America’s Challenge defending champs aim for back-to-back win

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (KRQE) – The Balloon Fiesta’s long-distance gas balloon race is bringing more competition this year.

There are more teams and added pressure for the defending champions based out of Albuquerque.

“Over the years, we’ve managed to win four times and come in second a couple times,” defending co-champion Peter Cuneo said of his team that includes race partner Barbara Fricke.

The two are coming off a first place win in the America’s Challenge, a long-distance gas balloon race.

“The idea is to take off from here in Albuquerque and fly as far as you can away from here in a straight line,” Fricke said.

They are a couple of fierce competitors, participating in flights around the globe. Their longest flight was more than 1,160 miles, approximately 70 hours, from Belgium to Finland.

For the America’s Challenge, there’s added pressure for the win against eight other teams.

“I’ve already promised this year that we’re not going to win because we never win two years in a row and we won last year,” Cuneo joked.

They have competed in America’s Challenge for the past 14 years and prepare year round. In September, they competed in a gas balloon competition in Switzerland.

They said experiencing the annual 2-night, 3-day race starting in Albuquerque is unlike any other.

“I love being there, just sitting in the sky and watching the world go by,” Fricke said.

“The basket is pretty small,” Cuneo added. “It’s got a three-foot by five-foot footprint. You really feel like you have wide open spaces around you at night if it’s a clear night and a full moon.”

They are adding something new this year to up their game. After all, being competitive requires staying up-to-date with the latest balloon innovations.

“We’re updating the technology a little bit,” Cuneo stated. “We’re going to a new form of batteries and we actually upgraded the balloon to a lighter valve so we’re trying to save a little bit of weight because that is key.”

As of Monday afternoon, Cuneo and Fricke were neck-and-neck with the Swiss team, within 76 miles of each other in distance

So far, two of the 7 teams have landed.

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