Jones of Bud balloon wins overall racePublished 12:06am Monday, October 22, 2012
NATCHEZ — Riding winds north to Anna’s Bottom is considered a last resort for most balloon pilots, but for the first and second place winners of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race it was the perfect ending to a memorable weekend.
Those pilots, who deservedly earned the nickname “the Anna’s Bottom boys” at Sunday’s awards ceremony, were forced to ride strong winds north Saturday during the key grab event.
But soaring an additional 17 miles off target was nothing new for Steve Jones, who pilots the Budweiser balloon, and Brian Hoyle, who pilots the Big Red balloon.
“The first time I took Brian up in 2004, we landed in Anna’s Bottom, and I haven’t been back there since then,” Jones said while accepting his first place reward. “(Saturday) we landed side by side there and it was just perfect.”
Normally, Jones said the landing spot is one most pilots tend to avoid, but always keep in their back pocket just in case another landing spot doesn’t appear.
But with this year being Jones’ last race after a 14-year flying career, he said the landing spot couldn’t have been better.
“My first flight was here in Natchez, so my last flight had to be here too, but the Anna’s Bottom landing was just a coincidence,” Jones said laughing. “I’m glad I got to end it like that with Brian landing right there next to me.”
Hoyle, who is Jones’ son-in-law, said the flight and the race overall is certainly one he’ll remember — even if he did come in second.
“This race had a lot of meaning to it because it was Steve’s last race, but when we came down together in that same spot that was unreal,” Hoyle said. “I’ve been following him around since I started racing, and I’m just glad I got to follow him for his last flight.
“And I know he would have been just as happy for me if I had won first place.”
Balloonmeister Bill Cunningham saw past the sentimental moment during the award ceremony to point out one important fact.
“So you decide to make this year your last flight, and not only do you win the whole thing, but you kicked sand in your son-in-law’s face who came in second,” Cunningham said as the room full of pilots and crew burst out laughing. “What a perfect way to end this weekend.”
And while the weekend race will signify the end of Jones’ racing career, Hoyle was quick to point out it wouldn’t mean the end of his days around the races.
“I’ve already claimed him as crew for my flights,” Hoyle said laughing.
Jones graciously accepted the offer and said there was no better way to have ended his career with a win at Natchez — something he had never accomplished.
“This is one of the most difficult races in the country and to win this race is just awesome, but to win on my last race is just incredible,” Jones said. “We’re going to miss a lot of these friendships we’ve developed over the years, but we’ll still be around.”