Fly Your Own Race // My Journey To Professional Drone Racing

 

I don’t think at any point before 2015 I would have ever thought that this is where I would be today. As a software engineer from Indianapolis, IN, I wasn’t thinking that I would travel the world, appear on ESPN, and become part of something that would transform me as much as drone racing. In late 2014, drones weren’t even on my radar until my parents-in-law gave me for Christmas my first drone — a little toy-grade machine called a Hubsan X4. While this wouldn’t seem to be a major inciting incident in someone’s life, little did we realize that this would set in motion a series of events that would take me around the world.

 

Initially, it was just fun. I took my little micro drone, played games, and got as good as I possibly could at flying the little bugger. Little challenges here and there were all I needed to stay interested, and each time I achieved a challenge, I searched for the next. That is until I broke it. My favorite, dumb, annoying little toy broken. Wait. I’m an engineer. I can probably fix this. Thus, I started down the rabbit trail of learning home drone repair, which admittedly, at the time, seemed pretty innocuous. Drone is broke. Repair drone. Easy peasy. However, during my searching, I came across a video that literally changed the way that I viewed the world around me.

 

This video of a few Frenchmen racing their home-grown first-person-view (FPV) racing drones around a forest forced me to rethink everything. A near-addict to video games, my hobbies have always been one-sided. No matter what, I dive into that hobby 100% and never look back. My online friends quickly started having a harder and harder time getting ahold of me as my attention switched from Battlefield 4 to diving deeper and deeper into the depths of YouTube, trying my best to understand electronics, electricity, drone physics, and drone engineering. Yes, you read that right — everything I know about drones and drone racing I learned from self-determination and YouTube University.

 

While I was convinced that no matter what, I would become an FPV drone pilot, my wife was worried that it was yet another fleeting hobby. Whether it was survival gear, cycling, or video games, my wife had seen my hobbies come and go as quickly as the seasons. So, when I approached her about building and racing my first drone, her eyes rolled so far into the back of her head, I’m surprised she can still see. However, through constant pestering and.. Let’s be honest a little bit of “bribery chores,” she OK-ed the budget spend to get my first racing drone.

 

To get started, I chose a kit. At the time, the “Mini Quad Bros” fpv drone racing build kit seemed like the ideal place to start — it included all of the compatible parts to build a ZMR250, along with all the default settings that I would need to literally get this project off the ground. Keep in mind – at this time, I had never soldered anything together, built a circuit, and the only drone piloting experience I had was from my tiny little toy-grade micro drone and YouTube videos. However, that never deterred me, and I think in the long run, it has shown me that I have the drive and determination to do whatever I want: I can literally make things fly. How many humans in the history of forever have been able to do that!? It still blows my mind every day.

 

Thus, on March 16, 2015, with shaky hands my wife filmed the first flight that my home-built drone ever took. Kira, my puppy, and inspiration behind my logo, watches in the background as the machine gets off the ground fairly confidently, and lands again from its first flight. This creation — this thing that I built with my own hands worked. I. Was. Hooked.

 

Then, we enter into a series of months of practicing, building, repairing, flying, fixing, and learning. I didn’t purchase “FPV” (first person view) equipment for my ZMR250 (christened “The Green Machine” for the color of the props, as well as the paint we used to adorn its chassis.), so the first few months of flight I learned to fly “LOS” or “line of sight.” That is to say, I learned to fly the drone with my unaided eye. However, a few months after that video was filmed in my home’s garage, I purchased FPV gear, including a pair of foam goggles with a screen inside and had my first flights from the birds’ perspective. Once again, and continually throughout this story, my mind was blown. To be in the air, to have total 3 dimensional freedom, to not have any bounds to the ground took me away. Many pilots will describe their first FPV experience as “out of body,” and I have to say it was no different for me. This drone that I built was flying through the air, and I might as well be riding it around for all I care — it was and still is to this day transformative.  

 

A short time after The Green Machine was flying with FPV, a stranger reached out to me via social media and invited me to travel to Louisville, KY to enter into a drone race. Until this point, I hadn’t considered that I would ever be ready for an actual race against actual other people, but I was excited to accept his offer. This stranger, Gary, who continues to be a close friend of mine even today greeted me at the drone racing course with a big smile and a handshake and walked me through the process of racing. All of these people, with their wacky equipment and home-built drones were veterans of the then nascent drone racing scene, but they were warm, inviting and welcome to me, a newcomer and a stranger. One thing that I’ve learned in the years that I’ve been a drone racer is that this attitude is common among all pilots. When you find a group of people that all share a common interest like drone racing, you find that everyone breaks down barriers and can become instant fast friends. After introductions and warmups completed, racing began. The format was “most laps” within “x time,” and all the participants were broken into two classes based on battery voltage. I had a 12.6 Volt (or 3S) battery, while the veteran racers had 16.8 (4s), so I was placed in a category containing some of the more novice pilots. However, throughout the day, by focusing on consistency and ignoring what other pilots were doing around me in the air, I was able to win my class and thus my first drone race. I couldn’t have been more thrilled, and from here on out – I knew I wanted to keep racing drones.

