Balloon race takes off

The Great Balloon Race is an event for early risers -- all 130,000 of them.

"When we started this event, we never imagined that we would have 50,000 people in the park at 5 a.m.," said Marlene Olsen, managing director of the race and one of its founders. "I think it shows how much they love this event to get up at 3 a.m. to get over here and enjoy the event."

The race kicks off 5:30 a.m. Friday when 110 balloons will rise above Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno. Gates open 4:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Olsen has been involved in the race for 22 years, since it was founded in 1982. She has been managing director since 1989.

"I don't think there are any other circumstances where you would find people doing this," she said.

About half of the people who go to the balloon races are from outside western Nevada.

"What you find is that this event is unique because all over the community, friends and family are coming to Reno because of the balloon races."

With no means of propulsion, the race is a combination of luck and skill.

"It is a hare-and-hound race," she said. "The target is where the wind blows. We don't know where it will be. The two Wells Fargo piggy bank balloons take off and land about a mile off and put out a target. Then the rest of the balloons take off."

Olsen said the balloonists try to come closest to the target with a marker.

"They come pretty close," she said. "They come within an inch or two of the target, and the one with lowest cumulative distance is the one that wins."

So attendees at the mass ascension can see what happens at the other end of the race, 10 balloonists are flying into the park to hit a target there.

On Saturday and Sunday at 5 a.m., the balloons light their burners and illuminate the predawn park for the Dawn Patrol glow show.

The patrol takes off 5 a.m. on both days,with a mass ascension at 6:30 a.m. in preparation for the race. After the race, balloonists will play blackjack with a giant card deck at 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

"They each get two markers, and they have to hit two, 5-foot playing cards for their blackjack hand," Olsen said. "Whoever gets the highest hand wins."

Olsen suggested several ways for people to get to the balloon races.

She said parking at the university parking lots off Virginia Street, two blocks away, is a good idea.

"There is one parking lot that is paved and costs $5 to park off the corner of Sierra and McCarren," she said. "It is a very good vantage point, but the only way to get to it is to go south on Sierra from McCarren."

Olsen suggests Carson City residents take the Citifare bus from Meadowood Mall on Saturday and Sunday. For a $2 fare for adults and $1.50 for children, the bus will take visitors directly to San Rafael Park every half hour, starting at 4 a.m. Return trips will start at 4:15 a.m. and run until 10:15 a.m.

For information, call 348-RIDE or visit

The Great Reno Balloon Race is free.

"We want everybody to come out and enjoy the event," Olsen said.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment