AT 7:45 A.M. on a clear, breezy Saturday in Bristol, Tenn., a chauffeur prepares to unload his riders. He makes a phone call to confirm weather conditions, then sets his watch. Minutes later, at precisely 8 a.m., he pulls a lever on his vehicle and releases dozens and dozens of grateful passengers who immediately head straight for their homes.

Seven hours later, retired Air Force Colonel Croft Grantham stands in his backyard in Northern Virginia and scans the sky for a familiar sight. He soon spots it: a swiftgray-and-white bird winging in for a landing on a wooden platform attached to a small building. Now the colonel springs into action, deftly grasping the creature to remove a small rubber band from its leg. Quickly, he drops the tiny ring into a contraption that resembles a plastic toolbox adorned with a clock face. He turns a knob, and a machine hidden inside records the current time. Grantham can relax again -- until the next Tennessee traveler returns from its 320-mile journey.

Grantham is one of approximately 15,000 American participants in a sport introduced to this country during the mid-1800s: pigeon racing. Homing pigeons, intelligent birds who instinctively know how to return to their homes from distant points, have served humans since ancient times, when they carried messages for the Greeks. People began racing the birds in the early 1800s in Belgium, where the pastime now is the national sport, practiced by one in 10 homes, according to the American Racing Pigeon Union (AU), our country's largest organization devoted to the hobby. Pigeon racing also boasts huge followings in Holland and in England, where even the British Royals keep homing pigeons.

The AU, which will hold its 89th national convention and race in Baltimore next week, recommends the hobby to people who enjoy "friendly, wholesome competition," and who like working with naturally athletic animals. Most racing pigeon fanciers here are men, age 60 or older, many of whom got started with the hobby as children or teenagers. Some became familiar with the birds during wartime, when the U.S. Army used homing pigeons to deliver messages. (The birds' fascinating role in history includes such heroic wartime acts as a pigeon named GI Joe who made a 20-mile, 20-minute flight to deliver a message that saved 1,000 Allied soldiers during World War II.)

"I flew my first race in 1937 when I was 17 years old," says Grantham, a retired Air Force fighter pilot. As a teenager, he lived near an Army base that kept pigeons. Today, he's one of approximately 70 hobbyists in the Washington area who raise and race homing pigeons. On most Saturdays from early summer through October, trained pigeons belonging to Grantham and other local racing pigeon fanciers fly from 300 to 600 miles in long-distance competitions.

"It's really miniature horse racing," Grantham explains. "There's a breeding aspect, a conditioning aspect and a racing aspect."

Like racehorses, homing pigeons have pedigrees and need a lot of care and training. Beginners need to know that raising racing pigeons requires a commitment of time, patience and money. Grantham recommends starting with a couple of pairs of breeding adult birds, who ideally need at least a 4-by-4 loft with an entrance and space to nest. The fancier must provide regular food and water, frequently clean the loft and monitor the birds' health.

Avid pigeon fanciers easily spend thousands of dollars on their hobby. Even a small loft can cost $1,000 to build, and a pair of top-notch breeders can cost another $1,000, says Tommy Erskine, director of AU's Atlantic Zone. Food and medical costs and weekly race fees ($15 on average) also add up. Experienced flyers often encourage beginners by offering free or low-cost start-up birds.

Pigeon flyers begin training and conditioning their birds five days a week when they're about 4 months old by driving them to locations two or three miles away and releasing them to find their way back, Grantham says. He steadily adds miles, increasing each outing by five miles once the birds have flown a 10-mile stretch. After a few weeks, the pigeons prove ready for long-distance racing.

Unlike horse races, pigeon races don't follow a marked track and don't take place before throngs of cheering spectators. A hired driver transports the birds to a designated location, as far away as Gadsden, Ala., and then releases them at a specified early morning time. Each animal wears a tiny leg band, a counter mark, which identifies the bird and the race. Even if it has never before been to the race's starting point, each pigeon instinctively knows the way back to its home loft.

