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Great Forest Park Balloon Race 2012

Best-attended one-day race in the country lifts off Saturday, Sept. 15

At top, the beautiful Balloon Glow from last year’s Great Forest Park Balloon Race. This year’s Balloon Glow is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 14, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. photo courtesy of Great Forest Park Balloon Race, Inc. (click for larger version)
September 12, 2012
Every September, they stand out starkly over the skyline of the St. Louis region, drawing "oohs" and "aahs" like a carnival coming to town. Their rainbow shades in the sky recall the daring first days of aviation history.

In pursuit of the biggest bunny throughout the land – the Energizer "Hot" Hare – the bright beacons of flight draw crowds from all over to the lift-off locale in Forest Park. That's command central for 70 hot air balloons participating in the best-attended, one-day race in the United States – the Great Forest Park Balloon Race.

This year, the race, which will be held Sept. 15, celebrates 40 years of working with the wind. The race site has moved around Forest Park, settling in at Central Field near the Jewel Box for both the Balloon Glow from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday night and the festivities on Saturday, which will run from noon to 6:30 p.m. (Sunday is included if bad weather delays the race).

The Great Forest Park Balloon Race is free and open to the public, except for the "Glow in the Park" dinner/dance benefiting the Humane Society of Missouri and Forest Park. (Check out www.greatforestparkballoonrace.com for event details.)

Starting with just six balloons and nine people, the race now includes 70 propane-fired hot air balloons and draws 85,000 spectators.

Seventy balloons will take part in The Great Forest Park Balloon Race. West End Word file photo (click for larger version)
A photo contest lets racegoers capture the beauty of the balloons. The sideshow on Saturday offers an array of eats and activities for kids of every age including the Purina Pro Plan Children's Entertainment Area and Incredible Dogs, food courts, pony rides, local bands, a human chess board, bunny ears and more.

Four fun-loving, risk-taking balloonists run the race with support from family, friends and a slew of sponsors including Energizer, PNC Bank and plenty others. John Marlow, John Schaumburg, Dan Schettler and Ted Staley stepped in four years after renowned balloonists Nikki and Don Caplan and John O'Toole began the brouhaha in 1973.

In the midst of the mayhem on Saturday, organizers and others will gather for an annual group shot and reflect on the race's evolution, said Marlow, president of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race.

"We see this whole thing and wonder where it all came from," he said. "By some strange luck, the four of us have been able to give this to the people of St. Louis. That's an exhilarating feeling."

Outlining race particulars, Marlow said the goal for all hot air balloons is to come closest to the Energizer Bunny Hot "Hare" balloon leading the pack.

The bunny – which is taller than the Statue of Liberty and is the largest hot air balloon in the U.S. – launches at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Fifteen minutes later, the other balloons will give chase, bounding after the bunny as it ducks and dips with the wind. When the bunny lands and puts an "X" on the spot, the "hound" balloons try to drop a bag of birdseed closest to the mark.

A balloon flies low over Forest Park shortly after takeoff during the 2011 balloon race event. photo courtesy of Great Forest Park Balloon Race, Inc. (click for larger version)
Race organizers say some years the winner comes within 12 inches of the "X," while other years the best balloon lands over a mile away.

That it's a wild whirl is without question, Marlow said. Race balloons land in all sorts of spots depending on the wind course – rooftops, graveyards, parks and even private areas (one year coming down in music legend Chuck Berry's yard).

When a balloon landed near the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame, the nuns had a heyday taking tether rides.

"They were all laughing like kids as they climbed in and out of the basket in their habits," Marlow said.

When a landing occurred in a north St. Louis field, an older woman ran outside with shampoo in her hair to see what her grandchildren were worked up about.

"Good things don't happen around here much," the woman said, according to Marlow.

One balloon take-off especially touched the organizers. Young cancer survivors had gathered on the roof of Children's Hospital on race day hoping to spy the balloons as they launched. Although hot air balloons depend solely on the wind for direction, by some kind fate the Energizer Bunny balloon and those following dipped right over the children, affording them a close-up view, Marlow said.

Since balloon launch from a city site is no easy task, race organizers invite only the best hot air balloonists to join, Marlow said. All balloonists are licensed in compliance with FAA standards. Interestingly, Great Forest Park Balloon Race participants have clearance to fly over Lambert International airspace if necessary.

As in past years, this year’s Sept. 15 race gets underway with The Energizer hot “Hare” balloon lifting off at 4:30 p.m. photo courtesy of Great Forest Park Balloon Race Inc. (click for larger version)
Marlow's own history with balloons is marked by experiment, just like that of the first flyers, Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis de' Arlandes. The two Frenchman launched from the grounds near the Palace of Versailles on Sept. 19, 1783. They followed ducks, a rooster and a sheep as the first beings to fly in a hot air balloon (also called a Montgolfier after inventors Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier).

Marlow became entranced with balloons as a young man living in the Central West End and working as an advertising executive. His pilot friend Ted Staley introduced him and the other partners to the wonders of flight in that fashion.

"We had this old balloon with way too many hours behind it," Marlow said. "We flew it into trees and buildings and burned the fabric of the envelope (the fabric that billows with heated air and creates lift) here and there."

Marlow said he and the guys would try to repair the fabric themselves with the help of a sewing machine and a case of beer. They learned over time that increasingly tight FAA standards oversee repairs and other matters because hot air balloons are considered aircraft.

"We finally became pretty good pilots because of the need," said Marlow, noting three of the four organizers boast wins at the Great Forest Park Balloon Race.

Marlow said at one point he and his partners were among the biggest balloon dealers in the country. They opted to sell hot air balloons, initially to receive discounts on new purchases, he said.

"We were all busy with jobs and families and didn't expect the race to get so big," he said.

In 2000, race organizers achieved heights of recognition when the Library of Congress honored the event as a local legacy. The library holds photos, programs, posters, videos, pins and pilot gifts from the Great Forest Park Balloon Race.

"There's a thrill in hot air ballooning," Marlow said. "Floating high up in the air, all is quiet. Everything is left behind. You can see the world from a different perspective."

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