The leaders in one of the ballooning's most prestigious events were floating over Oklahoma as they neared the end of the first day of the multi-day America's Challenge race on Saturday evening.
The six teams lifted off in Albuquerque just after midnight on Saturday and the lead teams had floated more than 400 miles by nightfall. The two lead balloons had crossed the Texas panhandle and were moving into Oklahoma, a race official said.
A team comprised of Phil Bryant and Phil MacNutt was in the lead, with the balloon manned by Bert Padelt and Louis Vitanza less than 20 miles behind.
Five of the six balloons in the race were within about 70 miles of each other on about the same track.
The race is honoring Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis, presumed dead after their balloon disappeared into the Adriatic Sea off Italy during a European race last week. The ballooning community held out hope as crews searched the area for days, but nothing was found.
"They'll definitely be in our thoughts, and we're wishing that they were here competing with us," Troy Bradley, who is flying in this year's race and once spent six days in a gondola with Abruzzo on a trans-Atlantic flight, said before his launch.
At nightfall, Bradley's balloon was near Lubbock, Texas, and in last place after floating only about 268 miles as the crow flies from the launch point.
Two large weather balloons honoring them and their families were sent aloft just before the race began, said deputy race director Kevin Knapp.
"It was perfect; a great night, or morning, for the launch," Knapp said.
The six balloons were expected to take a generally eastern direction across the country in a race that can cover more than a thousand miles and last up to four days. Last year's winners traveled more than 1,400 miles before landing near Ames, Iowa.
The team that travels the longest distance wins. To win, pilots must astutely take advantage of wind currents and fluctuation in temperatures to get the most distance out of their balloons, encountering a series of hazards along the way.
Also in honor of the two, each of the six race balloons carried "chili ristras," collections of red chilis connected by strings. The tradition stems from the record-setting trans-Atlantic flight of the balloon known as the Double Eagle II, which included Abruzzo's father, the late famed balloonist Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman. The three carried a ristra with them for good luck.
Richard Abruzzo, 47, of Albuquerque, and Davis, 65, of Denver, were flying in the 54th Gordon Bennett Gas Balloon Race when contact was lost Sept. 29 over the Adriatic Sea. Organizers of that race said radar indicated the two plunged toward the water at 50 mph (80 kph) and they likely didn't survive.
The Gordon Bennett and the America's Challenge are the biggest events in balloon racing, and Abruzzo and Davis dominated the competitions. They won the 2003 America's Challenge _ one of Abruzzo's five victories in that race. They also won the 2004 Gordon Bennett in France.
Abruzzo also won the race in 2002 and 2004 when he teamed with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. They were entered in this year's America's Challenge.
The event was initially scheduled for Tuesday, but concerns about rough weather delayed the start four times.
Despite the pall left by Abruzzo and Davis' disappearance, those competing in the race have no reservations. They say they're focused on what they have to do.
Bradley has his lucky Double Eagle II coin with him.
"On every gas flight I've ever done, I carry that coin because those guys are my heroes," he said.
Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta: http://www.balloonfiesta.com/