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Of balloons, camels and pigskin
by Harry Spencer
Sep 11, 2009 | 1213 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune/Sarah Cooper
The Energizer Bunny hot “hare” balloon is one of the many colorful hot air balloons that will float above Reno this weekend in the 27th annual Great Reno Balloon Races.
Tribune/Sarah Cooper The Energizer Bunny hot “hare” balloon is one of the many colorful hot air balloons that will float above Reno this weekend in the 27th annual Great Reno Balloon Races.
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Today is one of the most picturesque and exciting days on the special events calendar in this area. Colorful balloons will be greeting the dawn on what should be a picture-perfect day, and in the afternoon the 50th anniversary of the Virgina City camel races will be taking place.

The timing of the two events could not be better since the balloons like to fly early in the a.m. and the camels prefer to strut their stuff in the heat of the afternoon. Fans for both events are well served since the drive from Rancho San Rafael Regional Park to the Comstock is one of the most scenic in this part of the state.

As noted previously in this column, the current edition of the camel races is a far cry from the initial event in 1960, when only two camels participated in only one race. It was a contest that was won by movie director John Huston over his buddy Billy Pearson, a professional horse racing jockey.

The big attraction in 1960 was that the cast and crew of the movie “The Misfits,” which Huston was directing at the time, added to the glamor of the first race. Additionally, Bill Harrah hosted a gathering of the famed Horseless Carriage Club and that colorful group, in period costumes, guided their ancient and beautifully restored vehicles up the steep Geiger grade.

Nowadays the races have turned into a three-day affair and the new race grounds are more of a traditional oval track; the original race was run down the main streets of town. Also, the race has added the word “international” to its title since many of the jockeys are from overseas. Ostriches and emus also vie for the attention on the race track and there have been many more events added. New this year is the ability for attendees to ride the newly reconstructed V&T Railroad from Carson City to Virginia City.

Racewise, this area has probably been host to more diverse types of racing than any venue in the world. It began many years ago with horse racing at a local track, progressed to hydroplane racing at Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake, then to the National Championship Air Races. Then it was on to the top-notch bicycle racing through the streets of downtown Reno, the Journal Jog and a host of other charity-inspired foot races — even rubber duckies on the Truckee River — and all types of livestock contests at the annual Nevada State Fair.

In the distant past, several of the local gaming giants, namely the Mapes Hotel, sponsored snail racing on an annual basis in the Bay Area. The Mapes snail was appropriately named “Lucky Pierre” and drew admiration from TV’s Ed Sullivan, who journeyed west for the event.

Off-road racing also proliferates in the surrounding area with localite Roger Norman being one of the top racers on the famous Baja circuit.

Arena-cross is becoming a big attraction at the local indoor venues. Who knows what’s next?

On hallowed turf

Last Saturday the Nevada Wolf Pack football team journeyed to the most historic pigskin stadium in the world, located at Notre Dame University and took on the Fighting Irish in the opener for both teams this season.

According to one of the more than 3,000 Nevada fans who made the trip in support of the Silver and Blue, the opportunity to sit in the “House that Rockne Built” was well worth the journey, even though Nevada came out on the short end of a 35-0 score. As he described it, the noise in the 83,000 capacity stadium was so deafening whenever the Wolf Pack threatened to score it was remarkable that they got off any plays at all. Couple that with the fact that practically the whole student body of the school was in attendance and the huge marching band continually blared out the Notre Dame fight song. Along with that, the Irish suited up more than 100 players, while Nevada had a little more than 60 stalwarts. It is a little wonder that things on the field got out of hand early on.

As one of those on a charter flight put it, “I don’t know if Nevada is that bad or Notre Dame is that good.”

Today, we will get a better appraisal of the Irish as they face traditional foe Michigan. As for Nevada, they have a merciful bye, which should give them time to prepare for two more strong opponents in the forms of Colorado State and Missouri.

One bright spot in the loss to Notre Dame is how well the offensive line played in springing running back Vai Taua loose for healthy gains.

The charter flight attendee also noted that in addition to touring the magnificent campus of Notre Dame a special highlight was a Friday evening private tour of the Notre Dame locker room. The pristine room had dedicatory plaques on facing walls of Knute Rockne and George “The Gipper” Gipp. Also, the group got to go down the same narrow stairway that the team uses to reach the tunnel and subsequently the playing field. He said, “The perfectly cut natural grass had a velvety feel and the stadium looked even more enormous and intimidating when viewed from ground level.”

Hallowed ground, indeed.

Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.

Editor’s note: Harry Spencer’s column is sometimes a mix of reporting and opinion. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.
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