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” began | More 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.