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Up, Up, and Away

You'd think the words "hot-air balloon" and "race" would never be uttered in the same breath. It seems by their very nature that these gargantuan yet gentle flying contraptions were created simply to float up slowly and go where the wind takes them.

Weather permitting, the third annual Delray Beach Hot Air Balloon Race and Festivities this weekend is sure to disabuse you of that notion. Dozens of racing crews, coffee cups in hand, turn up at Lake Ida Park before sunrise to unload their vans and trucks. Their foreheads bead with sweat as they set up the passenger baskets, inspect lines and ropes, unfurl balloons, check and double-check the integrity of the cloth, give their race strategy sheets one more glance, and finally fill the balloons with hot air.

Fans trickle in slowly and gather around the sidelines. There's excitement and anticipation in the air as the national anthem is played, and then as if the umpire just hollered "Play ball," one after another of the balloons launches into the sky. Once in flight, the crews get busy with navigation, wind prediction, heat and pressure measurements, and the scheming and plotting that is part and parcel of any race.

And while the slow and steady race is the main attraction of the event, it's more than just staring up at the sky toward a race among more than 30 members of mankind's oldest airborne conveyance. The festival part offers other fair-type activities the whole family can enjoy. Sorry, kids activities will not include piloting hot-air balloons. But plenty of other fun stuff will be available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, such as a bounce house, live entertainment and dancing, interactive games, a clown show, face painting, and balloons -- the long, thin, squeaky ones that turn into dogs and zebras and other weird shapes, as opposed to the behemoths that float through the air.

If you feel like chatting with one of the balloon pilots, come by Atlantic Avenue and A1A for the Balloon Glow on Friday night, where ten smaller balloons will be positioned on the fully lighted street from 7 to 10 p.m., accompanied by live entertainment.

On race mornings, Saturday and Sunday, a pancake breakfast prepared by the city's firefighters will be served -- no need to worry about burned pancakes -- and with weather permitting, visitors can also go on tethered balloon rides.

On Saturday, patriotic spirits will run high as the fire department presents a special fire operation followed by the police department's live K-9 demonstration. The Army, Navy, Marines, and the American Legion will also show their presence. Last year, nearly 30,000 visitors attended the event, so come prepared for a crowd.

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Sar Perlman

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