A massive shopping mall in Hawthorne, California abandoned long before the real estate crash of 2008 is converted into the sports world’s newest high speed racetrack. Dust stirs up as a fleet of drones zip by at speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour.
Hollywood special effects set designers are brought in to add creativity and a degree of challenge for the racing pilots to navigate to the finish line.
Flying through obstacles like the iconic Santa Monica fishing pier sign and around mock L.A. freeway markers, if a pilot misses passing through a gate on the 2-mile course, they get disqualified.
This is day 2 behind the scenes of a three day competition. CEO Nick Horbaczewski invited me to witness what he hopes will be the next big thing in televised racing sports.
The sheer size of the production crew needed to capture tiny fast drones over a complex course makes a typical broadcast crew at NASCAR and a NFL game look small-time.
It takes enormously fast cameras and equally skilled camera operators and directors to turn this sport into tv gold. And if the numbers work out like they did at Nick’s last niche sports venture, Tough Mudder, he’ll be right.
From the dozen racers, only the best 4 pilots move onto the final round. Age does not enter the realm of qualifiers for those skilled enough to have made it this far. Like Conrad Miller better known to his drone racing fans as Furadi who’s 12 year old son has also taken up the sport alongside his dad.
Furadi races shoulder to shoulder with his competing pilots behind a secure netting to keep from getting whacked in the head in the event a drone strays off its path. Pilots navigate by wearing a virtual headset showing the path from the drone’s perspective.
The drones end by flying into a net at the finish line. You can see the beads of sweat on every racing pilot during this intense moment. According to super champ Furadi, the hardest parts are not the late night practice, the speed and the crashes. The toughest part he says, “Nerves. Nerves for sure.”
The drones aren’t the familiar consumer versions. They start with a light weight carbon fiber body and are custom made in the New York shop of the Drone Racing League.
They have a remarkable design for forward flight with a higher camera planted in the middle facing forward, led lights that look like a blue streak as the race gets underway.
These rugged racing drones are meant to fly fast and take the brunt of a high speed collision. The DRL’s motto: ‘If you are not crashing, you’re not racing hard enough.’
DRL’s head of marketing Ben brought over the latest of DRL’s racing drones and what makes them different from the rest. (Video of Kurt and Ben)
There are a total of six competitions in extraordinary venues from subway tunnels to giant arenas to a transformed mega mall this year. The pilot able to make it through with the highest points at the end of the season will be crowned Drone Racing League’s world champion.