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Rotary Club will inaugurate balloon race

by Linda Hiller

To the organizers of this weekend’s inaugural Carson Valley Days Ballon Race, a hot air balloon is more than just a huge colorful nylon bag with a giant basket attached.

“The Carson Valley is a beautiful place to fly a balloon,” said John Cressaty of the Minden Rotary Club, the group responsible for bringing the event here. “When we got into ballooning, it was an adventure for all of us.”

Cressaty and four partners started the Sierra Sunrise Balloon Co. in 1980. On somewhat of a whim, the quintet decided to buy a hot air balloon, although none had ever flown one.

“Gary Williams, who is my brother-in-law, had been to a study group and wanted to take a balloon ride, but he found it too expensive, so we decided to buy one,” Cressaty said. “The only one of us who had even flown in a balloon was Gary.”

The balloon the men bought was owned by a certified flight instructor for the craft, so he turned the novices into pilots.

“I guess you could say we jumped in with both feet,” Cressaty said.

The Sierra Sunrise Balloon Co. was formed in 1980 to pay for the balloon and added expenses, Cressaty said.

“A bare bones balloon costs around $20,000, and that doesn’t include the insurance, trailer and added equipment needed to fly,” he said.

n First Reno Balloon Race. Around the time the balloon ride company was starting, a call came in from a woman representing Harrah’s Casino in Reno, asking if they’d be interested in putting on a balloon race in Reno.

“She had just been going through the yellow pages and saw our ad,” Cressaty said. “We did it, starting with 13 balloons and continued doing it for seven years. Now it’s grown to up to 140 balloons each year.”

Over the years, the guys from Sierra Sunrise Balloon Co. were hired to fly balloons and organize race events all over the United States, flying for Hilton Hotels, the Peppermill in Reno and the giant gold champagne-bucket-with-bottle-inside balloon for a champagne company.

“We got so we were doing five major events per year and, although it was fun and the money was good, we were spending too much time away from home and families, and we burned out,” Cressaty said. “We sold the Sierra Sunrise Balloon Co. in 1996, and now Gary and I are partners in a 45-foot sailboat – I guess you could say we are adventurous guys.”

Cressaty, 51, who owns Chem-Dry of Douglas County, a carpet cleaning business, said this weekend’s event will include a race on Friday, Saturday and Sunday – each starting around 6 a.m., weather permitting, in the field across from Lampe Park.

“If people get there around 5:45 a.m., they can watch as the crews start to set up and inflate the balloons for launch,” he said. “There won’t be a dawn patrol, but the early morning is always beautiful.”

Friday morning, 28 balloons will launch and on Saturday and Sunday, 39 balloons will fly each day, weather permitting. The balloons cannot safely fly in winds over five to seven knots.

“One of the reasons the Carson Valley is a great place to fly balloons is because of the predictable winds,” he said. “Usually, we try to be out of the sky by 9 a.m., but we do have some windy mornings – we’re just hoping for good conditions this weekend.”

n Not the first in Valley. Cressaty said there was a previous hot air balloon event in the Carson Valley, held during Heritage Days in the late 1980s, but this is the first balloon race since then, and the only one to take place in conjunction with the 20/30 Club’s Carson Valley Days.

“We got the idea at last year’s Reno balloon race,” he said. “Gary Peterson and I were trying to figure out a good fund raiser for Rotary, and we thought of this. We made up some flyers and the response has been overwhelming. In all the events I’ve ever done, this is the first time we’ve actually had more sponsors than balloons – we’ve actually had to turn sponsors away – it’s amazing.”

n Viewer etiquette. Observers are welcome to walk among the balloons as they inflate and launch, but Cressaty, who is the official launch director, urged viewers to be careful not to step on the balloon fabric, refrain from smoking and leave dogs at home.

“Be sure to dress in layers for the weather, too,” he said. “It will be cold at first, but can warm up fast. And, be sure to bring lots of film.”

Cressaty suggested that while photographing the balloons as they inflate and launch, observers should feel free to ask crews if it is OK to take pictures shooting into the balloon while on its side, or to pose with them.

“Try to be creative, but be courteous of the balloons and crews,” he said. “Also, while you’re walking around the balloons, don’t hesitate to ask if they need help. And, sometimes we have people who chase the balloons and go where they have set down. Don’t drive in to where they are – we are very careful about not driving on people’s property.”

Each balloon has its own chase crew, he said. Gary Williams will be piloting the hare balloon all weekend – it leaves first and then the other balloons (the hounds) try to reach the same location, dropping a bean bag on a target. The hound balloon closest to the hare is the winner of that race. There will be cash prizes, announced Sunday, for winners, Cressaty said.

Gary Peterson, also a Minden Rotary Club member and balloon pilot, will be the balloon meister all weekend. Proceeds from the 3-day races will go to the Minden Rotary Scholarship Fund. This year six Douglas High School graduating seniors were awarded a total of $4,000, Cressaty said.

Balloon launching all three days will be in the field across from Lampe Park behind Olsen Tires.

The public is welcome to this free event, which starts around 6 a.m. each day.

On Saturday, the RE/MAX Realty balloon will be offering $5 tethered balloon rides, weather permitting, from noon to 3 p.m., with proceeds going to the Children’s Miracle Network, according to John Fisher of RE/MAX Realty Affiliates in Gardnerville.