Great Texas Balloon Race turns 40

Balloon Festival

The Great Texas Balloon Race floated into Longview in 1978, coinciding with the grand opening of the Longview Mall. Dr. Bill Bussey agreed to fly his hot air balloon over the city complete with a Longview Mall sign to celebrate the business grand opening.

“I made a presentation to Frankie Parson and Mary Wade LeTourneau about flying my balloon over the city,” Bill Bussey said.

“They were new and I was new. We didn’t really know what we were doing. I shouldn’t say that, but it was kind of an experiment. They were a little leary of it at first but I said that I’d create a balloon race and we’d call it The Great Texas Balloon Race and they liked the idea and that’s how it all got started.”

“I called 30 balloonists that I knew and advertised the event in ballooning magazines and a lot of celebrities showed up. It was the year after that when it officially became named The Great Texas Balloon Race. I just liked the name. I thought of the name of some circuses that were around and the Great Texas Balloon Race sounded spectacular to me. There’s no rhyme or reason other than that. It just stuck.”

“The first year of the race, a guy came up to me and said, ‘You know, this is bigger than The Rio Palm Isle.’ I thought that was a wonderful compliment. Also that year, a policeman came up to me and asked me who was in charge of the event. I asked why. He said, ‘I need to know who’s in charge.’ I said that I was. He said, ‘Do you realize what you’ve done? We’ve got cars stacked up all up and down McCann Road and Judson Road and parking lots are full. We can’t get emergency vehicles down Loop 281, there’s too much traffic on it and you should’ve told us about this.’ Meanwhile, I was elated because I didn’t think anyone would show up. But they were right, I hadn’t contacted the police and I should have but I didn’t know in those days.”

That same year a lady came up to me and said, ‘Where are the balloons?’ I said, ‘see way over there in the horizon?’ She asked when they were going to come back. I said, ‘Well, ma'am, they’re not going to come back. They’re going with the wind and wherever the wind takes them is where they go.’ She said that we should have them come back. In that moment, it clicked. I thought that I really should bring them back so the people could see them but the only way to do that would be to keep them here and not let them go. So the next time, we had them inflate on the ground for what we termed, “The Balloon Glow” which is now copied all over the world. 

The next year there were 40 balloons, then 60. We’ve had as many as 86. But we found out that’s actually too many and so we keep it right around 65 now.

In 1984 the race moved from the north side of the mall to Stroh’s Brewery Complex on Cotton Street. 

“In 1984 they had the Olympics in Los Angeles. The torch that was lighted in Greece came through Longview and we got them to bring the torch and light all the burners on the balloons for the glow. I thought that was kind of special.”

The Great Texas Balloon race was in hiatus during 1987-1989. In 1990, the race was reintroduced and moved to the East Texas Regional Airport (then called the Gregg County Airport) south of Longview.

In July, Bussey will receive the Ed Yost Master Pilot Award for lighter than air pilots who have maintained safe flight operations for 40 or more years.

“This July 1, assuming I stay clean and don’t have any accidents, I’ll receive the 40 year safety award which ties right in with 40 years of the race. The hot air balloon is my golf cart. It’s my fishing boat. I love it and I can’t wait to get in the air.”

The Great Texas Balloon race kicks off with a balloon glow on Friday and Saturday nights and features live music, children’s activities, shopping and food. The event invites more than 50 sport and special-shaped hot air balloons. Balloon pilots compete for the Texas State Championship. The Great Texas Balloon Race is a Balloon Federation of America event. 

Great Texas Balloon Race

July 28 - 30, 2017