Great Forest Park Balloon Race, a beloved public gathering, turns 46

ST. LOUIS - The Great Forest Park Balloon Race is just around the corner. Soft landings and family fun have driven this event for 46 years.

Close to 80 hot air balloons create a colorful mosaic over parts of metropolitan St. Louis every September. For four decades, John Marlow, himself a pilot and event partner, has watched the event flourish.

“How can you not love something that’s seven stories high, that’s round and colorful and makes noise. You can’t not love it,” Marlow says.

The first-time spectators enjoyed balloons in Forest Park was in 1973. That concept was repeated with an event organized by Don Sarno and Henry Fett. By 1977, Marlow and three friends stepped in to help run the event with no experience.

It is now recognized as the second oldest and most well-attended free hot air balloon event in the world.

“We didn’t do much. We just kind of guided it. It sort of took on a life of its own because the families absolutely loved it,” Marlow says.

They were called the Fabulous Four. Marlow, Dan Shettler, John Schaumburg, and Ted Staley were just looking for a good time. Over the years, they've made sure the sponsorship is in place so that admission is free and pilot expenses are covered.

To keep the tradition going, Richard Nix Jr. joined the partnership.

“John and the Fabulous Four have put St. Louis on the map when it comes to ballooning, balloon races, balloon festivals,” Nix says.

Even the United States government recognizes the event. The Great Forest Park Balloon Race was inducted into the permanent collection of the Library of Congress in 2000.

“It’s for groups, festivals, grassroots events that meant something to the community,” Marlow says.

“They see the value of the thousands of people we bring to the park on Balloon Glow night and on balloon race night, that’s what the park is there for, for the community to enjoy,” Nix says.

Don’t miss the spectacular weekend in Forest Park. The Balloon Glow with live music and fireworks finale is Friday, September 14 starting at 7 p.m. On Saturday, the family entertainment begins at noon with the balloon race starting at 4:30 p.m.