A distinguished field of seasoned competitors will gather in Albuquerque in October to take on one of the toughest tests of skill and endurance in ballooning: the 22nd Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta’s America’s Challenge distance race for gas balloons. This year’s competition is scheduled to launch (weather permitting) at approximately 6 PM on Saturday, October 7 from Balloon Fiesta Park. Eight teams are scheduled to compete this year.
The object of the race is to fly the greatest distance from Albuquerque while competing within the event rules. The teams often stay aloft for two to three days and must use the winds and weather systems to their best advantage to gain the greatest distance. Flights of more than 1,000 miles are not unusual, and the winners sometimes travel as far as Canada and the U.S. East Coast.
The America’s Challenge is one of the world’s two great gas balloon distance competitions; the other is the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett, the World Championships of distance gas ballooning, which this year took place in Switzerland. Five of the teams in this year’s America’s Challenge also competed in the 21-team Gordon Bennett field this year, finishing 4th, 8th, 10th, 11th, and 20th. The America’s Challenge is the U.S. qualifying event for the Gordon Bennett.
Anything can happen and anyone can win in the America’s Challenge, but this year’s competition is especially hard to handicap because so many top international competitors are participating. To defend their title, four-time America’s Challenge champions and last year’s winners Barbara Fricke and Peter Cuneo will have to defeat the Iron Man of international distance gas ballooning, four-time world champion Wilhelm Eimers from Germany, as well as the very tough Swiss team of Nicolas Tièche and Laurent Sciboz, second in the world in 2016 and fourth in 2017. Among American competitors, Mark Sullivan and Cheri White have won the America’s Challenge twice, as has Andy Cayton, flying as co-pilot to formidable two-time America’s Challenge runner-up Krzysztof Zapart of Poland.
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Web site, www.balloonfiesta.com, and the Balloon Fiesta app for Android and iPhones, will feature live computerized tracking of all the balloons’ positions and race updates throughout the competition.