Balloons Blow takes the checkered flag after a five-year campaign––and wins again in Nebraska!
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana––The Florida-based all-volunteer grassroots activist group Balloons Blow on April 21, 2022 earned a victory lap, taking the checkered flag in a ten-year campaign against the ceremonial release of as many as 40,000 balloons just before the start of the Indianapolis 500 car race.
“Finally, after over 70 years of mass littering events at the Indy 500, we did it!” exulted Balloons Blow on Facebook. “Thanks to all of you who spoke up and let their voices heard! No more annual flyaway trash at this event! Woot!”
The largely positive public and media response to the apparently end of the Indianapolis 500 balloon release may have influenced the decision by the University of Nebraska, announced on May 23, 2022, to suspend a tradition of releasing red balloons after the Cornhuskers’ first touchdown at home games.
The tradition, despite claims that it went back farther, appears to have begun with the opening of Cornhuskers Stadium in 1962.
Cumulatively, the University of Nebraska balloon releases put even more balloons into the environment than the Indianapolis 500 balloon releases.
The university attributed the suspension of balloon releases to a global shortage of helium caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the balloon releases have became increasingly controversial.
Recalled Sam Cooper for Yahoo Sports, “In 2016, one man sued the university to halt the balloon release, saying it violated federal laws related to waste. The man argued that the balloons and attached ribbons presented a ‘serious threat’ to wildlife. Last year (2021), the University of Nebraska-Lincoln student government voted to end the tradition altogether.”
“Environmental & wildlife impacts”
The Balloons Blow posting celebrating the Indy 500 balloon launch suspension came hours after Indianapolis Star reporter Sarah Bowman revealed, “There won’t be a balloon release at this year’s Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 2022, officials told IndyStar in an exclusive interview.
“During the past two years,” Bowman wrote, “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 [Indianapolis Motor Speedway] vice president of communications Alex Damron, the decision has taken into account the environmental and wildlife impacts — issues critics have raised for years.”
Balloon launch began with longtime owner’s mama
The ceremonial balloon launch originated, according to the official Indianapolis Motor Speedway history, with a 1947 suggestion from then-speedway owner Tony Hulman’s mother, Grace Smith Hulman.
Opened in 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway introduced the Indy 500 car race in 1911. Indianapolis factories at the time manufactured more cars than were made in any city outside of Detroit.
World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, an automotive entrepreneur himself who had driven in the first four runnings of the Indy 500, bought the speedway in 1927, but shut it down for the duration of U.S. involvement in World War II.
Rickenbackers were bad news for animals
The Rickenbacker family were no friends of animals. At suggestion of his Swiss-born mother Lizzie, Eddie Rickenbacker according to biographer David W. Lewis in 1914 “paid a farm boy to catch him a live bat. Rickenbacker then extracted the bat’s still-beating heart and tied it to his middle finger with a red silk thread, according to Lizzie’s instructions,” before winning a Fourth of July race in Sioux City, Iowa.
Tony Hulman bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Rickenbacker in 1945. Rickenbacker, who also cofounded and long directed Eastern Airlines, about five years later bought the 2,700-acre Patio Ranch in Hunt, Texas, in partnership with Richard Friedrich.
Rickenbacker and Friedrich then turned the Patio Ranch into a hunting ranch, featuring imported exotic wildlife, but sold it to the Boy Scouts of America in 1957.
Hulmans stuck to tradition
Hulman, meanwhile, left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to his family at his death in 1977. Family members continued to own and operate the speedway until 2020, adamantly resisting requests from Balloon Blows founder Danielle Vosburgh to discontinue the ceremonial balloon launches.
The hazards that plastic waste from balloons set adrift pose to wildlife was already well-documented before Vosburgh was born, but the Hulman family paid little attention to the evidence, and to less focused campaigns against balloon launches waged by a variety of major animal and environmental advocacy organizations.
Vosburgh, reported Douglas Bevington for Counterpunch on May 18, 2020, formed Balloons Blow in 2011, at age 23, after participating in Florida beach clean-ups and seeing first hand the effects of balloon waste––often mistaken by birds and sea turtles for the jellyfish that form parts of their diets––on marine life.
“Balloons Blow began as a website and a social media presence, and soon Vosburgh was hearing from people around the world who have witnessed the widespread impact of balloons—including an example of one found high up on a glacier,” Bevington wrote.
“Danielle decided to try to stop some particularly highly-profile, large-scale balloon releases. One of her early targets was the Clemson University football team in South Carolina,” Bevington recounted, “which had been featuring huge balloon releases at home games since the early 1980s. It took seven years of persistent advocacy,” but in 2018 Clemson quit the balloon releases.
Billboard removal backfired on speedway
Balloons Blow then focused on the Indianapolis 500, targeted since 2012.
“In 2019,” Bevington said, “with financial assistance from the Fund for Wild Nature, Danielle purchased a billboard next to the racetrack calling out the harms from balloons. However, within hours of the sign going up, the billboard company took it back down. Danielle was told that the company was under pressure from Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“The removal of the Balloons Blow billboard then attracted significant media coverage.”
Multi-millionaire Roger Penske bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the Hulman family. A former racing car driver himself, before developing his business empire, Penske in 1960 gave his chance to try to qualify for the Indy 500 to then-fellow Indianapolis rookie Mario Andretti, who went on to win the Indy 500 in 1969.
Penske appears to have heard the Balloons Blow message.
When will plant-based milk come to the winner’s circle?
Now what about the custom of the Indianapolis 500 winner being handed milk to drink in the winner’s circle?
Louis Meyer, the first three-time Indy 500 winner, was not seen drinking milk after his 1928 victory, but he did drink buttermilk after his 1933 and 1936 victories.
According to the Indianapolis 500 official history, “An executive with what was then the Milk Foundation was so elated when he saw the moment captured in a photograph in the sports section of his newspaper the following morning that he vowed to make sure it would be repeated in coming years. There was a period between 1947-55 when milk was apparently no longer offered, but the practice was revived in 1956 and has been a tradition ever since.”
Lewis Hamilton, the renowned vegan Formula I champion, has never raced at Indianapolis, so has had no opportunity to win there and challenge the tradition.
Drivers are asked before the Indianapolis 500 what kind of milk they want to drink, should they win. Some have reputedly chosen skim milk rather than whole milk, but none so far are known to have asked for oat milk, soy milk, coconut milk, rice milk, or any of the other many vegan alternatives to cow’s milk.