An Excerpt from the Book:
“The Race is our way of giving back to St. Louis”
It all started on a crisp December afternoon in 1973 at Cricket Field in Forest Park with six balloons, a dozen or so spectators and a couple of dogs. Some of the enthusiasts were seeing a hot-air balloon for the first time. Back then, there were maybe 200 balloons – in the world. By 1977, four balloonists were putting together an event which would become “The Great Forest Park Balloon Race” which has grown to be a two-day event with over 150,000 people attending.
I’d like to say I got involved in hot air ballooning after taking a beautiful flight and being captured by the fantasy of reliving the experience of man’s first flight. I’d like to say something like that but it isn’t true.
A good friend, John Primm, asked if I’d like to join him and three other guys to buy a used hot air balloon. I’d never met my partners- to-be: Ted Staley, Dan Schettler and John Schaumburg. The price didn’t seem bad – $500 apiece (today a new balloon starts at $45,000). Of the five of us only Ted had actually seen a balloon. We didn’t know an FAA license was required to fly. We also didn’t know that buying a used balloon was worse than buying a used Fiat. Plus, balloons go very high.
So in the early 1970s, I ended up with a share of a beat-up balloon, three new friends, and a flight jacket. We have remained partners ever since. Our friend Primm moved to Colorado, and remains an honored guest when he comes back to St Louis on Race weekend.
Don and Nikki Kaplan and John O’Toole were the organizers of the first Race, which was basically a fun flight from the Park. They figured flying balloons out of Forest Park could become a great annual event. They were right.
In 1977, Don Sarno and Henry Fett took over and asked if we wanted to join them. We did not. “Absolutely not. We have real jobs, and no time.” We reluctantly came around, but just for one year we said. That was 44 years ago.
Don was an excellent pilot and continued to fly every year until his too early passing. (Appropriately, Don’s ashes were spread from his balloon over St Louis.) For years Henry served as the Balloon-meister – the fellow who says “Gentlemen, light your burners!”
We first launched from Cricket Field, then the Golf Course, followed by Art Hill – and we outgrew each of them. In 2002 we moved to Central Fields, which is an ideal venue and the perfect size: Big.
We always say, “It’s just a balloon race”, but it has become much more. Four generations of families have attended. We estimate more than five million people have attended or watched the event from the city. As the balloons take off, we can hear the thousands inside Forest Park roar, then thousands more wave and cheer as the balloons pass over the city. We fly over crowds of spectators on Art Hill, on the rooftops of the Chase Hotel and Children’s hospital, over dozens and dozens of backyard race watching parties, everywhere throughout the city. Every year, we look at each other and say, “Where the hell did all of this come from?”
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