 

The following months took on a very similar formula. Travel to a city, meet strangers, learn the rules and compete. Drive here, race there, get podiums. While I didn’t always win, I knew after every race what I had to do to compete at the next. I went home, I built my own “gates” (obstacles on a drone racing course that must be flown through), and kept practicing. Often, I wasn’t even sure why I would put in as much practice as I did, until one day, on my way home after another race in Louisville, I started talking to a camera as much to stay awake during the two hour drive as I did to actually record my thoughts. During the “conversation,” I attempted to argue that drone racing wasn’t something fleeting to me — I was treating it almost like a value-add. Unlike video games or TV, drone racing was a skill based interest — something that requires practice and mastery. In my mind, it was more akin to learning to play the trumpet than it was to playing video games. I went on to explain that I feel like I might have an opportunity to be one of the best. “I know I will never be the best programmer in the world, but maybe I have a shot to be the best drone racer.” I think that this moment, this little externally spoken internal discussion solidified for me that I wanted to pursue drone racing as a skill, and that, for once in my life, I wanted to chase after being the best at something, whatever it was. While my interest in drone racing started with the gift of a drone from my in laws, I believe that my journey to become a professional drone racer and a world champion began at this moment. This was when I knew that I should take the shot.

 

At the time I recorded that simple little video in the car on my drive home from a race, I didn’t realize the journey that I was setting myself upon. However, I did publish the video to YouTube, shared it with a few drone racing groups, and found that my experience and my thoughts were not exclusive to me. Many others had felt the same way about the hours that they’ve put into practicing, preparing, and participating, and I had “found the words” that they were trying to communicate to their friends and family who all thought they had simply gone off the deep end (much like mine initially did). Between these comments and some encouragement from some college friends (hi Matt and Noah), I decided that it was time to start purposefully making content based on my journey to learn FPV. At the time, vlogging was starting to become popular — Casey Neistat was just starting his first year of making daily videos, and many others were following in his wake. Thus, I decided that I would take the vlog approach (though not produced daily), and started creating videos based on “the story of FPV.” Through spending time thinking about and documenting my adventures and misadventures with FPV, hopefully I’d be able to inspire others along the way, and bring them along for this awesome ride.

 

My goal was and is to encourage others that the joy and passion that goes into FPV is worth the effort. While there are many frustrating moments, dollars spent, and hours wasted, the journey, the way you view the world, and the people around you make it all worth it. By immersing yourself into this hobby, you will meet people from around the world, share an interest, and have a human connection that many spend their lives trying to make. By taking these ideas, this theory, and building a career’s worth of content around them, maybe I have the opportunity to influence one person, hundreds, or more that taking the step onto this train is worth it.

 

Critical thinking about racing and content creation encouraged me that it was time for me to attend my first big event. Earlier in the year, the first major drone race (Drone Nationals 2015, presented by the DSA (Drone Sports Association)) occurred in California. In addition, a series of races called “XDC” (xtreme drone circuit) had been hosting epic races in Los Vegas, and other events around the world were bubbling up including the Dubai Drone Prix, which awarded upwards of $250,000 to their winner. Thus, I chose to attend an event in Atlanta, Georgia called “F3 Expo.” This event, hosted by some of the top names in freestyle (Mr. Steele, Charpu, Skitzo, and FinalGlideAus), was set to host many of the top pilots as well as a few different races and freestyle events. Within the states, I would argue that (at the time)  it was the biggest event of its kind.

 

I’ve included this event for two reasons. First, it was one of the first experiences that made me consider quitting drone races. And second, the people I met became my biggest influence to push drone racing as hard as I could.

