlight on the Wabash … ”

The inflation process begins the afternoon before the race, with a helium-filled tanker brought over from Terre Haute and a crew of people who for decades have being performing the duties of filling up in excess of 25,000 balloons. It takes several hours. Before long, the balloons are effectively holding up the triangular “roof” of a large tent, a rope threaded through a series of loops at the top holding the two large flaps together. At the appropriate moment, during the singing of the song just before the start, someone pulls the rope through the hoops and the two flaps fold back to release the balloons.

One of our earliest color balloon pictures on file, from 1956.

One of our earliest color balloon pictures on file, from 1956.

Releasing the balloons before the 2000 race.

Releasing the balloons before the 2000 race.

 

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Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.
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