Hot air balloon races are competitive events allowing balloon pilots and their crews to improve their skill level and rankings in the sport. Although these events may be called races for practical purposes, a balloon race is not a contest judging speed. These ballooning events range from casual festival gatherings to serious competition events overseen by various sanctioning bodies.
A typical race puts competitors head to head to determine who is the fastest at getting from the starting line to the finish line. The same rules generally apply whether the racers are individuals, vehicles, or horses. Hot air balloon races, however, are not about speed. This is because wind velocity primarily determines the pace of a hot air balloon aircraft as well as the direction it moves in. Therefore, all competitors at the races are traveling at similar speeds.
Instead of speed being the focus at hot air balloon races, pilots are judged by completing accuracy-based tasks. Points are awarded for each task, and the overall winner is the pilot who racks up the most points over the course of the competition. At festivals, the goal is usually on increasing knowledge of ballooning as a sport and recreation. As a result, the tasks at these events are usually lighthearted in nature and designed to provide entertainment to the spectators.
One of the most likely tasks to be included at a festival is the classic hare and hound. In this task, competing balloons, called the hounds, follow the leading balloon, known as the hare. Pilots must then drop a weighted marker on a large target laid out on the ground by the hare. Usually this target is a piece of fabric shaped like a cross. The closer a pilot gets his marker to the center of the target, the greater the amount of points he receives.
The key grab is another popular task included at festivals. Instead of using the cross as a target, the key grab uses a tall pole with a detachable ring, ribbon, or set of keys attached. The first pilot to remove the attachment wins top prize. In an alternative version of this task, pilots may be given a hoop and directed to drop it over the pole.
Tasks featured at serious hot air balloon races may include declared goals where either the pilot or a judge will set a goal before the flight begins. Contenders will then attempt to drop the marker as close to the goal as possible. Several tasks center on changing direction in flight. In the elbow task, pilots drop a marker after flying out to a minimum specified distance. Pilots then deviate as much as possible from the original direction and drop the second marker at their final destination in an attempt to achieve the greatest degree of change.
Compared to festivals, competition-level hot air balloon races are generally more complex and require greater tactical knowledge and strategy. Knowledge of the local terrain, wind conditions, and maps are all tools used by top pilots. These tools, along with global positioning systems, aid pilots in making changes in elevation to correspond with different airstreams. In turn, this allows a pilot to change his or her speed and direction so his or her balloon aircraft passes closer to the target. Winning sanctioned hot air balloon races at the local, state, or regional level may qualify balloonists for the next higher level of competition.