ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – One of the world’s biggest balloon distance races is scheduled to launch from Balloon Fiesta Park Saturday. It’s called America’s Challenge, but teams from all over the world compete to see who can travel the farthest in gas-filled balloons and the race can take the teams to places they never expect.
Defending champions Peter Cuneo and Barbara Fricke wanted an adventure when they took off from Balloon Fiesta Park last year and that’s what they got. The husband and wife team from Albuquerque landed in a forest in Ontario, Canada after flying for more than 60 hours.
“You don’t know where the finish line is until the last balloon has landed, so it’s kind of a strange competition,” Cuneo said. “You have to know what strategy will get you the most miles.”
The strategy involves consulting a meteorologist while up in the air to figure out the altitude and direction that gives them the best chance to go the distance. It also means slowing dumping out bags of sand to keep the balloon aloft.
Last year’s competition was fierce.
“The competition was pushing us,” Fricke said. “They weren’t going to land at sundown, and we don’t like night landings. So we just flew on.”
That meant flying over Lake Superior overnight, which was a scary prospect for their cross-country chase crew.
“The worry was, if we would go down in Lake Superior,” Cuneo said. “It’s a very large lake, a very cold lake, and it would have been very hard to be retrieved.”
“But we felt fairly confident,” he said. “The balloon had been flying fine for 50 hours.”
They eventually landed in Ontario, Canada, winning the competition at a distance of 1,426 miles. It was the third time they took home a first place trophy. This year, they’re ready to try for their fourth
There are seven teams competing in this year’s competition, including duos from Germany, Poland and Spain.