A giant pink Energizer bunny coasting over Interstate 64. Scores of checkered balloons in every color of the rainbow dipping over the trees of Forest Park. Dozens of illuminated hot air balloons glowing against a dark blue sky, reflections shimmering in the waters of the Grand Basin below. For St. Louisans young and old, images of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race are a source of comfort and joy – and a testament to one of the city’s most-loved traditions.
The race, which celebrated 50 years this year, is widely considered one of the best in the country – it was even inducted into the Library of Congress and honored as a “Local Legacy” in 2000. But the event started as a small affair in 1973, featuring just seven balloons and about a dozen spectators on Cricket Field in the northern edge of Forest Park. Since then, it’s grown to new heights.
Now one of the longest-running balloon races in the country, the Great Forest Park Balloon Race, presented by PNC Bank, features between 50 and 60 balloons, from classic teardrop-shaped balloons to novelty ones resembling an elephant, an apple or, fittingly this year, a birthday cake. Each year, the race and the accompanying Balloon Glow, which features dozens of inflated hot air balloons lit up like giant, colorful lanterns, bring more than 100,000 spectators to Forest Park. The race even persevered through the challenging times of 2020; while circumstances prohibited any kind of large-scale event, the race was adapted to feature more than 50 “surprise and delight” flights over neighborhoods throughout St. Louis during the traditional race weekend to help honor frontline workers and to “Lift Up St. Louis.”
Over the years, a few things have changed – the event has moved through multiple locations across Forest Park, for instance – but one thing has remained a constant: it’s still free and open to the public. John Schettler, one of six organizers of the event and a son of one of the original founders, says that’s integral to the mission of the race, adding that the support of sponsors like PNC Bank make it possible to keep such a large event free.
“There’s less and less free events these days, especially of this size,” he says. “That’s something that the founders were set on doing: they wanted to make sure this was free. That’s something that my generation and the new partners 100% agree with. We’re here to make sure this stays free to the public for forever.”
But the most unique aspect of the race, by far, is the location. The Great Forest Park Balloon Race is one of the few balloon races in the world to launch from the heart of a large metropolitan city. While balloon races have become commonplace across the country, most are based in predominantly rural areas. The Great Forest Park Balloon Race, however, takes place smack dab in the middle of St. Louis, with dozens of balloons coasting over trees, highways, homes and even skyscrapers. For that reason, pilots can participate in the event by invitation only, as a high level of experience is necessary.
“We handpick the best pilots in the country to come fly here, because it’s a unique event that we’re one of the only balloon races over a metropolitan area,” Schettler says. “Most of them are out in the middle of the country and with tons of wide open area.”
“They’re some of the most experienced pilots in the United States,” adds Jessica Stegen, the director of communications and event production for the race. “They love coming to St. Louis, because we fly out of a city. Most of the places that these pilots fly, you’re out in the middle of rural country. You’re not dealing with trees and skyscrapers and highways and airports. They absolutely love the challenge. They love being able to fly low and say hi to everyone. They just love the tradition of it.”
The race itself operates a little differently than many might expect; namely, it’s one race that’s not about speed. Rather, it’s about skill – and navigating the wind.
The race operates in a “hare and hound” format. The hare balloon – for the past six years, the PNC Bank balloon – launches first with a 15-minute head start. The hound balloons then take chase immediately after in a few different waves. The pilot of the hare balloon sets a target, laying out a fabric “X” on the ground. It’s up to the pilots of the remaining balloons to fly over that target and drop a small bean bag as close to the center as possible. Sometimes, the winner drops their bag right on the center of the target; sometimes, they don’t even get within a quarter of a mile. That’s part of the fun.
“I think the most fun part about that is, some years the winds will shift in that 15 minutes,” Stegen says. “The winner could be two miles away, it could be 20 miles away, it could be 200 feet away. It’s different every year and it’s all about the winds.”
Although the race is always held on the third Saturday in September, the “best weather weekend” in recorded St. Louis weather history, there’s no telling how the wind might behave that day.
For that reason, the Great Forest Park Balloon Race works directly with the FAA and the National Weather Service to look at wind and altitude conditions ahead of the race. Just before the final pilot debriefing, a helium balloon known as a pie ball is launched into the air to give the pilots a sense of what to expect. The teams can examine how the speed of the balloon changes as the altitude changes, and use that intel to set their course and determine the best time for the launch. That’s why the organizers don’t typically announce where the balloons are headed until late afternoon: until right before the pilots take off, they don’t know for sure. Over the years, the flight path has gone above many parts of the metro, including Rock Hill, Kirkwood, Webster Groves, Lafayette Square, Benton Park, Fenton, Brentwood, Jennings and Florissant.
This year, the hare was flown by Cynthia and Scott Wooge, two longtime pilots for whom ballooning is a family affair. The couple, who live in South County, have been flying balloons for nearly 40 years, and have passed a love of ballooning – which they consider a great family sport – down to their children. They’ve even crewed for their daughter Kim, who holds six world records and nine U.S. records in hot air ballooning, during the Women’s World Championships in Lithuania and Poland.
The couple have been attending the Great Forest Park Balloon Race since they moved to St. Louis in 1992, and began participating as pilots shortly thereafter. Scott, who playfully refers to the role of the hare as being “the wind dummies,” says the process requires a lot of teamwork between steering the balloon and reading the wind.
“My wife is usually driving chase for me now on this race,” he says. “She’ll let me know what the other balloons are doing, down low or up high on the radio and communicating to me. The pilot flies the balloon, but the chase crew makes them really look good. We rely on a lot of teamwork to put it together during the flight, and during the landing impact.”
In the future, the organizers would love to see the event continue to grow by adding more events for kids, perhaps, or extending the festivities across a few more days. But for now, they’re content knowing the unbridled joy this magical urban balloon race continues to bring to thousands across St. Louis each year.
“I get goosebumps talking about this event, because it just makes you feel like a kid again,” Stegen says. “I see that in the eyes of people who are here on the field. Anytime I talk about this event year-round, we get so excited. It’s such a beloved piece of St. Louis. Everyone’s so proud to have this event. Really, I think there’s just so much joy around those balloons. It’s just a wonderful thing to be around.”
Join the Story
- Save the date for the next Great Forest Park Balloon Race weekend: September 15-16, 2023.
- Learn more about this signature St. Louis event on the organization’s website.