 

First, the bad. At my first big event, I was definitely one of the least experienced pilots present. Pilots from around the world and the country had entered into the race, and I was doing my best to compete against them. I was both simultaneously awestruck and freaked out by the pilots that I was racing against, until I made a mistake. I was racing the course line, got turned around, and hovered for a few moments during a qualifying heat. I got turned around and slowly found my way back onto the course. However, in the intervening moments, a much more talented pilot turned a corner, hit my drone, and we both crashed out, ending the heat for the both of us. While I don’t blame the pilot for being frustrated, I was extremely shaken when the pilot requested the next time I came to fly that I not put my quad on the line and sit out the race. This cut me deeply – a person that I had been looking up to, wanting to emulate, compete against, and learn from basically said “you’re not good enough to be here, and you shouldn’t be competing if you don’t know everything that you’re doing.” Again, heat of the moment, and I’m confident that this individual did not mean to attack me as a person, but it cut. This moment flew against everything that I had so far learned about this community, and single-handedly made me not want to compete ever again. If this is what it’s like to be at the top level, then I don’t want to become that, and I don’t ever want to face it down again. I bit my tongue, put my head down, and joined another heat thanks to the amazing work of Joe Scully, but that interaction weighed heavily on me through the rest of the race.

But that’s not the end of the story. One pilot that I met at that race was AJ Goin, aka “Awkbots.” I had approached him at the race about potentially appearing on my VLOG/YouTube channel. Unlike the other pilot, he showed me great kindness and interest, entertained my questions, and even helped me fix a broken quad. After I returned home from F3 expo, we had a private conversation in which he encouraged me that this interaction I had was the exception, and he encouraged me that the top pilots all emulate the attitudes that I had seen at local races: pilots are there to help and support each other and keep each other encouraged. This attitude as a whole was reflected by another attendee at the expo: Jordan “JET” Temkin (though at the time the pilot handle he flew under was “swab”). JET, though at the time was not yet the inaugural and two time DRL Allianz world Champion, had just competed in and won the California Cup, and was making a huge name for himself as a champion drone racer and member of “Team Big Whoop,” one of the most elite groups of drone racers, recognized around the world. In contrast to my previous encounter, he spent time with me, sat with me, provided tips and tricks as he watched me navigate the obstacles of the expo. He befriended me – it didn’t matter what my expertise was, how well I flew, or anything — he just showed genuine interest because we both loved the same sport. In addition to this, I met another future DRL pilot at F3 expo: Zach Thayer aka “A_NUB.” A_Nub pulled me into his car, drove me around downtown atlanta, and together we searched for locations to fly. Rather than pushing me away for my inexperience, he encouraged me and pulled me along. These interactions with these top pilots have set the tone for who I aspire to be as a leader of FPV, and I couldn’t have gotten to where I am today without their support.

After F3 expo, winter had arrived in Indiana, and my flying greatly slowed down in the ensuing months. However, while I was not flying, I was spending time doing more content creation. I was creating regular vlog episodes, tutorial videos, and I started a livestream. The livestream, while at the beginning was a fairly minor event, became one of the greatest sources of growth early in the creation of my YouTube channel. It gave me an opportunity to “give back” by creating hours and hours of build videos by explaining how to build drones 100% of the way through. Users could join the streams, ask questions, get advice, and build themselves into a community of like-minded individuals. While I was by no means an expert at the time, I was able to help create a community that wanted to share and learn together. This helped set the tone for the resulting “brand” of my channel: “the story of fpv.”

Fast forward through the winter months to summer. I continued practicing racing, attending small local races, and bettering myself as a pilot. While there was no major advancement in my skills or performances, I was slowly developing a mantra that would forever affect the course that I was taking through the FPV racing scene: “fly your own race.” My theory was that if I pushed out the pressure that I felt from other pilots on the course and focused on sticking with my own racing line and pace, I could perform much better at races due to the fact that I could stay calmer, fly smoother, and not crash. This first payed off in a big way at a race called “Flight Bash 2016,” which took place near Dayton, Ohio.

 

As a rookie who hadn’t even come close to podiuming at any of the large races I had attended, the lineup at the event was staggering. Pilots that attended included big names of the time: MCFly, Navihawk, and Beastmode – all individuals who were were or might as well be full time pilots and had extensive racing resumes under their belts prior to this event. In addition, other pilots attending the race included future DRL pilots “BrainDrain (season 1)” and “Awkbots (season 1 and 2). It goes without saying that the pressure of attending an event with such high-caliber pilots would weigh heavily on any attendee, let alone a rookie. However, I stuck with my mantra: “fly your own race.” By introspecting, focusing on flying the best I knew I was capable of, I set off in a battle in the final heat and won the race when the professionals crashed out: this lead to a purse prize of $4,000 and a sponsorship from one of the primary battery manufacturers in the RC industry: Tattu. In addition to these physical earnings, my theory was validated, and my passion for racing was solidified. I was now a contender, and I could now set my sights higher and higher.

