One Great Texas Balloon Race pilot had an extra special Father’s Day at the close of three days of flights over Longview — he took first place while competing alongside his son and nearly 60 other pilots.

Harold “Bubba” Cliver was named the overall winner after the points were totaled from tasks spread across the flights, and the Lewisville resident was also named the Texas State Champion with his performance. Cliver’s son, Chris, also competed in the race.

Scott Armstrong of Urbandale, Iowa, took second place, and Rhett Heartsill of Fort Worth came in third in the overall points standings. Joe Seymour of Indianola, Iowa, placed first in the U.S. Junior National Championship, which was flown simultaneously with the Great Texas Balloon Race by pilots dubbed “Young Guns.” Blake Aldridge of Longview placed second in the Junior National competition, and Cameron Wall took third place. Wall is from New Mexico but lived in Longview while attending LeTourneau University and now resides in Las Vegas.

Among other special awards, Sherry Rand was bestowed the Rudy Bresie Award for her longstanding volunteer service to the Great Texas Balloon Race.

After learning during an awards ceremony following Sunday morning’s flights that centered on tasks at a field across from the Longview Exhibit Building, Cliver praised the city and the event.

“Winning the Great Texas Balloon Race — anybody that comes here from anywhere, worldwide, is truly one of the amazing championships,” he said. “You can’t do enough to be humbled by the people of Longview, the Great Texas Balloon Race organization — especially Bill Bussey who founded the race — to know and to realize how much they give and they give of their time. Any champion can only hope that they honor them by accepting the gift of their time and effort.”

Cliver said he has been participating in the Great Texas Balloon Race for about 25 years — since his son Chris was a baby. He also said he will return.

“It’s always great to come to Longview. The staff here, the long tradition, it’s a really big deal,” he said.

He said early on in his ballooning, a fellow competitor gave him some advice related to winning races.

“Really the thing about ballooning is you don’t ever really win a championship, you simply don’t lose it,” Cliver said. “What I mean by that is a fellow competitor taught me a long time ago that you can’t control what everybody else does. You can only control what you do. You do your best, and you let the chips fall where they are. In this case, they fell in my direction.”

For his win, Cliver took home a check for $3,750, a six-shooter pistol, a black cowboy hat, belt buckle and more. He thanked his sponsor Regions Bank, his crew, son, grandson, wife, family and God.

The 44th Great Texas Balloon Race was, like many recent events, modified from its usual format with no festival, no balloon glows and no concerts. Race organizers decided in February to not stage events at the East Texas Regional Airport due to the then-uncertainty of COVID-19. The 2020 event was canceled due to the pandemic.

Instead, the race this year focused on the flight aspect its features and added two planned non-competition flights on Friday and Saturday evening, although Saturday’s event became a static display of inflated balloons due to wind and thermal conditions.

Great Texas Balloon Race Chair Michelle Ford said this year brought a heightened excitement after a year of no flying.

“It has been fabulous for us to be able to bring this event into the city of Longview — back to its roots,” she said. “We have been so excited to be able to see the balloons in the sky, and we can tell the city has been excited about that. They’ve been very welcoming to the pilots from neighborhoods to restaurants.”

Race officials announced after 2019’s event that it would move from July to June. Ford said when the race was in July, it was common to have to cancel at least one of the planned competitive flights due to weather. This year, she said the weather cooperated and all of the events were flown.

She also said race organizers would soon set their sights on next year.

“We’ll start planning for our 2022 event in the next couple of weeks, and we’ll begin developing plans for our event,” she said. “It is our intention to return to the airport.”

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Michael Cavazos is a multimedia journalist specializing in photography. A Kilgore native, he studied photography at Kilgore College and Stephen F. Austin State University. Michael enjoys visually documenting life in East Texas.