Winds have been picture perfect at race

Published 12:06 am Sunday, October 21, 2007

NATCHEZ — With sunny skies and a little luck, this year’s balloon race is shaping up to be nearly perfect, race officials said Saturday.

“I would say the festival is going excellent all the way around,” Pilot and Crew Coordinator Sally Durkin said. “Last year when we didn’t fly and this year flying every flight, there is no comparison. It’s been quite a few years since we’ve flown every flight.”

Last year, rain kept crowds away and balloonists grounded. But sun and calm breezes, the norm for the past few days and forecasted for today, mean all the difference, Durkin said.

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“The weather’s been very cooperative,” she said. “We should fly every flight this weekend without problems.”

Fair skies meant bigger crowds, too. The event sold out of tickets and had to start selling armbands instead.

“So, we’re really pleased with the response we’ve gotten,” Durkin said.

At the festival grounds on the bluff, locals and visitors gathered to listen to the music and watch the balloons.

A group of four friends met up to enjoy the afternoon.

Cory Alexander and Summer Brignac drove from Alexandria, La., while Wendy Thomas and Ryan Boyd drove from Tylertown.

“We toured the houses in the spring, and they told us about it,” Alexander said. “We’re loving it.”

For Natchez residents Mary and Fred Emrick, the weekend was an opportunity to see family. Their son, Bert Emrick and his wife, Michelle, drove from Madison with their 1-year-old son Aaron.

“It was a fun weekend to come to town,” Bert Emrick said. “We both grew up here, and it was a chance to spend time with family.”

Mary Emrick said she was glad the weather was nice.

“The balloons have been fabulous,” she said. “We’re glad to be out enjoying the beautiful day.”

Fred Emrick said he was happy to see the grounds fill up.

“There have been good crowds,” he said. “I see a lot of tourists around, a lot of unfamiliar faces. That’s great.”

Crowds lined the bluffs to watch the bubbles of color drift along the river.

They also bought souvenirs. By Saturday afternoon, more than half the T-shirts ordered had been sold.

“(Friday) night was the best we’ve ever done on a Friday night,” Mimi Miller, director of vendor and logo sales, said. “And we made back the cost of printing before the site opened. It points out what good weather can do for you.”

A new factor that might have helped numbers was this year’s addition of a sports bar.

“We realized people were staying home to watch the games,” Miller said, just before a cheer erupted from the tent next door. “The sports bar has been full. I think we’ll keep it.”

Miller said the balloon race committee would likely put any money raised at this year’s event into building back up their rainy day fund. The balloons are scheduled to fly again at 7 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. today, weather permitting.