IMS pauses balloon release at Indy 500, partially due to environmental concerns

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There won’t be a balloon release at this year’s Indianapolis 500 in May, officials told IndyStar in an exclusive interview.

For those keeping track, this actually will be the third year in a row that the race has gone off without the long-standing tradition that involves unleashing thousands of balloons at the pre-race celebration. The reason this year is different, though, and it just might stick.

During the past two years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway held off on the pre-race balloon release largely due to COVID-19 protocols limiting the amount of staff on site.

But this year, according to vice president of communications Alex Damron, the decision has taken into account the environmental and wildlife impacts — issues critics have raised for years.

A divisive tradition

Speedway officials said they want the pre-race events to bring about unity as a way to honor military heroes, celebrate sporting excellence and build excitement.

“We do recognize the release has become more divisive in recent years," Damron said. “We’ve received significant feedback from groups and individuals opposed to it as well as an increasing number of our fans. Our goal with the pre-race celebration is always to bring people together.”

The balloon release flies over the Pagoda before the103rd Indianapolis 500 at  Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 26, 2019.
The balloon release flies over the Pagoda before the103rd Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 26, 2019.

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

Environmentalists have been calling for the release — one of the few regular large balloon releases that have still been happening across the country — to end for years. In 2018, IMS’ spokesperson said they had no intention of ending the practice. Later, however, it said it was reevaluating.

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

Indy 500 balloons: Why there won't be a balloon release at the Indy 500 in 2021

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

Though the balloons are released in Indianapolis, they can travel quite far. In 2018, one woman even found what she believed to be an Indy 500 balloon in Ohio — 100 miles away.

When the balloons land they make their way into the ecosystem and the food chain. If they touch down in lakes and rivers, they may eventually flow into the ocean, too. Along the way, they may be eaten by turtles or other animal species that either suffocate or can starve as the debris builds up in their stomachs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Emma Nelson has previously told IndyStar.

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

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

After 11 months, the balloons were dug out and examined. Some of them did degrade, but not significantly enough to remove risk to wildlife. Even now, nearly four years later, those balloons immersed in water are still largely intact — they have remained in jars in the IndyStar office during that time.

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

It takes several years, critics say, for balloons to degrade enough that they’re not dangerous to wildlife.

Movement to ban balloon releases

There is a larger movement against balloon releases across the country. Such releases have been banned in a handful of states and cities, according to the anti-balloon release organization called Balloons Blow. The group’s founder funded a billboard asking IMS to end the campaign in 2019, though it was removed by the billboard company shortly after it went up for being an “attack ad.”

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

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

Lower the IMS environmental footprint

Damron said that IMS is “committed to increasing the sustainability” of the Indy 500 and lowering its environmental footprint. That extends beyond the balloon release.

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

The IMS installed LED lighting, water-conserving faucets and paper-free hand dryers at the facility. It provided used banners to People for Urban Progress, a nonprofit that creates bags and other items out of recycled materials. The Speedway also created a month-long food redistribution effort to donate unserved meals to Second Helpings.

It is working to encourage spectators to cycle, rather than drive to the event. And the electricity used at the venue on race weekend was carbon-neutral through the purchase of certified renewable electricity.

All of these efforts earned the 2021 run of the Indy 500 a certification from the Council for Responsible Sport. This makes the IMS the first motorsports facility to receive this certification, Damron said.

In another first, an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions was completed for the event. This provides a baseline to develop new approaches around energy and fuel use, team travel as well as spectator travel in future events.

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

Damron said they are comfortable to say that the environment is part of the decision to pause the balloon release for now. IMS understands the historical connection of the balloon release to 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 at IMS.”

While the Speedway is not committing to never doing the release again, Damron said, it will continue to evaluate how to celebrate the Indy 500 and its traditions moving forward.

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

Forgoing the release also provides “operational flexibility” when it comes to the staffing required and space needed for the balloon tent, Damron said. By not having the release, he added that it will allow for expanded activities for fans in the midway where the balloon tent used to be.

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

IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indy 500 balloon release at IMS paused indefinitely