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One of Louisville’s pre-Derby traditions is the Great Balloon Race, which dates back to 1973 when seven balloons took flight from Iroquois Park. On Saturday, about two dozen competitors took to the air for the annual event. But how do you even race a balloon anyways?

Early Saturday morning, before the sun had even crept over the horizon, I met with Don Rummel, pilot of the Cox Utility Services ShovelMan balloon. He graciously allowed me to tag along for the journey.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Don Rummel

As the hot air balloon inflated, he explained how the race works.

“This is called the hare and hound. The guy out there that’s already flying, he’s the hare and all the rest of us are the hounds and our task will be to try to follow him as close as we can,” Rummel said.

There’s a rush of excitement as balloons lift into the air all around us. Then it’s our turn. The flight director gives us the green light, and before I know it we are hundreds of feet in the air… drifting on the breeze, like the tufts of cumulus clouds that matte the sky above us.

 

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

 

The Great Balloon Race is not exactly a race in the traditional sense. It’s more like an aerial game of cornhole: the goal isn’t actually to speed past other balloons, but to toss a bean bag at a giant “X” on the ground. The bag closest to the target wins.

Rummel sailed on the winds to get close to the marker. To change directions, he adjusted the balloon’s altitude.

“Because of the Coriolis effect, early in the morning, the winds will take you off to your left, and as you get up higher and get away from the earth you will get more of the true winds, which will be to the right,” Rummel said.

As we approached the target, Rummel worried he wasn’t not going to be able to come back around in time. But we did. We sailed directly over the giant yellow X, but just a little bit too high. The altitude makes it hard to judge when to toss out the bag.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

“The baggie, what I learned early on, is you think you are right over the target, because it has momentum as well. I threw it a little early so the momentum would carry it to the target. I just threw it a few seconds too early,” Rummel said.

Saturday’s winner, the SullairLLC balloon piloted by Shawn Raya, tossed his bag of bluegrass seed within five inches of the target, according to Mike Berry of the Kentucky Derby Festival.

The final challenge for our balloon came with finding a good place to land. We missed the first landing zone, then almost set down in parking lot but the winds don’t work in our favor. Finally, we settled down in a soccer field nestled in the center of a subdivision.

That’s when, historically, balloonists break out the champagne and offer it as a gift to the farmer whose field they’ve just landed in. But we’re in suburban Louisville and the only person to greet us was a woman out for a walk with her dog.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Rummel said he doesn’t drink anyway. So in lieu of a toast, he offered a prayer.

“The winds have welcomed you with softness, the sun has blessed you with its warm hand, you’ve flown so high and so well that god has joined you in your laughter and sent you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth. And then we toast to a good day.”

This post has been corrected. A previous version identified the company that sponsored the balloon as Cox Cable Services; the correct name is Cox Utility Services.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.