Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: The Great Reno Balloon Race 
Trip Date: September 9-11, 2005
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: September 18, 2005

This year’s Reno Balloon Races and Virginia City Camel Races, held September 9, 10 and 11, were pretty much a repeat of the 2004 events. This year, however, the three camera club members and two associates lodged closer to the balloons than the camels (at the Motel 6 near the Keystone exit on I-80 in west Reno).

The weather played havoc with the Friday and Saturday balloon launches, with winds preventing the launch of the racing balloons on Friday and delaying the Saturday launch until just before 8 a.m. In spite of all that, Sunday proved to be a perfect but chilly day for a spectacular balloon race. 

All three of our photographers were present for the “Dawn Patrol” shows at 5 a.m. on Friday. This year’s Dawn Patrol consisted of five balloons that inflated prior to sunrise and were lit up like 70-foot, multi-colored light bulbs. The Friday light show had to stay grounded because of increasing winds. The balloons deflated when the sun came up and their crews carefully rolled up the fabric and stowed the baskets, fans and burners. Soon the word came over the loudspeaker that the event was cancelled for the day and the crowd slowly, and sadly, ebbed away.

Anticipating more bad weather, our group decided to sleep through the 4:15 a.m. wake-up call and play Saturday by ear. I had to run a couple errands in Sacramento and spent most of the day in Gold Country. My friend and I took a side trip to the Indian Grinding Rock State Park near the former mining camp of Volcano, California just off Highway 49. This park is beautiful and features a very interesting California Indian museum. The several 600-year-old “Grandmother Oaks” growing in the park are truly awe-inspiring and the grinding rock is quite a sight. The park gets its name from a large outcropping of rock that has more than a thousand mortar holes ground into it by native Californians many years ago. The site of the park was a campsite for hundreds of years before the Gold Rush permanently disrupted the lives of the California natives. While you stroll around the facilities you get the feeling that this is a very, very “old” place. In late September every year, a large pow-wow, called the “Big Time,” is held at this park. We saw a small gathering of Native American crafts persons making things to sell at the gathering. Apparently the event happens in mid- to late September.

Once again in the pre-dawn darkness of Reno on Sunday, our photographers were drawn like moths to the bright flames that were inflating the balloons of the Dawn Patrol. The launch site is located in Rancho San Rafael Park in northwest Reno (just west of the University of Nevada campus). Officially called The Great Reno Balloon Race, this event is the second largest balloon race held in the United States. This year’s event had more than 100 balloons taking part. Incidentally, the largest balloon race in the country is held in Albuquerque, New Mexico and has at least ten times more balloons involved—that’s more than a thousand balloons! Albuquerque must be quite a sight and I’d like to go see it! (Our small band of shooters discussed the possibility of attending the 2006 New Mexico event, which will be held in early October. We hope that some of you will be interested. Side trips to Chaco Canyon and other New Mexico attractions will be part of the package.)

If there ever was a perfect day for a balloon launch it was Sunday. The nearly cloudless sky gradually lit up as the sun crept over the horizon. At first light, the flag-draped “American Eagle” balloon (in the shape of a bald eagle) launched as the standard-bearing balloon to the music of the National Anthem. Shortly thereafter, two Wells Fargo-sponsored balloons in the shapes of whimsical bees (named “Lilly” and “Joey”) began the “hounds and the hares” race. Lilly and Joey were the “hares” and flew off to place targets for the other balloon crews to hit with markers. As the bees left the ground, the launch signal was given to the other pilots and the field blossomed forth with a hundred rainbow-colored chase balloons. The noise of fans and the jets of flaming propane filled the still morning air. Children wrapped in blankets gasped in delight and adults clutching their steaming cups of coffee turned their eyes to the colorful spectacle of the mass ascension. The September chill only helped to heighten the exhilaration. The absence of wind on this particular day, made it possible for the balloons to stay suspended in the vicinity of the launch field for most of the morning. (Last year we had to give chase in the car.) 

The Great Reno Balloon Race has been a post-Labor Day institution in Reno for 24 years. The first balloon event had 20 balloons taking part. This year’s event included mostly “conventional” hot air balloons, but there were some interesting corporate and cultural icons floating in the sky, too. Everyone recognized the big, pink Energizer Bunny, the head of Smokey the Bear and Wells Fargo sponsored a large balloon in the shape of a stagecoach. The 90-foot tall and 100-foot long stagecoach balloon was called “¢ent’r Stage” and its particular shape made it a challenge for its pilot to fly. Another odd-shaped balloon, called “Old McDonald’s Farm,” took the shape of a 67-foot high barn with animal characters looking out of the windows and doors. This particular balloon was made from about 900 pounds of fabric. Most of the conventional teardrop shaped balloons use about 700 pounds of fabric.

This year, Dave was determined to get into one of the baskets and add a memory card full of aerial shots to his balloon archives, but his efforts were to no avail, since all the balloon basket berths were promised to sponsors. Every balloon on the field was sponsored by a corporation or organization, which covered the considerable cost of flying these colorful, lighter-than-air craft. Unfortunately for Dave, sponsors and their representatives had spoken for available space in the baskets. Dave had a hundred dollars for bait, but the balloons weren’t biting that day! (Balloon rides at the New Mexico event cost $250 per person.)

On Friday, our little group took a drive up to Virginia City to see the camel races, but this year’s event seemed smaller than it was last year. We paid ten bucks a head and there were no belly dancers, no mountain men and no hookers’ trailer selling Mustang Ranch tee shirts—is Virginia City still in Nevada? The camel and ostrich heats provided a few good wipeouts and pratfalls, but once again, the noisy chatter of the redneck announcer grated on our nerves and we decided to leave. We climbed the steep hill up to the Delta Saloon to see the “World Famous Suicide Table” (Ooohh! Aaaah!) and then met up in front of the Bucket of Blood Saloon to bid farewell to this gaudy, history-soaked tourist trap. 

Although our far-flung field trips are sparsely attended, they prove to be quite fun for the participants. This Reno trip was no exception. I hope more of you can make it to some of our future events.

© 2005 S.R. Hinrichs