Saturday, May 9, 2009

Scott And Carol Present - A Glowing Report - What Goes Up Must Come Down!

On March 20, 1909 Carl Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler incorporated the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company to build what they thought would be used as a test track mainly by the many automobile manufacturing companies located in Indiana. A cornfield owned by the Pressley family located about six miles from downtown Indianapolis was purchased and construction began that spring. It was designed from the beginning to be a place where vehicles could run wide open, with long straights and flat turns, like those encountered on public roadways. As it remains today, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a privately held company, not beholden to government funding.

The first race was for gas-filled balloons, the United States National Balloon Championships was held on June 5, 1909. An estimated 40,000 people watched the ascension, most from outside the gate, as the ensuing traffic jam prevented even the Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall from gaining admission to the track. To commemorate the Centennial, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and ATT Yellow Pages presented the Balloon Festival absolutely free to anyone at the track, and outside on the west side of Indianapolis.

photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

He left his car in the congestion, and attempted to walk into the track but didn’t make it before the launch. Luckily for him and thousands of others, the balloons rose high into the sky before drifting away towards the southeast. There are varying reports about the results, but it is generally accepted that the championship division winner made it to Alabama before landing. To find out more about the differences between helium and hot air balloons, we talked to Kevin Knapp, certified to fly both types of aircraft.

"Gas balloons fly for days instead of hours," he said. "I can fill my propane tank with 18gallons of gas, at $3.00 per gallon, that’s enough for about 2 hours, the minimum for this race. When I fill my gas balloon with helium, it costs about $11,000.00. I can fly to Europe and fly over there with hydrogen for almost a week for that price." Kevin is an experienced balloonist, winning the gas division by flying from New Mexico to Florida, a flight covering 1037 miles and lasting over three days. He even flew part of the time over the Gulf of Mexico before catching the "hook," a wind change that carried him back over land. Gas ballooning is all about dropping ballast and venting to control altitude and reach equilibrium.

Hot air balloons usually are round and get narrower towards the bottom where the burners sit above the basket. If you see a hot air balloon that is narrow at both the top and bottom, that’s a performance balloon that can rise and fall rapidly due to the streamlined shape at each end. Many have a skirt above the burners to help catch the wind and guide the heat into the envelope. A gas balloon is usually very circular and does not have an opening at the bottom to get heart into the envelope. He is the only picture we have of the first balloon race in 1909.

For the Founders Race, the hot air balloons traveled between six and seven miles before touching down all around the intersection of Bluff and West, in metro Indianapolis. They were limited in altitude because the winds at 3,000 feet would have taken them directly over the Indianapolis Airport, and the FAA frowns on such interruptions of domestic air travel. So today they stayed relatively low, giving the whole west side of the city a show. But that wasn’t all.

Saturday evening IMS and the ATT Yellow Pages invited everyone to come and see a glow or hot air balloons after dark. There was also music and the souvenir shop was open giving fans an opportunity to see what’s new for the Centennial. Since the balloons wouldn’t be launching, they could also see two balloons called shapes, or a nontraditional design that hadn’t flown in the morning due to weather. Unlike the first race, everything was very organized getting into the track for the evening’s festivities. The track had even put portable light units at various intersections to make exiting from the park quick and safe; you have to remember that they don’t do night activities with large crowds at Indianapolis Motor Speedway out of consideration for the neighbor hoods surrounding the speedway.

The first of the shaped balloons was the Hot Hare commonly know as the Energizer Bunny. This is this advertising icons twentieth year, and Indianapolis is just the first stop on the twenty city tour in 2009. Slightly taller than 100 Indy Cars stacked nose to tail, this balloon is taller than the Statue of Liberty. When you look up into the bunny, you can read "Keep Going." That is just the base of the ears, which are sixty feet tall on their own. Glo Kehoe, the pilot offer up some amazing insights. "With roughly three times the volume of a regular balloon, you have to take things very slowly. I try to pay special attention to my vertical clearance because this balloon is so much taller that average. I also need a much larger place to set down, due to the size of the envelope." Glo has been flying shapes since 1984, and she knows what she’s doing because the last Hot Hare lasted for eight seasons.

All the balloons had two tethers attached to their chase vehicle. The idea is to get the balloon up and then use the burners to illuminate the envelopes, (or make them glow.) The other shaped balloon was sponsored by United Van Lines and shaped like a truck, with the driver waving out the window. Listening to the pilot talk to the gathered crowd, we picked up these comments. "It flies like a big truck, since it is flat on both the top and bottom, it doesn’t change altitude quickly at all, and you have to think really far ahead since it is so slow to react. It would cost about triple the price of a regular balloon to replace it." It is roughly the same volume as a regular balloon just shaped different.

The night finished with lots different glowing styles, looking like beautiful giant sized Christmas tree decorations scattered through the grass. They did it together, randomly, and in lines and various patterns. When they all glowed together, the grass looked like daylight. As the burners were extinguished, it was time for the fireworks.

The fireworks were a great way to end our day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway! Thanks to the wonderful folks at IMS, the sponsers and the wonderful balloonists who shared some time & stories with us.

Scott & Carol