 

Not a few days after the win at Flight Bash, I received a phone call from DRL, aka “The Drone Racing League.” To this point, I had not had any direct interaction with DRL, but what I didn’t know was that behind the scenes Zach and Jordan had been pushing for me to get in front of the DRL staff. In season 1, DRL used what they called “coaches.” These individuals would be the emotional support system for the competing pilots. They theorized that, due to the live audiences and high pressure, having an individual that’s dedicated to them to talk to and chat with would be beneficial. When the casting call went out to the DRL pilots, Jet and A_Nub recommended me for the opportunity. As a result, I received a call, immediately said yes, and had the opportunity to coach for DRL level 3: Project Manhattan. While the coaching piece didn’t have a great impact on the way the event was run, I was truly inspired by the opportunity. Being in the presence of my drone racing heros was incredible. Between seeing them race, encouraging them as a coach, and spending time chatting at the hotel, I couldn’t help but feel that I was where I belonged, and this opportunity forced me to double down on my training. In particular, I remember seeing Johnny FPV fly for the first time, and being overwhelmed at how controlled he could be with the machine, sharing a meal with BrainDrain and hearing about his past and how he got to become the runner up in Dubai at the World Drone Prix, and I got to spend more time with and learn more from my heros on Team Big Whoop.

 

Upon returning from NYC and the filming of Project Manhattan, I headed to North Carolina to attempt to qualify for DSA’s (Drone Sports Association) Drone Nationals. Different qualification events were being held around the united states, and the opportunities to qualify were growing thin. I had not been able to make any of the other events, so some friends and I set out on a road trip across the country to NC to attend the Flymore event at the old Savoanna Mill. This dank, dusty, dark retired sawmill attached to a flourishing brewery was an ideal FPV racing location. My skills at the time reflected indoors flying and tight, technical courses because we were holed up for the winter inside of a baseball training academy, which left us only a soccer fields’ worth of space for practicing. Despite the intense heat in a building that lacked air conditioning, hundreds of those attending the brewery would stop in for the drone racing and would cheer at the end of each heat. I remember once coming back past the finish line, executing a backflip through the start-finish gate, and hearing the crowd roar. For the first time in my FPV racing career, I got to hear fans cheer and be excited about what was still a niche sport. After battling through qualifying, I placed into the heads up bracket racing in 2nd place. I battled my way to the final race where if I took at least 2nd or 3rd I was guaranteed a spot in USA drone nationals. Despite a crash in the race, I made it further than 4th place, and secured my spot to attend the drone nationals race in NYC. Throughout racing, I continued to practice “fly your own race” and came away with the prize I was hoping: an opportunity to race against the best of the west.

 

When I earned my opportunity to compete in Drone Nationals from Flymore, I was left with less than two weeks to buy tickets, prepare, and practice for the big race. From the time I returned from North Carolina until I departed for NYC, I burned as many batteries as I could, built, repaired, and tested drones to the point I was crazy. I knew that it was a long shot for me to even compete in NYC, but I had to give it my best. Even as I drove to the airport to depart for New York, I reflected to myself “if you had told me a year ago that I’d be going to NYC for Drone Nationals 2016, I wouldn’t have believed you.” The previous year, I had watched Chad Nowak win the previous Drone Nationals, and I knew that even a year ago these pilots were at a much higher level than I ever thought I could achieve. I had only been flying for a year, and one year ago these pilots could all have beaten me soundly. How much better would they be now? Luckily for me, I had one tool in my bag: “fly your own race.”

 

Being in NYC for Drone Nationals was incredible. This was the first time that I spent time in the “big apple,” and despite the horrible idea to host a drone race on an island, seeing the city from Grand Island was an awesome backdrop for a race. Everyone I had ever admired was in attendance — all of team big whoop, previous national champions, world runners up, etc.. the list went on and on. It was incredible spending time with my heros, racing against my biggest competition, and doing my best to hold my own against the greats. Throughout the racing, I doubled down on “fly your own race.” I forced myself to ignore the desire to “go fast, man,” and focused on competing at the highest level I could. And it paid off. After qualifying higher than my best expectations (I told Joe Scully, the race director that I would be happy with top 50), we went into bracket racing. Luckily, due to the high pressure everyone was facing as well as excellent spotting by my now friend Able “Navihawk” Almauger, I was able to stay in the air, complete laps, and advance to the final four. After a close brush with losing in semifinals against JET, I was now racing against 2 well-known pilots and a rising star: A_Nub, Furadi, and M3. At launch, A_Nub took and held an early lead, easily wiping the floor with all pilots, despite arriving to the entire race late due to a wedding. Furadi launched hard as well, and smashed into the very first gate, taking himself out of the race. For the first lap, I battled with M3 in chase of A_Nub, but shortly into my second lap had a major turnaround which put me far enough back that there was no chance of catching up. Thus, I slowed down, and had some fun. I knew that I could easily complete the course, so I just flew my own race and brought it around into my third lap. During his third lap, M3 crashed attempting to catch a_nub, and handed me second place when I came through the start/finish on my final lap. I was so elated that I nearly crashed in a brief freestyle celebration. This earned me the opportunity to race on team USA in Oahu, Hawaii at DSA Drone Worlds. Once again, flying my own race and sticking to my guns lead me to taking another step in my path to professional drone racing.

