The voyage of the helium-filled Double Eagle II across the Atlantic has attracted new attention to the entire field of ballooning, which for the past several years has been experiencing a boom. Fifteen years ago there were only a handful of hot-air balloons in the world; today there are more than 1,200 in the U.S. alone, plus a number of the long-distance helium ones. That represents about 70% of the world total.
One offshoot of the sport's popularity is the formation of a professional balloon-racing circuit, the brainchild of Bob Waligunda. president of Sky Promotions of Princeton, N.J., which has handled hot-air balloons since 1965. According to Waligunda, next year there will be a 12-race circuit, followed by a national championship. Depending on the local topography, the balloons will race in one of three ways: for distance; spot landing for accuracy; or via the hound-and-hare technique, in which a lead balloon is followed by the pack, the winner being the balloon that lands closest to the hare. The good news is that spectating is free; the bad news is that someday you may crumple a fender on the New Jersey Turnpike when a balloon race passes distractingly overhead.
The fate of the circuit hinges on the sponsors Waligunda can find. Only this week he talked to Canada Dry about sponsoring a "hare" balloon that would be shaped like a bottle of ginger ale. And prospects look good. Balloons cost less than $15,000 and, in effect, can be floating billboards seven stories high, attracting starry-eyed gazes. "Only 1% of the people in the country have ever seen a balloon," Waligunda says.
One would think Rise Shaving Cream could hardly resist. Or Seven-Up, racing out of Chute No. 7. And A&W could decorate theirs like a root-beer float. Gerald Ford might launch his racing balloon in time for the 1980 campaign, adorned with his famous WIN logo—Whip Inflation Now. But then, politicians won't need any prodding to jump on the bandwagon: they've been soaring through campaigns on hot air for centuries.