How This St. Louis Tradition StartedThe Great Forest Park Balloon Race was founded by renowned balloonists Nikki Caplan and John O’Toole in 1973, and taken over by four, young, enthusiastic balloonists: John Marlow, John Schaumburg, Dan Schettler and Ted Staley in 1977. What started with four newly certified balloonists and a whimsical group dubbed the Mississippi River Balloon Transit Company, today hails as the organization of the most well-attended, single-day balloon race in the country.
“When we started 40 years ago, only one of us had ever seen a hot-air balloon,”says Marlow, the group’s president and president of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race, Inc. “We didn’t know we needed a license or insurance. We bought an old, used balloon much worse than buying an old, used car, and thought we’d just jump in and fly away.”
And fly away they did. Not only do the “fab four” continue to coordinate, organize and run this colossal event, but three of the four boast at least one Great Forest Park Balloon Race victory. “John Schaumburg missed winning by just two feet in 1983,” reminisces Schettler. “And we never let him forget it,” Staley adds.
The race, celebrating its 41st anniversary this year, is unique in that it originates from the middle of a major city, St. Louis. Attendance is free to more than 150,000 spectators who come out to watch 70 world-class balloon pilots compete in a race that is almost as exciting from the ground as it is in the air.
In 2014, the Race will be held on Central Field, near the Jewel Box, in Forest Park.
Induction into the Library of CongressThe Great Forest Park Balloon Race was inducted into the permanent collection of the Library of Congress on May 23, 2000. This induction was part of the celebration of the bicentennial of our nation’s library.
The Great Forest Park Balloon Race was honored as a Local Legacy — a local event that has grown to be of great significance in the community. The honor came by selection of Congressman Richard Gephardt who chose The Great Forest Park Balloon Race to represent St. Louis and the state of Missouri.
Now the race will be immortalized, complete with photos, programs, posters, videos, pins, and pilot gifts, that will be in the library and digitalized for posterity.