 

After the big win at USA drone nationals, I knew that I needed to train. If I was going to compete against the biggest and baddest pilots of my time on the world stage, I would need to get good fast. While the method of flying my own race had seen some success, I was going to need to increase my baseline to beat the best of the world. Thus, I went to the fastest people I knew: JET and A_NUB. I called them up one afternoon and asked if I could travel to Fort Collins, CO where they lived at the time so that the three of us could practice for team USA. While JET was not traveling to Hawaii for drone worlds, he and A_Nub were in their final practices for the DRL World Championship season 1. The epic first season of drone racing was coming to a close, and they were busy preparing for the race. I remember being insanely frustrated, sitting on the grass in a park in Fort Collins, watching the two professional drone racers finish lap after lap on their Racer2s because I had crashed out trying to go fast. The two were just so far and above my skill level. It was a humbling moment. These two were flying a drone that weighed at least double my own, and they were shaming me with their ability to control the machines. Through all this, I knew that I had work to do. After a week of training with Big Whoop, I traveled home to Indianapolis and put my nose to the grindstone, practicing battery after battery for drone worlds.

 

However, before traveling to drone worlds, I had one last opportunity with DRL in the United States: I was asked to come be a coach at DRL Season 1 Level 5: the World Championship race in Detroit. For the race, in the semi final round, I worked with JET. Unlike at the previous event, we were able to spot for the professional pilots, and we were given an earpiece to them to communicate with them their position on the course. Unlike at other races, most DRL events don’t have color calling, so pilots are uncertain of the distance from opponents and often unsure of what position we are actually in. By being able to provide that information to JET, I was able to help push him in to the next round. When the racers changed over for finals, JET opted to use a different coach that he had worked with in the past, and I was able to coach Cain “MadAir” on to his 5th place finish in the inaugural DRL season. Being able to attend this event, which I would argue was one of the most important races in the history of drone racing, spurred me into high gear. After practicing against Big Whoop, seeing these professionals compete, and knowing that I was heading into a world level race with them and many others, it was easy to throw down and double down on my training. What I witnessed at DRL Season 1 finals solidified for me my desire to be a professional pilot; the next step was to get a win at drone worlds.

 

Very shortly after returning from Detroit, it was time to head to Hawaii for drone worlds. The event, which took place on the tropical island of Ohau was riddled with disaster after delay after dropout. Due to many technical challenges, organizational mishaps, weather uncertainties, and bad temperments, the event ended up becoming chaotic. However, despite the issues with the event, I kept my head down, focused on flying the best I could given varying conditions, and slowly but surely put in work on the track. Two current United States champions, Korean champions, Chinese newcomers, French, German, and many more countries were just a smattering of the awesome competition that was present, and honestly I wasn’t stacking up. The qualifying process for the race involved setting fast lap times, and while my technique of “flying my own race” works very well in heads up racing where crashes can happen on the way to the finish, my ability to fly extremely fast and get fast lap times was poor. I nearly didn’t qualify for the “mains” at drone worlds, and managed on my last attempt at setting a qualifying time to give myself a decent time with a little bit of buffer from the bubble point on the list. However, despite making it to the mains, I was bracketed very very low against pilots that were annihilating my lap times. I thought it was going to be over fast. It seemed like every heat I raced was stacked, but I just kept doing my own thing. By flying my own race, I managed to get advancement after advancement by consistently placing in the top 4, until I somehow miraculously found myself in the final race.

 

