Celebrating Family Traditions and Soft Landings Since 1973
1973 – The first modern day balloon race held in St. Louis – ultimately becoming what we know as The Great Forest Park Balloon Race – was founded by renowned balloonists Nikki Caplan and John O’Toole. There were six balloons and a dozen or so spectators.
1976 – The small event was transformed into the beginning of a St. Louis tradition by Don Sarno and Henry Fett, whose passion and hard work set the stage for the Race to come.
1977 – Sarno and Fett partnered with the whimsical Mississippi River Balloon Transit Company – four enthusiastic young balloon pilots and partners: John Marlow, Dan Schettler, John Schaumburg and Ted Staley – who took over the Race from Don and Henry – and have continued on to grow this beloved tradition and keep it a free event for the St. Louis community.
“When we started 47 years ago, only one of us had ever seen a hot-air balloon,” says Great Forest Park Balloon Race Partner, John Marlow. “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” (as Marlow, Schettler, Schaumburg and Staley were later dubbed) 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.
1978 to Today – The Fab Four would go on to grow The Great Forest Park Balloon Race to incredibly new heights – introducing the tremendously popular Balloon Glow (aka: The Gaslight Glow) in 1991, being honored to have the Race inducted into the Library of Congress in 2000 and hailing as the most well-attended single-day balloon race in the country. Annually, nearly 150,000 spectators enjoy the Race and Glow with thousands more “oooohing” and “ahhhing” at the beautiful balloons taking flight across the Great St. Louis area.
The history of the Race is rich with good friends and great family traditions. Now in its 47th year, The Great Forest Park Balloon Race is the second oldest in the United States, second only to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.
In fact, The Great Forest Park Balloon Race is internationally known as one of the most prestigious balloon races – made especially unique by having a launch site a major metropolitan area. The expert pilots attend by invitation only.
The Fab Four are now accompanied by a new generation of balloonists, partners and successful businessmen and women. The Partners are extremely proud to join with the nation’s expert hot-air balloon pilots and some of the nation’s best corporate sponsors to continue hosting this free event for St. Louis – sharing their love of family, friends and flight with the community.
In 2017, the Race was held on Art Hill, in Forest Park.
Induction into the Library of Congress
The 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.