The Second Annual Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park Hot Air Balloon Classic, May 16-18, 1997, was a great success due to many factors. First, the weather was perfect the entire weekend and all the flights came off without a hitch. Second, the setting of the race is on the Suwannee River in North Central Florida, which provides a great site and plenty of activities for the pilots and crews, plus Southern hospitality second to none.
Believing in the importance of giving back to the community, James Cornett, the owner of the Music Park, invited 1,200 area school children out to the Park on Friday morning. The morning went very well as the weather allowed us to have balloons up for almost two hours so the kids could get hands on experience, and learn all about balloons. Due to the advance work done by Vicki Bass and Rick Miller, employees at the Music Park, the media was in attendance and major stories on the event appeared in both Gainsville and Jacksonville, as well as Live Oak. While most balloon events receive press, it was refreshing to see stories before the event and not on the Monday after. Friday night's Balloon Glow officially kicked off the balloon event, and Tom Maynard, ace announcer, did his usual job of informing and educating the crowd on our sport.
Saturday morning was an extremely rare day in Florida. Dave Linger, the Hare pilot, took off with scoring officers Jetta Schantz and Dottie Moore for a double Hare and Hound. As Dave took off, he found that a BOX was present. This does NOT happen in Florida. After flying for 30 minutes, he placed the first target, then much to the crowds delight, maneuvered the balloon to fly right back over the launch field. He then placed the second X on a golf course a mile North of the Music Park. The golf course owners were delighted and asked us to come back.
Saturday afternoon the Members Club of the Music Park had a cookout with outstanding food and live Bluegrass entertainment, for all the pilots and crews. After the party, another Hare and Hound was called for the afternoon flight. Dave, Jetta and Dottie left the field, but the winds were so light and variable, he landed back on the Music Park grounds. Over half the pilots did score and that night's overall point totals showed that anyone could still win.
Sunday morning the same scenario, beautiful weather and almost another box. The best part of the weekend was all the flights went different ways, so the pilots and crews got a good view of the area. Again two targets were set out and steering was perfect. Many markers were within one foot of the first target, and more good scores were made on the second target too. This put all the emphasis on the afternoon flight. Ben Burbridge, the leader as of Sunday morning, was looking forward to the chance to win the event.
A side-bar to the whole event is we had been told there were ostriches or emus in the area, but no one knew exactly where they were. Since we had no red zones, we did not want to create one. Several people told us they had gone out of business, etc., but no one really knew. We have always prided ourselves on landowner relations, and over the years have only had a total of seven red zones for all of our events.
Sunday afternoon, Dave, Jetta and Dottie took off again in a new direction. After placing the two targets, Chuck Moore, one of the scoring officers called me from the second target. The field they had landed in was huge, and Chuck was discussing the target area when he said, "I think we found the ostriches!" In the field adjacent to the target he said he could see many birds moving toward them, bobbing their heads up and down and making a "tom, tom" sound. Since we all know horror stories on ostriches, I felt we had possibly created another red zone and potential problems. I asked Chuck what the birds were doing, and to my surprise he said they were just standing by the fence and watching.
I then drove out to the target, and sure enough there were about 100 curious birds taking it all in. I am not suggesting that ostriches are not skittish, but these birds were just plain curious and not concerned at all that we were there. After the scoring was completed, we went over and had our pictures taken with the birds, agreeing that these ostriches must have laid-back owners as their personalities were sure laid-back.
Back to the race. As often happens in afternoon tasks, the winds did not allow for much steering, and David Cimini was the only pilot who scored. There was a few position changes, but Ben Burbridge was still the overall winner.
The Awards function was held pool side at the Music Park, with catered food, wine, champagne, beer and a bar, which all made for a great finish to a terrific event. Since Ben is a Southerner at heart, (he still thinks the War Between the States is going on), we paid him his prize money in Confederate currency. Then as Ben received his prize, David Cimini accidentally pushed him in the pool, and after he retrieved his glasses and the floating Confederate notes, we presented him with his actual dry check. Ben also received a plaque from the Postal Service complete with a commemorative Thaddeus Lowe envelope and mounted congratulatory letter. A wonderful event with a fun party that had almost everyone in the pool before it was over.
Next years dates have been set as May 8-10. For an event with super socials, a great flying area, plenty of daytime activities, and lots of Florida Southern hospitality, consider The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park Hot Air Balloon Classic.