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darth_vader5Prepare yourself for something far from expected at this year’s Great Reno Balloon Race. While walking on Rancho San Rafael’s scenic fairgrounds between the nylon walls of traditional, vibrantly colored hot air balloons, take a moment to stand back and gaze at the sprouting horizon as you might spot a balloon that stands out amongst its cheery peers.

Fans will come face to face with their favorite Sith Lord. The highly anticipated 86-foot tall Darth Vader balloon will be traveling all the way from Belgium for the 30th Anniversary of the Great Reno Balloon Race. Pilots Benoit and Michel Lambert have traveled all over the world with the balloon, making appearances in countries such as France, Thailand and Canada.

As this is Darth Vader’s first journey to the Biggest Little City, we encourage you to welcome the Dark Side of the Force by sporting your best Star Wars gear to the Balloon Races.

Other unique shapes to be seen at this year’s race include: The Bonanza Casino sponsored soccer ball, The Wilbur May Foundation’s Hopper T. Frog, and Betty Jean, a new butterfly balloon. For more information on this year’s participating balloons and sponsorship options, visit or call (775) 826-1181.

May the force be with you.

For more information go the Event Calendar at

Up, up and away: The 2009 Great Reno Balloon Race takes off

It was nearing our scheduled 7 a.m. launch time, and pilot David Wakefield was busy with last-minute details: checking rigging, test-firing the burners, tethering the balloon to the bumper of the chase vehicle. And he was doing it all with a grin stretching from ear to ear.

Such is the life of a balloon pilot during the Great Reno Balloon Race. Safety is first, but fun runs a close second. And Wakefield was obviously having fun.

“When you love something this much, it never gets old,” he said. He ran from one side of the balloon to the other, all the while trading jokes with our fellow passengers and doing the “work” of preparing for our ascent in the Harrah’s-sponsored balloon.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Thursday’s media day event was a scaled down version of what visitors to Reno’s Rancho San Rafael Park (map) can expect this weekend (Sept. 11-13). About two-dozen balloons were set out in the park’s green pastures, propane burners blasting hot air as the colorful nylon bloomed all around us. My first ride in a balloon offered perfect conditions, as the sun peaked over the Virginia Range to the east. It was majestic.

Our route took us in a box formation about 1,500 feet up where we mingled with other balloons and traded positions with fellow fliers. The silence is the striking thing – interrupted only by the occasional burner blast that would give us our lift. From our vantage point, we could see all of the Truckee Meadows, with the cities of Reno and Sparks laid out before us. We floated east, then south above the University of Nevada campus. With predictable wind, and luck of the draw, a draft brought us back almost directly to where we started.

With a master’s touch, Wakefield set us down about 100 feet from our original launch site. And with my first flight under my belt, I stepped out of the basket, grinning from ear to ear. This would never get old.

The Great Reno Balloon Race 2009

  • When: Sept. 11-13
  • Where: Rancho San Rafael Park, Reno
  • Cost: FREE!
  • Time: Events starting at dawn
  • On the Web: