The annual Forest Park Balloon Race event starts with the Friday night “balloon glow” when the hot-air balloons are inflated. Photo: Ahmad AlJuryyed / The Current.

by Hali Flintrop, Opinions Editor for The Current

Families laying out blankets and setting up folding chairs and tents throughout Central Field formed a cheerful buzz of activity along the ropes that mark off the fields in which masses of hot air balloons lay dormant under cool, cloudy skies. Parents and children milled around through the various food vendors, entertainment and tents inviting kids to come and do crafts or representing a product while they waited for the main event. Saturday, September 15 was the 40th anniversary of “The Great Forest Park Balloon Race.” At about 2:00 p.m. pilots began inflating some of the balloons. This meant the beginning of the annual photography contest.

“The 2012 Photo Contest” was sponsored by Suburban Journals and Wehrenberg Theaters. Contestants were split into a children’s division, up to age 13, a young adult division, from ages 13 to 20, adult ages 21 to 44, and ages 45 and up. The field was temporarily opened for the photography contestants and others who desired to walk among the inflated balloons. The sky was a grey backdrop for the photographs. Photographs taken on race day as well as photographs taken the night before for the balloon glow were eligible for entrance to the photo contest.

Hot-air balloons get off to a flying start in the 2012 Forest Park Balloon Race. Photo: Ahmad AlJuryyed / The Current.

Photographers were instructed to mail their entries in to be judged. The winners will be announced in November and will have their photo shown in Wehrenberg locations before movies and displayed on the Forest Park website.

The field closed again and people were left to relax in their claimed areas or wander through the vendors.

At about 4:40 p.m. the race began with the inflation of the Energizer Bunny Hot Hare balloon. It looked unimpressive at first with its ears drooping sadly forward until the very moment it reached full inflation. When finally fully inflated, though, it took off in a westward direction, giving everyone in Forest Park a view of its enormous, round white tail. It eventually landed about seven miles away.

After the departure of the Energizer balloon, the other balloons began to inflate and were allowed to take off in three waves.

The rules of the race are that the other balloons trail the Energizer Bunny balloon as closely as they can. The winning balloon is the one that drops a bag of birdseed closest to the landing spot of the Energizer balloon.

Families watched the balloons taking off, snapping more photos. Small children climbed atop coolers and onto their parents’ shoulders to see the balloons pass over the trees. “It’s nice to see the families of St. Louis all coming out to do something, and that they’re actually really nice,” Renee Cisar, sophomore, special education, said.

The balloons were able to travel farther than they had in the years past, when some did not even make it out of Forest Park.

Purina’s balloon got its bag of birdseed closest to the Energizer balloon, winning first place in the 40th Great Forest Park Balloon Race by 15 feet. The Maher Chiropractic balloon came in second. Dierbergs, a major sponsor of the event itself, owned the balloon that came in third.