Eight pilots flew the final race, among them DRL season 1 pilots Nytfury and Wild Willy, as well as French and Korean champions. I was certain that there was no hope for me to place well against such a stacked championship race, but I think that as a result a certain “calm” washed over me. I had done what I already believed to be impossible by sticking to my strategy and confidently flying the course to the limit I knew I was capable. Why should this race be any different? As the start tone dinged, I launched as hard as I confidently could, and made it through the hole shot with no issues — and that was when the chaos started. I could hear quads’ props break as midairs took place in front of me, giving me clear air through the first straight. I wasn’t aware at the time that some of the leaders also made it out clean, but a large percentage of the pack was behind me and many had crashed. For the three lap race, I continued employing my strategy – I confidently flew as fast as I could, and made my first lap. At least two seconds before I rung the bell heading onto my second lap, I heard at least 4 quads ahead of me. I pushed it into the second lap and made a huge mistake – a big turnaround which caused me to fall further and further back from the leaders. However, despite the drama of the situation I found myself in, I remained calm and resumed my laps around the track while simultaneously hearing more and more crashes. My spotter M3 reinforced what was already in my mind “just finish.” I traveled onto the third lap, not knowing my position or where others were in front of me, but I knew that the leaders were far ahead. Not halfway through my third lap, I heard the leaders finish the race, but it wasn’t over for me yet. I kept flying, got to the finish gate, crossed the threshold and landed in the designated zone. Taking my goggles off, I was proud that I finished my race, but disappointed that I couldn’t hold on to the leaders. M3 was also uncertain how I placed, so we both walked out to the landing zone to pick up my quad. Here, I met my wife who was ecstatic. She exclaimed to me that “you got second place!” To which. I’m certain I responded in mild disbelief, but over the next few minutes while the officials were reviewing placement, it was announced over the loudspeaker. First place “Nytfury” (no surprise there — the man is a living legend). Second place, “Bulbufet!”  (my pilot handle at the time hadn’t yet changed to “NURK”. Holy. Crap. Second in the world. Once again, I went into a race with the mentality that I should do my absolute best, stay calm, and stay flying, and here I was. Second only to Shaun “Nytfury” Taylor. We traveled back to our AirBnB for the night, enjoyed some food, drink, and tiny whoops, and fell asleep knowing that I had met and exceeded my goals here in Hawaii. What more could you want?

 

Well, it turns out a lot.

The next day, I distinctly remember sitting in our rental car in the parking lot of our little AirBNB on the west side of Oahu, and saw the phone ring: “Ryan Gury”. Gury, the director of product for DRL was calling me. Hooooly crap. I timidly answered the phone, “good morning!” Gury chimed in on the other line: “congrats on 2nd place yesterday.” He already knew. He’s watching. Always watching. The conversation continued, and he spoke to me about how the season had wrapped up, thanked me for participating as a coach, and very professionally asked: “Would you be interested in racing in DRL season 2?”

 

The next several months are honestly a complete blur to me. I now had a mission. The moment that I received my DRL racer3, I took it outside and started practicing. Shortly into 2017, Jawz won the DRL Bud Light Sim tournament and started training with his racer3 as well. Together, we trained hard, practiced, and I went into my first event ready to roll. (Jawz took a bye race for his first race, which I attended.) DRL Miami was my first introduction to DRL races. As one of the largest courses with most vertical obstacles, there was nothing that I could have done to prepare for the intensity of the racing prior to arriving. In Indiana in the winter, we only have a few small indoors venues for practicing with the Racer3, and I hadn’t prepared for the race the way I should have. Between my nerves, the difficulty of the course, and our late filming schedule (we shot from 9p-4a), I failed miserably. I remember telling the cameras at DRL that I was dealing with an “imposter syndrome.” Despite my performances at the races that I had flown to get to where I was, I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I left that pressure on myself for the races and it showed. You see, I had seen other pilots fly, practiced with DRL elite, and I knew that my fastest wasn’t fast enough, so I pushed it harder and harder. I was no longer flying my own race, but instead chasing others around the track. It cost me. I finished the first race of my DRL career DEAD last. It was humiliating and it hurt. I knew the level of training that I needed to do to go race in DRL, didn’t achieve it, showed up to my first race, and got crushed. My imposter syndrome came true, and now I started the season at a massive disadvantage.

 

After the race, I went home, licked my wounds and doubled down. For the next month I flew every day. In my mind, there was no longer an excuse. I needed to turn this around now. Not only did I fly every day, but I adapted my lifestyle to support constant practice. At the time, I was still working as a software engineer, and I was primarily working from home. With programming, it can often be a very beneficial practice to take short breaks and let your mind rest, so I decided to use those breaks to fly and practice. To that end, I built a drone racing course around my small house in the suburbs, installed a landing pad on my roof, and navigated the track in the snow from the comfort of an armchair in my home office. I wasn’t going to let defeat in Miami hold me back.

 

The next major milestone in my journey was again with DRL. We traveled to Perry, Georgia to the Atlanta Aftermath race. The level took place in the “Guardian Center,” an emergency preparedness training center in the Georgia boonies. This course was much more my style. Winding through tight doorways and hallways, the proximity aspect of the race greatly favored my style of practice, and my mentality. Since there were many many opportunities to crash, it was an absolute necessity to finish races – and guess what? The best way to finish a race is to fly your own race. If my humbling experience in Miami had taught me one thing, it was that I needed to not chase down the leaders but again – do my personal best every single time. And that’s what I did. Pack after pack, I consistently finished my heats. While I only won one heat, I managed to constantly put points on the board and work my way to the top, ending the race in 2nd place. I think that losing early in Miami was very good for me — it was a humbling reminder that no matter what I do, I can’t forsake strategy to attempt to be faster than anyone else, and if I want to be faster, I need to practice at a higher level, bringing my base speed up to the point where my “comfortable” is faster and more consistent than anyone else.

