The St. Louis skies will welcome a host of graceful giants for the Great Forest Park Balloon Race on September 18. Here, we share the uplifting experience of attending a balloon race.

The empty hot air balloon stretched out on the ground on Art Hill at St. Louis’s Forest Park. Pulled to its full length, maybe seventy-five-feet long and three-feet wide, it looked like an enormous and colorful ribbon. Pilot Joe Nepute and his crew positioned a giant fan at the balloon’s opening and cranked it on high. As air poured in, the nylon stretched and grew, and the balloon yawned to life.

Balloon pilots and crews ready their balloons for the race.

As Joe did this, fifty-four other balloons competing in the forty-sixth annual Great Forest Park Balloon Race in 2018 were in various stages of preparation. Using a walkie-talkie, Brian Schettler, the race director, coordinated the liftoffs. As one after the other took off into the deep blue St. Louis sky, Brian delighted in the view in front of him.

Joe turned on his propane-powered burners to warm the air in his balloon. Blasts of heat could be felt twenty feet away, and soon the balloon stood straight and tall, with ninety thousand cubic feet of air contained within its walls. A few crew members held onto the basket to keep it down. Joe untied his balloon from the hitch of his pickup truck, the crew members let go of the basket, and it started to rise. Up, up, up it went, roughly two hundred feet per minute, soaring first above the heads of the dozens of other balloonists on the ground, then over the balloons themselves.

Veteran racer and St. Louis native Joe Nepute readies the Drury Hotel balloon for takeoff.

As Joe lifted off, Brian arranged for the next balloon to rise. “It never gets old,” says Brian, who has been part of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race for nearly four decades. His dad, Dan Schettler is among four men credited with turning the race from a local curiosity into an extravaganza that attracts balloonists from across the country.

“The mass ascension where in your field of view you see twenty balloons in the air—I just think is so neat,” Brian says. “I love the calmness of the ascent and watching them float away.”

The hot air balloon launch is a choreographed liftoff as one by one they rise and the race begins.

If the Great Forest Park Balloon Race is not the quirkiest sporting event in Missouri, it’s very close. It has to be the only sport in which the equipment is tied to pickup trucks so it doesn’t float away, organizers hand out bottles of champagne to competitors before the game begins, and a hot air balloon painted like a pirate ship looks for a giant X that marks the spot.

The race requires FAA approval, a thorough understanding of complex weather patterns, and what amounts to giant flame throwers attached to baskets made out of wicker. It has also been one of the most well-attended sporting events in the state in the past, with a combined 120,000 fans on hand for the balloon glow the night before the race and the race itself.

Mime Fox Smith of Circus Kaput, a St. Louis-based entertainment troupe, performs during the festival.

Outside of a focus on safety, neither the organizers nor the competitors take themselves or the competition too seriously. When race officials laid out the rules of the race, they also discussed the party afterward. It was unclear which they considered more important.

“One of the pilots told me this year, ‘Your event is the best. You have three parties and two flights. You got the ratio just right,’ ” Brian says.

The competition involves a lead balloon, called a hare, that takes off from Forest Park and goes where the wind takes it. The hounds, as the competitors are known, take off in waves starting fifteen minutes after the hare.

The hounds chase the hare, as best they can, considering both are at the mercy of the wind. The hare flies for an hour or so and then lands. The pilot of the hare draws a giant X on the ground, and the hounds try to find that X and drop a bean bag onto it. Whoever drops the bean bag closest to it wins. Some years, some pilots dropped the bean bag right on the X. Other years, the winning bean bag was two miles away.

Preparing to start the race, Joe Nepute heats the air in his balloon.

Organizers chose the third Saturday in September as the permanent date because a meteorologist told them that weekend is statistically St. Louis’s best weather weekend. That might be generally true, but occasionally that is false and the heat can be brutal. In those years, race-goers perch under the trees at the bottom of Art Hill, drain water bottles, and people-watch. That’s a fascinating activity in Forest Park on a normal day. On the day of a balloon race, it is sublime.

Spectators wait for the race to begin. This year’s event at Emerson Central Fields in Forest Park will feature more than fifty hot air balloons.

Bands and dance troupes entertained spectators brave enough to come out from under the shade. Sugar-crazed kids stormed volunteers who pull a wagon stuffed with free gummy bears. A dad navigated a busy sidewalk carrying a plastic horn, an inflatable Spider-Man, and a bowl of Dippin’ Dots. A Colombian boa named Smoke draped around the neck of a woman with a dozen tattoos and three lip rings.

Dancers from Krupinski Academy of Dance perform on the main stage.

Carnival rides ringed the pond at the bottom of Art Hill. Children scaled the rock-climbing tower, bounced on trampolines, and tried to stay on a mildly bucking toy bull. Food trucks offered deep-fried mac-and-cheese bites, jerk chicken tacos with pineapple, and enough variations on Italian ice to feed the masses.

An hour before the race started, the balloonists gathered on folding chairs under a tent to hear the instructions and rules and to receive the aforementioned bottle of champagne. Of the fifty-five competitors listed in the 2018 program, twenty-seven hailed from Missouri, and twelve other states were represented as well.

An FAA official announced there were no restrictions on balloons’ flights, an important decision considering there have been years in which the balloons flew close enough to Lambert airport that airline pilots dipped their wings to say hello.

The Miller Lite Sky Diving Team parachutes in to the festival.

Wind patterns are unpredictable year to year, so there’s no way to know until right before the race starts where the hare will go, and even then it’s only a guesstimate. The race has gone in every direction, and it’s a running joke in St. Louis to say the balloons went right over your house.

Jon Carney, the official meteorologist during the 2018 race, said if the weather patterns held true, the wind would take the balloonists southwest toward the intersection of I-44 and I-270. The biggest landing area in that general vicinity is an old Chrysler plant. When asked how accurate his predictions usually are, he laughed and cleared his throat, indicating he didn’t want to answer the question. But this particular year, he was spot on. The hare landed at the Chrysler plant.

The Studio 2108 balloon, piloted by Jady Wade, lifts off.

It’s also, more or less, where Joe was headed after he left Forest Park. Blown by the wind, he and his two crew members headed southwest. The flight path took Joe over familiar ground, close to his home in Brentwood. He knew the hare had headed more west than he was floating, so he dropped as low as five hundred feet and rose as high as two thousand feet, looking for the wind that would take him precisely in the hare’s path. He never found it, but neither did anybody else. Joe landed in a park about two miles from the hare’s X, and the winner dropped his bean bag about eight hundred feet from it.

Ah well, there’s always next year. Nobody seemed to care too terribly much about winning.

“We go out and buy a truck and a nice trailer and get to do all this nice stuff with it, wander around the country. It’s fun,” Joe says. “We’re just big kids playing with big balloons.”

2021 Great Forest Park Balloon Race

Friday, September 17
Balloon Glow, festivities begin at 5 pm
Saturday, September 18
Balloon Race, festivities begin at noon

Visit for event details and information.

Photos // Notley Hawkins