Great Forest Park Balloon Race Sept. 15-16

Students may enter to win a ride in WashU’s balloon; free shuttles available

Hot air balloons inflating
Now in its 51st year, the Great Forest Park Balloon Race is a favorite St. Louis tradition. (Photo courtesy of Great Forest Park Balloon Race)

For the first time in the Great Forest Park Balloon Race’s history, WashU Bears will be chasing the “hare.” 

Washington University in St. Louis is sponsoring “Time Traveler,” one of 50 balloons that will take off from Central Fields in Forest Park. Students can see the balloon up close and meet veteran pilot Tom Caton at the Balloon Glow Sept. 15 and cheer the launch at the Balloon Race Sept. 16 at Emerson Central Fields in Forest Park. Live performances at the WashU Main Stage, food trucks and fireworks also are on the bill. For a complete schedule of events, visit the Great Forest Park Balloon Race website. The university will provide free shuttles for students from the Alumni House parking lot to Central Fields from 5-10 p.m. Sept. 15 and 2-7 p.m. Sept. 16.

A favorite St. Louis tradition for 51 years, the Great Forest Park Balloon Glow and Race regularly draws 100,000 revelers. The glow is exactly that — the balloons, inflated by propane burners but tethered to the ground, glow like Chinese lanterns against the evening sky. The race, however, is a bit of a misnomer. At around 4:30 pm., depending on the weather, the hare, sponsored by PNC Bank, will take off, followed by the competing balloons. There is no set course; the strength and direction of the wind determines where the balloons will fly. Once the hare lands, the crew marks a large “X” on the ground. The pilot who drops a bean bag closest to the target wins.

Caton won the race in 2017, when the wind took the balloons all the way to St. Charles. The next year, he placed third, landing in Fenton. The other years? 

“Not even close,” said Caton, who has piloted race balloons since 1989. “But winning the race has never been a priority of mine, just having fun and meeting so many people. I love the opportunity to tell people about the balloon and how I got involved.”

Joining Caton in the basket will be Anna Gonzalez, vice chancellor for student affairs, and the student who wins her balloon race contest. Students have until Sept. 11 to submit their entries explaining why they think St. Louis is “on the rise.”

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