There was a short break between level 2 and level 3 of DRL season 2, and so I actually didn’t go home between the two. Instead, I traveled to Colorado for a few races (including many top DRL pilots) and took home at least one win. Before returning home, I next flew to NOLA for DRL Level 3: Mardi Gras World. Just like with “Aftermath,” the course in New Orleans strongly favored my flying style. Tight turns, proximity runs, and intense vertical elements were smattered throughout the course, and returning to my “fly your own race” mentality was the perfect approach. However, a difference from level 2 was my sheer confidence. When I started putting in faster and faster lap times, I was able to start winning heats. In Mardi Gras world, I won a few key races, and for the first time ever felt like I belonged there. Not only was I completing the course, but I was outflying my competition, not merely waiting for them to crash. In the end, I took yet another second place, loosing to JET by only 1 point due to Mcstralle’s last minute effort, throwing down the fastest lap of the race by a long shot. Despite this near loss, my confidence was high and I now had a small taste of what it was like to be fast.

 

DRL season 2 continued to build. Since my 4th race was to be a bye race and I would not attend, my season fast forwards to the Munich Playoffs. For this race, 12 out of 16 pilots would be in attendance, and of those pilots, only 8 could advance to London, England for the World Championships. While I was confident in the odds, I knew that I would have to work hard to get it done. Once again, I found myself on a track that suited me — this was where I wanted to be. In one of the last heats I flew on the course, I actually set the fastest lap of the level, and I wasn’t the winner ( as historically the fastest lap goes to the winning pilot.) And boy did I not win. Unlike the rest of the DRL races of the season, the “semifinal” round was a huge opportunity. The top 3 pilots would instantly qualify for the world championships, and the bottom 3 would advance into what DRL was calling the “elimination round.” These remaining 6 pilots would race for two championship tickets. The race, for me, actually started pretty strong. In practice and qualifying, I felt very confident, setting quicker and quicker lap times, but when semifinals came around, it all started falling apart. I once again started to feel that need to go fast. I would make uncharacteristic mistakes. In a few heats, I launched faster than I do traditionally, and I got tangled in midairs as a result, and one of the heats where I flew well, a small early midair had ruined a prop and I simply couldn’t keep up, despite flying an otherwise clean race. When I placed 4th at the race, I got bumped into the elimination round. I distinctly remember this as the worst feeling I’ve ever had when drone racing. I was so nervous and so uncomfortable that I just wanted it to be over. My stomach hurt, and I could barely concentrate. Luckily for me, I was able to get my emotions somewhat in check, and flew my first heat, placing 3rd or 4th. I fought back the nerves, flew a confident run, and pushed on to the next rounds. One or two rounds later, I had a midair, which shuffled the scoreboard in a major way. I was at a huge disadvantage at this point, and I was going to have to fly some perfect runs to make a comeback. And I did just that — I stopped flying fast, sat back into my confident zone, and won two heats in a row. I was back in contention to advance. On the third heat, I knew I needed to win again to advance, and I went for it. I went harder than I should have, and on my second lap, 3 turns from the end in first place, I crashed into the gravity gate and ended my season. That was it. It was over. I took myself out once again. Full circle just like with Miami, I flew at a pace I knew I couldn’t and ruined my chances at the World Championship.

 

I took this pretty hard. I mean, on one hand, I was so proud of my rookie season to have taken the podium twice, and set at least one fastest lap time, but on the other hand, I had worked so hard and convinced myself that I should be in the finals. I started making excuses: “I got midaired.. I was tired from jet lag..” but the reality is that I didn’t fly my own race. I spent two years developing and executing a strategy that I simply ignored, and it cost me big time. I was in conversation with another DRL pilot a year later (paraphrase): “You were pretty toxic to be around.. You found excuses and made sure people around you knew it. It was honestly annoying.” Reflecting back on this time, I fully acknowledge this to be truth, and I have done everything I can to make amendments. One of my greatest learnings from the 2018 has been that one of the most important things in racing, whether you’re on the track or off is that you need to professional and courteous. No matter the outcome, of a race, it’s your responsibility to handle it with grace and confidence, and to be what racing fans expect you to be. Rather than be someone that generates excuses for his mistakes, you need to take ownership of what happened, whether it was or was not your fault, figure out how to address it, fix it, and take advantage of it in the next race.

