From the Archives – Portrait of a Balloon Race

By Emma Livingston, Co-Editor 

Thunderbird Archives is a treasure trove of photographs, paraphernalia, and documents steeped in Thunderbird lore. Among the archive’s many historical gems is a Himalayan mountain-size pile of old student newspapers, starting from 1948 with the American Institute for Foreign Trade’s newspaper, “The Thunderbird,” all the way up to 2011, when Das Tor produced its final print edition and relocated online.

Dawn at the first Thunderbird Balloon Invitational (photo courtesy of Arizona Memory Project
Dawn at the first Thunderbird Balloon Invitational, 1975 (photo courtesy of Arizona Memory Project

While combing through these old newspapers, I came across an article from November 1986, nearly 30 years ago. The article is a portrait of the Thunderbird Balloon Classic, which was an annual event hosted on the Thunderbird campus from 1975 to 2006.  I enjoy this article because it offers a quirky, student’s eye view of an event that has, unfortunately, disappeared into the annals of history. Reading the article feels like opening up a time capsule on a completely different era at Thunderbird.

So, sit back and relax as we go back in time to a windy November day 30 years ago, when a young Master of International Management student at the American Graduate School of International Management has set his alarm for 5 a.m. to join the crowds gathering to watch the flight of the balloons at the 11th annual Thunderbird Balloon Classic.


Original article in Das Tor (photo courtesy of Emma Livingston)
Original article in Das Tor

Portrait of a Balloon Race

by Tom Nemeth

Saturday morning. Zero five hundred. The alarm chirps. The chant rings through my head. Up in the morning with the rising sun, gonna run fifty miles ‘fore the day is done….Well, there ain’t no sun and as a matter of fact, there ain’t no moon either. But this is how Balloon Race ’86 started out for me.

Generally, I start out the day with a cup of java, preferably freshly ground, but sometimes from Debbie at the coffee shop. Anyway, I recall promising the Bagel Queen of the IBW booth I’d have breakfast there. So I wait.

1986 Balloon Classic Patch (photo courtesy of Arizona Memory Project)
1986 Balloon Classic Patch (photo courtesy of Arizona Memory Project)

I cross 59th and promptly forget about the American Fence Company’s contribution to the Thunderbird Classic 100. Ouch! (Hey, it’s pitch black.) I’m looking for all the people that are supposed to be there. All my salty friends have insisted I get there early so as not to miss a thing. Funny how none of them are there. The food booths are there okay, but only a couple have spirits floating about them. This always happens when I’m hungry.

By 6 a.m. faces appear, the sky has lightened and crowds are pouring in. This is more like it. The PA system gets fired up and a woman who sounds like she got five more hours of sleep than I starts her chatty monologue dotted with comments about T-Bird history, Norwegian smoked salmon, and a balloon called Chesty.

Everything is behind schedule. I wake up a friend who demands more sleep. I laugh sardonically. Between protests we rush back to the field. The first 50 balloons are preparing for launch. It’s like a balloon jungle – so colorful. I feel like a kid. Everyone smiles, the children are especially wide-eyed. The sun breaks through the light clouds over the horizon and the balloons launch amid oohs and ahs. “‘Man I’d like to do that…”

Balloons in Flight 1990 (photo courtesy of Arizona Memory Project)
Balloons in Flight, 1990 (photo courtesy of Arizona Memory Project)

Chow time. Bagels with cream cheese and hot black coffee. The line is long at IBW, but I know the Bagel Queen and officers, so I go to the back door and get service with a smile and no waiting. Meanwhile, the Newman Club is yelling just that: “No waiting!” But alas, they advertise falsely: no hot chocolate.

The second flight of 50 balloons lift off and again the spectacle is wonderful. The crowds migrate to Mrs. Powell’s humongous cinnamon rolls and fried dough (yech). I’m milling around talking to friends and waiting to hear when the mass ascension will take place. It turns out it will not – too windy.

Sunday. Even earlier. I feel like I consumed the whole Freixenet bottle…I’m supposed to sell empanadas at 5 a.m. I don’t even know what an empanada is. Doesn’t sound very good to me or the customers. We decide they are fruit turnovers. 6:00 and still no power. I bring the hot chocolate urn to Marc’s room to plug in. I hate to wake him, but this is a good cause and all and I learn that some men still wear pajamas.

The power is now on; I retrieve the urn. The crew in our booth is in full swing. Dan and Tina are at it again for day two and so is George. Dedication. I knock off after the first shift to see the first lift off in hazy cool air. Not as nice as yesterday, but nevertheless impressive.

Aerial Photo of the Balloon Race at the American Graduate School of International Management, 1985 (photo courtesy of the Arizona Memory Project)
Aerial Photo of the Balloon Race at the American Graduate School of International Management, 1985 (photo courtesy of the Arizona Memory Project)

I notice the ferris wheel thing by the Greenway entrance. It looks too much like a cheap carnival and greasy carnies work to keep it operational. I check out the free spinal exams and decide that outside of video stores, chiropractors are Arizona’s number one growth industry. The vitamin fortified water tastes good and is the best spent 50 cents that day. Hawkers sell everything from cassette tapes to custom airbrush T-shirts.

Just then, a townie describes Thunderbird to a friend as a restaurant management school.  Definitely time to go…

Late afternoon. I’m exhausted, so I go home to crash and dream about Balloon Race 1990 something when I’m an alum…

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