Drone Racing: Meet the Pilots of this New High-Tech Sport

Steve Zoumas has always been fond of remote-controlled objects — cars, trucks, planes, helicopters — you name it.

So, it’s fitting his interest was piqued when drones came into the market. Zoumas, who owns a construction company in Long Island, N.Y., purchased his first drone to use while on job sites.

“The construction company was an excuse to get a drone, but going up in the air, hovering still and taking pictures wasn’t fun for me,” Zoumas, 31, said.

Zoumas, who rode ATVs, snowmobiles and other personal vehicles on his family’s 100-acre property while growing up, missed that thrill and adrenaline rush. That’s when he discovered drone racing.

Racing drones are different than the camera drones that are used in more of a leisure setting. Racing drones are smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic and built for speed with pinpoint control. They’re also flown FPV — first-person view — via goggles or headset.

“It’s so immersive,” Zoumas said. “You feel you’re in the cockpit of the drone doing 80 mph through trees and obstacles. It’s wild.”

Zoumas, though, doesn’t just race drones around town. Zoumas, AKA Zoomas, is a pilot in the Drone Racing League. The DRL pits some of the top drone pilots from around the world against one another in races where they maneuver quad-copter drones at speeds of up to 120 mph through three-dimensional courses.

ESPN will air 10 one-hour episodes of the Drone Racing League with the first race (Level 1: Miami Lights) airing at 10 p.m. EST Sunday.

“It’s huge because it’s kind of an underground sport now,” DRL pilot Chris ‘Hazak’ Haskins said. “Now that more eyeballs are being brought to it, there will be more events and races and it will help the sport to grow. It’s going to take off now that it’s on TV and blowing up on the internet.”

Haskins, 32, got into racing drones in a similar fashion as Zoumas. He bought a camera drone to do some filming around his home in Boise, Idaho, and a local racing club, Boise FPV, reached out to him after seeing his videos.

Once Haskins saw there were smaller drones used for sport and not leisure, he was hooked. He sold his camera drone and ordered parts to build a racing drone. He honed the craft while making a name for himself online, which is how the DRL found out about him.

“It’s like a video game, but you get the same adrenaline rush as a motorsport like riding a motorcycle or snowmobile,” said Haskins, who turned his hobby into a full-time job at Thrust-UAV. “The best part is you get that same rush without the personal risk to yourself, though you do cringe and gasp when you clip something or crash your drone.”

Ron Richter Jr. AKA Spaztik is another Drone Racing League pilot.

The 39-year-old construction manager who lives in New Bern, N.C., watched videos of drones on YouTube and was hooked when he came across FPV.

“That’s when everything changed for me,” he said.

Richter Jr. isn’t just perfecting his craft for the sake of the league or winning races; he’s also teaching his eight-year-old son how to fly FPV.

“He’s good, too,” Richter Jr. said.

Because many of the pilots are balancing careers and families, they practice most of their flying — referred to as getting “stick time” — on weekends. Usually part of local drone or FPV clubs, these pilots utilize designated courses with air gates and obstacles to maneuver through. If not, they craft their own courses.

Just like the technology behind the drones is evolving at breakneck speed, Zoumas and the other pilots hope the sport of drone racing grows equally as fast.

“Obviously the more people who see it, the better and the more legitimized it gets,” Zoumas said. “It’s growing so quickly and being on ESPN is going to help that. As pilots we all see the potential because we do it. It’s about getting other people out there to try it themselves.”

NOTE: This first appeared for Culture Trip


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