X Marks the Spot

One thing South Florida probably doesn't need: more hot air. You got your embattled politicians proclaiming innocence. You got your drag queens loudly signifying up and down Washington Avenue. You got Cuban Americans of every political stripe huffing and puffing in each other's faces. Well, prepare for a bit more hot air -- albeit of a more benign variety -- when the Great Sunrise Balloon Race gets under way this weekend. A fundraiser for the Sunrise Community (a private, nonprofit organization serving people with developmental disabilities since 1969), the race has been a Memorial Day fixture for the past fifteen years.

Why a balloon race? "The balloons represent a life filled with hope and promise or an individual rising to accomplish lofty goals," explains Keith Muniz, director of development for Sunrise. They serve as symbols: "dreams, expectations, new opportunities, new ventures."

Three different races, lasting from 45 minutes to one hour and 45 minutes, will be held: two on Saturday (6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.) and one on Sunday (6:30 a.m.). A total of 35 balloons, each with a corporate sponsor, will participate. This ain't a mere dash from point A to point B. Rather, a lead or "hare" balloon takes off from Homestead Air Reserve Station and drifts on a westward course for the Everglades. The hare's job: Find a spot on the ground and mark it with a 25-foot X made of brightly colored tape. Multiperson teams in "hound" balloons give chase in search of the X. Once they locate it, they attempt to hit the sucker with a beanbag attached to a long flag; the team whose beanbag lands closest to the X's center wins $500.

While the action is going on up in the air, down on the ground thousands of spectators can inspect military aircraft hauled out for the occasion by the U.S. Air Force, Customs, and Coast Guard; enjoy an all-day carnival; chow down; and listen to music performed by the jazzy Simon Salz Sextet, environmental advocates Earthman and the Planet Project, and rock and roll by Get Back, which features cast members from the London and Broadway productions of Beatlemania. Antsy attendees can also take part in a 3.5-mile Walk-'n'-Rollathon.

As for the ballonists and their beanbags, does anyone ever score a bull's-eye? "A very few times we've had them hit right on the X," Muniz notes. "But there have been times when the closest beanbag was maybe 400 or 500 yards away. Sometimes they're flying at 2000 feet and they just need to chuck that thing, and hopefully the wind will take it close." Bombs away!

-- Nina Korman

The Great Sunrise Balloon Race takes place from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Saturday, May 23, and from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Sunday, May 24, at Homestead Air Reserve Station, located at SW 127th Avenue and 268th Street, Homestead. Admission is free. Call 275-3317.