50 Balloons Rise to the Occasion Above Valencia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although the breeze was cool and it looked like rain, the sky above Valencia was full of hot air Saturday.

More than 50 hot-air balloons formed a scattered rainbow below gray clouds during the first day of the Valencia/Greater Los Angeles Balloon Race Spectacular, billed as Los Angeles' first major hot-air balloon race.

About 12,000 onlookers strained their necks from roadways and a vacant field next to Magic Mountain as the multicolored cavalcade ascended into the early morning air. Although the start of the race was delayed by the threat of rain, it turned out to be fine weather for flying, said Jackie Lapin, balloon enthusiast and one of the event's organizers.

"There's little wind on the ground and not too much wind in the air, so it's easier to navigate," Lapin said. "If the sun were shining, it would be perfect."

However, it was not ideal balloon-racing weather, and the competitive factor seemed to be as low-key as the wind. In fact, no winner was declared because none of the balloons reached the designated target site. The small amount of wind made them difficult to maneuver.

The "hare" or lead balloon--a black-and-green vehicle with an "IN-N-OUT BURGER" label--took off first and landed a few miles away at Newhall Ranch. The rest of the balloon pack, or the "hounds," as they are called in ballooning lingo, were to follow and drop sandbags as close as they could to where the hare had landed.

Instead of a race, it turned out to be a morning of pleasant drifting and champagne-sipping for those with their feet off the ground. Some of the flyers feasted on croissants and cinnamon rolls as they floated in irregular patterns.

One couple got married at the event. Alex Kapelnikiv, 28, and Leona Bichenka, 25, of Encino exchanged vows before taking off in a celebratory balloon ride.

Throughout the morning, conversations among the balloonists, spiced with such terms as "baggie" and "splash and dash," were repeatedly interrupted by the roar of propane burners filling the enormous "ripstop nylon" bags with hot air.

Plenty of traditional "Around the World in 80 Days" balloons rose to the occasion. But the more unique balloons provoked the most crowd reaction. One balloon was shaped like a rolled-up edition of the London Times, complete with pictures and headlines. Another was shaped in the likeness of a Benihana chef, topped by a red chef's hat.

The largest balloon was shaped like an ice bucket with the top of a champagne bottle emerging from its apex. The balloon, sponsored by Freixenet Champagne, didn't fly but stayed tethered to the ground throughout the day.

A race sanctioned by the Balloon Federation of America is scheduled to start from the same location at 8 a.m. today.

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