"The object is not only to get the bird home rapidly, but you have to rapidly catch the bird and get the counter mark off its leg," Grantham says. Basic math comes into play to determine a winner.

"We divide the distance the bird flew by the time it took him to fly it, and that gives you his speed," Erskine says. Each flyer uses a tamper-proof pigeon clock to record the finish times, which a club member later tallies to find out the birds' order. The winner gets a diploma, and sometimes a trophy or money.

Pigeon racing does pose risks to the birds, however, mostly in the form of hungry hawks. A hawk or falcon awaits a flying pigeon approximately every three miles, Erskine says. In this area, races usually stop between October and April, when the hawks' favorite prey, songbirds, winter further south.

Occasionally, usually because of unpredicted, adverse weather conditions, homing pigeons lose their way and land, confused and hungry, in strange yards. The AU recommends putting the bird in a cage or box with a screen on top, and offering a dish of water and raw grains such as rice and canary seed. The pigeon's leg band lists information to help identify the bird's owner, including a membership organization's initials, affiliated club letters and the band sequence number. Most racing pigeon organizations' Web sites include lost and found sections to help reunite lost birds with their owners.

BIRD BRAINS

Contact the following organizations, Web sites and publications for further information about racing homing pigeons.

AMERICAN RACING PIGEON UNION -- P.O. Box 18465, Oklahoma City, OK 73154-0465. 405/478-2240. Web site: www.pigeon.org. One of two national organizations devoted to pigeon racing, AU offers free information packets to novices interested in getting started with the sport. Call the organization or visit its comprehensive Web site For information about the Help-A-Beginner program for second-year flyers, contact Frank Greenhall at 2868 River Road, Melrose, NY 12121, or through e-mail at fgpigeon@aol.com. To locate a local club, contact the main office or Tommy Erskine, director of the Atlantic Zone, 1100 Foxwood Lane, Baltimore, MD 21221-5933, 410/574-2455 or through e-mail atSquirt16oz@aol.com. The AU's annual convention takes place Oct. 27-30 at the BWI Marriott, 1743 West Nursery Rd., Baltimore, 800/228-9290. Registration is $150 and includes two dinners, seminars, loft tours, races, an auction and other activities. Admission is free to the AU Youth National Race, which takes place on Oct. 30. Call the main office for convention and race details.

INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers Inc. -- Contact Secretary-Treasurer Val Matteucci at P.O. Box 374, Hicksville, NY 11802. 516/794-3612. Web site: www.houstonhub.com. The oldest American organization promoting pigeon racing, it offers assistance for inexperienced hobbyists through its Help-A-Beginner Program. Contact Sam Pixley, president of the Washington Combine Flyers pigeon club, at sampixley@hotmail.com for details.

IN THE LOFT, The On-Line Journal for Pigeon People -- Web site: www.kjsgroup.com/rprs/itlasp/itloft.asp. Check out this Internet resource for articles, a message board and lost and found news.

NATIONAL PIGEON ASSOCIATION -- P.O. Box 439, Newalla, OK 74857-0439. Web site: www.npausa.com. Individual annual membership in this organization for pigeon fanciers costs $15. Visit the Web site for information about the association and its affiliates as well as pigeon health questions and answers, links and products such as bird bands and books.

RACING PIGEON DIGEST -- P.O. Box 3088, Lake Charles, LA 70602. 318/474-1289. Web site: www.racingpigeondigest.com. This twice-monthly publication features articles by flyers and veterinarians. An annual subscription is $35.

U.S. RACING PIGEONS FACING PIGEON FORUM -- Web site: www.rcmicro.com/us_racing_pigeons/. This online resource includes a club directory, bookstore, links and band numbers.

WORLDWIDE PIGEON BREEDERS DIRECTORY -- Web site: www.pigeonfanciers.com. Visit this online directory for information about breeders and pigeon product suppliers, organizations and publications connected with the sport.