Pink, green, red, orange, blue striped balloon being inflated on the quad grass of UNR.

Rachel Jackson/Nevada Sagebrush
Grauberger’s team blows up the air balloon in the quad of the University of Nevada, Reno.

The Great Reno Balloon Race finally came back—and better than ever—with their fortieth anniversary this year. 

The event took place Sept. 11-12 with the beautiful glow shows, the classic mass launching moment, merchandise for days, and a special 9/11 appreciation. The event was free and every year, is one of the best events the Reno community has to offer. 

“From its humble beginnings in 1982 with just 20 balloons, The Great Reno Balloon Race has taken flight with up to 100 balloons each year. The idea was to create an event that would keep visitors in town the weekend between the State Fair and the Reno Air Races and 39 years later, it is known as a world-renowned, and locally, a beloved community tradition,” according to the GRBR website.

Due to the high pandemic numbers in 2020, the race was cancelled, but now the organization is back with “as many as 100 other balloons” competing in the races. 

The event this year seemed to fill people’s hearts as the Reno community opened up again for the  yearly tradition over the weekend.

The GRBR also had a special preview day on Sept. 9, specifically for media to come in and ride in their first air balloon ride. 

As The Sagebrush’s Arts and Entertainment Editor, the opportunity to join one of The Sagebrush’s photographers, Rachel Jackson, on a air balloon trip into the Reno skies, was offered and simply couldn’t be missed. Our pilot, Sheldon Grauberger, told all of his passengers he’s never had anyone injured in the balloon.

“I’ve been a pilot for about 18 years, and I have done it over 3600 times,” Grauberger told The Sagebrush. “Never had a scratch on my basket, and I have a perfect safety record.”

A man and a woman hold the top end of the air balloon up as it gets air blown into it preparing for take off.

Rachel Jackson/Nevada Sagebrush
The air balloon team comes together to prepare for take off in the university’s quad.

Once the balloon was ready to go, it launched from the university’s quad and met the other balloons in the race at the same sky level. 

In Grauberger’s initial flight of the day, he had two passengers from the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, Reno flying. One of the riders, Keegan Murphy, vice president of ASUN, told The Sagebrush that the best part was seeing campus and peaceful skies.

“It wasn’t bad at all, it went really slow too. You don’t feel as high up as you actually are.” Murphy said. 

After the passengers and pilot randomly landed in the Reno Gospel Mission, Rachel and I hopped into the small wicker basket, switching out with the previous passengers, before we got more fuel and then took off. 

As we started to fly high above the Reno community, we watched as the other air balloons in the race began to land. The different shapes and colors of the air balloons were magnificent to view, ranging from the American flag, a unicorn, a frog, a Smokey Bear figure and a few other creative designs. 

Watching balloons float so high next to you as you’re drifting through the air is one of the most euphoric feelings in the world. It is a bit anticlimactic, though, you’re afraid as you drift up, but it’s very peaceful when you’re actually in the sky. It’s no wonder why most people put this type of trip on their bucket lists.

During the flight, watching the pilot move around so meticulously, routinely turning the propane on, knowing exactly when we needed wind shifts and knowing when we needed to be sent higher was astonishingly impressive. It was a wonder what made him get into piloting, since it looked so natural for him.

Rachel Jackson/Nevada Sagebrush
Slowly flying higher, the air balloon in the university’s quad takes off.

Grauberger told The Sagebrush, “Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to do it. I didn’t know I could be a pilot.” Then, for their tenth wedding anniversary, his wife surprised him with a trip to Albuquerque, N.M., where the Annual Balloon Fiesta occurs. 

Grauberger’s wife opened a whole new world to him. He currently flies at Lake Tahoe Balloons, where he launches on and off of boats in Tahoe and flies over the lake for beautiful views of the Tahoe area. It’s a  dream job, of course, and one he says he’s grateful to be paid for. 

As the flight dropped down, the landing was smooth, slow and steady as the “balloon chasers”, the people following the balloon to it’s random landing site, met us at the bottom. 

We took pictures and even popped a bottle of apple cider and champagne. Grauberger gathered his crew and passengers together, telling the story of the original air balloon and why it is a tradition to pop a champagne bottle after a successful flight. 

Grauberger told the classic story of the first air balloon being flown back in 1783 at the Gardens of Versailles. 

“There were two brothers, the Montgolfier brothers, whose dad owned that paper company and they were playing with paper and fire … they thought smoke made the paper rise, but it was actually hot air … and they did experiments like this to make paper lanterns,” Grauberger said. 

The brothers eventually got the idea to make a bigger paper lantern that could float a human, hence the creation of the hot air balloon. 

Once they created the hot air balloon, they tested it with animals first. After that, the king provided champagne to all the people in Versailles as they flew up some of his relatives into the sky. 

A few mishaps occurred when the balloon took them far away from France, forcing them to a land where people had never seen a balloon before. Thinking they were aliens, they tried to shoot them down. 

Once the passengers finally landed safely, they told the king and he offered them the finest bottle of champagne he had to show the people they flew over next time that they were humans. 

“He told them to dangle it over to show them because only humans have French champagne. And if you want people to help you, not hurt you, you give them champagne!” Grauberger said, before he popped a toast to his crew and riders.

After all had settled down, the group took pictures, and we even had a few straggling kids watching us land who jumped in the basket to take pictures with the pilot.

Grauberger had expected to do the dawn patrol for the GRBR event. However, due to unfortunate weather conditions arising, the event was cancelled on Friday morning. 

On Saturday morning, the event continued wonderfully. With clear skies and light winds, everyone in the Reno area came out to take pictures and be a part of the annual event.

Colorful air balloon in the sky over the tree lines hovering over the university.

Rachel Jackson/Nevada Sagebrush
Grauberger’s air balloon hits the sky, hovering over the university for all to see.

Jaedyn Young can be reached at or on Twitter @jaedyn_young3.