On the third weekend of September, St. Louisans turn their gaze skyward in the hopes of glimpsing a charming sight: dozens of multi-colored hot air balloons floating across a clear blue sky. It’s the Great Forest Park Balloon Race, a 42-year-old tradition in St. Louis that has been kept alive thanks to the friendship and generosity of four men.
Ted Staley, John Schaumberg, Dan Schettler and John Marlow got into ballooning in the early 1970s on a lark. Staley and Schaumberg were already obsessed with flying and when the opportunity came along to buy a used hot air balloon from a guy in Texas, they thought “Why not?”
The four went from learning to fly, to watching the balloon race in Forest Park to participating in the race to taking the race over from the original founders: John O’Toole, Don Caplan and Nikki Caplan.
“The first race wasn’t a race, just a handful of people that wanted to dress like Christmas people and do something in the park,” Staley said.
People were dressed up “like Christmas” because the race was held in late November – a horrible time for flying balloons, according to Schaumberg. “We could never get off the ground because the weather was too cold, too windy, too dangerous, basically,” he said.
So someone – no one seems to remember who – called the weather service and asked the meteorologists what time of year has the optimal conditions for flying balloons in St. Louis. It turns out, it’s the third Saturday of September. The meteorologists knew what they were talking about. Since moving it to September, the race has never been rained out. It was canceled once because there was too much wind, according to Marlow. It was also canceled out of respect, immediately following Sept. 11, 2001.
Moving the race to early autumn was the first smart thing the race organizers did when they took over operating the event. They’ve done many smart things since to change it from a quirky, small-ish race to a nationally recognized event that draws hundreds of thousands of people to Forest Park every year.
However, to listen to the four of them tell it, they backed into the whole thing.
“When we took it over, we thought it was just miserable,” Marlow said. “We quit after the first year. And then we said we’ll do it another year. Then we quit after that year and said ‘OK, we’ll do it one more year,’ because it was a lot of work and we thought it was so silly.”
And yet, they kept going.
They figured out that balloons are natural billboards and corporations would sponsor balloons. That helped pay for all the niggling expenses that popped up as the race grew – insurance, waste removal, security, emergency medical vehicles.
They also came up with the idea of holding a Balloon Glow, as well, on the night before the race. Schaumberg said he thought that one up. He figured as long as there were all these balloonists in town, they might as well do something fun on Friday night.
“It has grown almost faster than the balloon race,” Schaumberg said. “It allows people to get up close and personal with the balloons. We group them all together in a confined field and the field just becomes a canopy of inflated nylon that lights up.”
Pilots and the race
It’s not just the earth-bound who enjoy the balloon race. It’s a favorite for pilots nationwide. In fact, they clamor to take part in it. However, the number of balloons in the race is capped at 70. Most of those 70 spots have been filled for 20 or 30 years. Roy Caton is one of those long-timers. He’s participated for 31 years and, unlike many of the pilots, Caton is actually from St. Louis. He said there are many things that make the race great, starting with its location.
“Well, the fact that it’s held pretty much in the center of a city, for one thing,” Caton said. “St. Louis is a great place. We take off and fly over downtown by the arch and the Mississippi which is pretty cool.”
But the balloons don’t always fly east. The direction of the race is at the whimsy of the wind. While some years they head east, other years they fly west and end up crossing over Lambert International Airport – a thoroughly unique thing to do, according to Marlow.
“The FAA checks in on us,” Marlow said, noting that after 40 years, the crew at Lambert has grown quite fond of seeing the balloonists floating in their direction. “When we started, the FAA said they’d put a helicopter up at 3,000 feet and we can’t fly below that. No one had done that before. I remember seeing the headlights of an airplane coming at me and I thought, ‘I wonder if he sees me.’ Well, we were on the radar.
“So, he came right at me and he curved around and dipped his wing in my direction. And I just thought, ‘This is so cool,’” Marlow said. “So now, the tower loves us and they say things like ‘Please don’t land on the runway,’ and we say OK.”
Sometimes there isn’t enough wind to carry the balloons very far. Randy Wood, who has participated in the race for 20 years, said it’s those not-so-windy days that make launching the race in the middle of a major metropolitan city so challenging. After an hour of flying, you still have to find a place to land, even if you haven’t really left the city, he said.
“I’ve ended up in people’s backyards, invaded barbecues, landed in a monastery and at people’s events that had nothing to do with the balloon race,” Wood said. “The adventure really begins when the flight ends because you never know who you are going to see, who you will meet, what neighborhood you’ll end up in. People are always happy to have you land, especially during the race. It’s kind of like a blessing to have a balloon land on your property.”
One year, the winds were so light that the balloons never really left Forest Park.
“I remember circling around the Chase Park Plaza maybe three times before we headed off down Lindell,” recalled Schaumberg. “And the only spot I could find that was easy to land was in a construction dumpster. There are all sorts of crazy things that happen like that.”
For the pilots, the extra challenge of flying in a city – avoiding power lines and rooftops – is half the fun. The other half of the fun is the support of the non-flying St. Louis community.
“The biggest part of it is that it’s a nice community even,” Caton said. “All these people come out. It’s just a big festive event,”
And the festivities aren’t confined to Forest Park, according to Ted Staley.
“I think that easily there are another 100,000 people watching the race from their various venues and parties or whatever,” Staley said. “And you don’t realize that unless you are a balloonist in the air, waving and talking as you’re going past.”
What do balloonists talk about to those of us stuck on the ground?
“I usually tell them they have a hole in their roof,” Staley joked.
Forty years and four friends
If there’s one constant to the balloon race more than anything else, it’s the four men who took it from about a dozen balloonists hoping to get off the ground in November, to a nationally recognized event. But Staley, Schaumberg, Schettler and Marlow are not eager to boast about their accomplishment.
“We didn’t do much. It took on a life of its own,” Marlow said. “One year there were 2,000 people there, then 4,000 and then 10,000. And we just thought ‘Oh, my God, what have we done?”
“The race kind of grew organically,” Schaumberg commented. “No one had any idea it would end up where it has. We just conscripted local pilots, then decided if there are commercial balloons, we could charge sponsorships to fund it. We made a connection with Forest Park. Every year more people got involved, more sponsors involved. It just grew.”
The race pretty much runs itself now, too. Each man has a job to do, either taking care of the pilots with gifts, accommodations, good food and a party; organizing the balloon glow; running the race itself; or managing publicity. According to Staley, they don’t even meet about it anymore. Each just knows what to do when and it gets done.
“I know in June I need to start getting gifts for the pilots. Same thing as far as sending invitations so we know who’s coming,” Staley said. “Everyone has their respective jobs, it works mechanically. Sometimes we don’t talk for months and yet everything works fine.”
In fact, it’s probably better that they don’t talk so much for those months leading up to the race. Even though they’ve been running the race for 42 years, things still get a little tense leading up to race day.
“They’re my brothers,” Schaumberg said. “We are all brothers. We fight like brothers by the time the weekend before the balloon race happens. No one is speaking. But we all come together.”
The balloon race has cemented men’s friendship throughout the years – they are godparents to each other’s children, they’ve carried each other’s fathers’ caskets in their funerals; their families go scuba diving together in the winter.
On the day of the race, Marlow said, no matter how hectic things are the four of them stop what they’re doing and have someone take their picture.
“It stops everything,” Marlow said. “And when we get up to the field and look around at this thing and we just think, ‘Where did this come from?’ We don’t take it for granted. We almost don’t believe it had anything to do with us.”