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The Final Frontier

In the deadly race to circle the globe in a balloon, team Re/Max plans to rise above the crowd. But can a bold ego go where no man has gone before?

"It's a tremendous opportunity for Re/Max to position itself not only with families but their children," says company president Jesperson. "Kids remember things like that. Our salespeople are really getting on the bandwagon and wanting to schedule our hot-air balloons at the schools."

Martin says he thinks the teams that come in second in the race to circle the globe will simply fade into obscurity, like those pilots who were trying to beat Lindbergh across the Atlantic. But times have changed; these days every balloon team has its own Web site, and even the chronicles of the failed missions are widely disseminated. Barring a singular tragedy in flight, Tom Hamilton of Balloon Life doesn't see how Liniger can lose.

"When you take a look at all the press exposure Virgin [Records] got, even out of a failed attempt--Liniger is no different," Hamilton says. "He's bought a seat in this balloon. There's a certain amount of risk, sure; you can lose your life in this deal. But he's made an evaluation that the risk is worth the reward. Even if he isn't the first around, he's going to wind up with a lot of exposure for his company, probably in multiples of the money he's actually spending on the project."

Dave Liniger says he almost never took a vacation until after Gail was injured in the seaplane crash fifteen years ago, a crash in which the pilot was killed. Over the next year, he stayed with her at various rehabilitation hospitals and was almost never in the office. Re/Max International got along fine without him, he adds, and could do so again if, say, he went into the heavens in a balloon and never came back.

"There's twenty people who can run this company as good as I can," he says. "There are several who can probably run it better. I'm just not willing to step aside yet."

Gail Liniger says the seaplane experience taught them both that they weren't indispensable. "After my accident, that was pointed out very clearly to us," she says. "We learned the true value of delegation and the assets we have in the company."

Both of them say they've never spent much time having second thoughts about their love of adventure. Not after Gail's accident. Not after Dave blew a tire in a NASCAR race in Las Vegas, hit the wall doing 160--and walked away from it. Not when the opportunity to fly a balloon around the world came along, either. "That's just the way we are," Gail says.

Dave says he took a long look at the Team Re/Max project before committing his time and money. "I sat there and thought about the risk a lot," he says. "I thought, 'I'm still a young man, maybe I shouldn't try something this hard.' Then I started thinking, 'This is a piece of cake compared to driving my car.' Hell, you can walk across the street and get hit by a car."

Before his number comes up, Liniger wants to see the color of the sky at 130,000 feet. A voracious reader, he knows what test pilots such as Joe Kittinger have to say about it, but he wants to see it for himself.

"Being able to look up," he says, "and see that the sky above you is jet black, even in the middle of the day, and then look straight out and it's kind of turquoise, a color you've never seen before, and look down and see the curvature of the earth--that's as close as I'll get to being able to go into space."

That's twenty-odd miles closer than most people. Come New Year's Day, with good weather, a little planning and some luck, Dave Liniger expects that people in Rio de Janeiro or Antofagasta or Asunción will look into the starry night sky and see his big balloon crossing in front of the full moon.

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