Race Weekend Central

The Brickyard 400: A Tradition Filled With… Balloons? & a Word With the Grand Marshal

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – At the beginning of the Brickyard 400 and the Indianapolis 500, there is a long-running tradition of a release of helium-filled balloons. It is believed that in 1947, the first release of the multi-colored balloons was timed with the start of the race. In 1950, it was changed to coincide with the final notes of the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” and continues at that time today.

With the running of the inaugural Brickyard 400, the tradition was implemented to coincide with the command to start the engines, one they continue to perform to this day. It takes quite an effort to make this part of the weekend take place, and Frontstretch sat down with the man in charge of making the balloons take flight to see just what is involved.

The company in charge of putting on the balloon release is All-American Tent and Awning based in Terre Haute, Ind. The man assigned with the task of organizing the all-volunteer crew that puts everything together is Greg Kelly, who has been with All-American since 1986 when his brother got him a job with the company. They provide the balloon release for the Brickyard 400 and the Indianapolis 500, the only two balloon releases they do all year.

The crew that fills the balloons is an all-volunteer crew, many of whom participate every year. They have people come from as far away as Florida and even Australia to be a part of the extravaganza. Here’s how it works: the crew puts up two tents that are joined along the main seam down the middle with strings and ropes. They then fill the tents with 39,000 helium-filled balloons.

For those that are environmentally conscious, the balloons are an advanced formula that is biodegradable, which means once they are hit by water, they dissolve and pose no threat to the environment or animals. They started filling the balloons at 5:00 Saturday afternoon and finished by 8:30 Saturday night.

When the command to start engines is given, people on both ends of the tents will pull on the ropes laced through them, the tops will open, and the balloons will be released skyward. It is an exhilarating part of the festivities surrounding the race and a labor of love for the people involved.

A Chat With the Brickyard 400 Grand Marshal

Tyler Hansbrough, the former NCAA player of the year, reigning national champion at North Carolina and latest member of the Indiana Pacers, was the grand marshal for the 16th running of the Brickyard 400. It is an unfamiliar place for Hansbrough, but he is already being embraced by the Indianapolis family.

Hansbrough grew up in Missouri and was not a NASCAR fan. Even attending the University of North Carolina, near the heart of stock car racing, didn’t afford him the opportunity to become one. But now that he has been given this chance, he is trying to immerse himself in the sport. He’s already chosen a favorite driver: Elliott Sadler. Sadler is a big UNC fan, so Hansbrough has adopted him as his top guy. He’s also a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr. thanks to his admiration for the Carolina Blue as well. When asked about Jeff Burton, a noted Duke fan, Hansbrough just said “No.”

Hansbrough’s biggest fear this weekend was the climb into the flagstand. It is a ladder straight up to the small terrace sitting above the speedway, and Hansbrough says he’s nervous about falling off. The only other worry he has is his flag-waving technique. Hansborough heard about Peyton Manning having a less-than-impressive wave before the Indianapolis 500, so he is determined to make it look better than that. The flagman did give him an opportunity to practice ahead of time to make him feel more comfortable, though. He’s not concerned about dropping the flag because they have a tether to hold it to his wrist.

Asked about the overall experience, Hansbrough said he had no idea how much effort went into putting on this event. The speedway is a huge place and the logistics are a bit overwhelming. The NBA player hopes that this was a successful first effort, and looks forward to becoming a longtime NASCAR fan.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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