 

But before my next shot, I had to sit through the most epic drone race of all time.

 

The DRL Allianz World Championship in London was.. In a word epic. I’m not using this word casually or ironically, but it was a genuinely awe-inspiring event. We were in the Alexandra Palace, with 1500 fans lining the netted course. A vendor was on site making beers available to all who asked, and everyone was allowed and encouraged to bet on the outcome of each heat as well as the overall race, Every heat and every finish, the fans would scream and cheer wildly as the drones tore through the air just feet from the fans; the atmosphere was electric. At the time, I had never seen a drone rate with an audience half as rapt as this, and it was changing the way that I personally looked at this sport. This room was filled. It was sold out to fans that were sticking through the race to see what happened next. Giant, LED jumbotrons hosted inter-heat content that highlighted the pilots that were winning heats, and the color calling by Tony Knittle and a local host was awesome. In the end, the race boiled down to one, final, epic moment in which Jet overtook Gab707 in the final maneuver and sealed his second victory in a row. I remember watching it happen, and in that exact moment knew that I was watching history transpire. It was awesome (again, in the true meaning of the word: awe-inspiring). This right here. THIS is true, professional drone racing, and this is what the future of our sport looks like.

 

Ending the season, these were the thoughts swimming through my head. I know what I have to do to get better, and I know what I want to be when I grow up: I want to be the DRL Allianz World Champion. I want to be JET.

 

After season 2 was over, it was time to focus back on grassroots racing. The MultiGP season was starting to heat up, and my next step was to go to regional finals. I had advanced through my regional qualifiers, and I was headed to regional finals in Central Illinois. Competition in our region is fierce. Not only do we have several DRL pilots, but we also have national runners up and many of the top podium finishers from around the country. I was able to carry some confidence in from the DRL season, flew well, and took second place at the regional final. One of the greatest memories of drone racing for me was that, after the race, we all grabbed a few beers (the race took place at a local brewery), and set up a TV outside near the race track. Together, we streamed the London finals which were just airing for the first time, and we (Jawz and I) got to watch with 40 of our closest friends and competitors see the epic race for the first time. DRL had been working hard on filming and editing for close to a year, and this was the first opportunity we got to watch others enjoy the fruits of our labor — and it was excellent. I will carry this memory with me for the rest of my life.

 

Second place at regional finals took me on to MultiGP Nationals. Once again, I found myself in a sink-or-swim opportunity to compete against the best in the country. Our qualifications were based on the best 3 combined laps, and at the end of qualifying, I had managed to hold down 4th place, which I was really proud of. At the same type of race just 1 year ago, I was barely qualifying, but here, now, after so much practice and all of the confidence gained from standing up to the best of the best, I was able to fly faster than I ever had. In the end, I battled through heat after heat and managed to take 6th in the nation, after being surpassed by 2 DRL pilots, and one future DRL pilot. Not a bad shot.

 

After the racing was completed on Sunday, some of my close friends from our home region and I decided to go out flying during our last evening in Reno, NV, where the race took place. We were cruising down the truckee valley looking for spots to fly when we spotted this beautiful old rail bridge. In the background behind the bridge was what appeared to be a saw-mill and some cliffs in the far distance. I set my drone out to fly, crossed through the bridge, over the mill, and up into the mountains to enjoy the beautiful scenery around. Shortly into the flight, one of my spotters taps me on the shoulder and says, “Just a heads up, there’s a train coming.” At the top of the mountain, I turn the drone around, look back down into the valley and behold a train hauling through the valley. In the heat of the moment, I decide to cruise down to floor level, and continue my flight around the train. Not only did I land on top, fly under, and powerloop next to the train, I managed to fly inside an open box car, which I later wished had contained a train hop-on. When I finally brought the drone in to land, we knew something awesome had just happened, but we weren’t aware of the impact that it would have on my future as a drone racer and content creator. This flight was called “Flight of the Year.” I uploaded the video to YouTube a few days later thinking nothing of it. I showed the video to probably 10-15 people asking their thoughts, and not one person viewed the video as anything but harmless. I woke up a few days after it was posted to find my inbox flooded with emails and notifications, and started researching. At some point in the night, someone had posted the video to Reddit, and it managed to creep to the front page of r/videos, one of the most popular pages of the massive social media website. The next day, many tech blogs including engadget picked up the video and shared how impressive they thought the flight was. The following day, the video started making rounds on massive Facebook groups like “Unilad.” When the viral smoke settled, the video had amassed over 2 million views on YouTube, more than 10 million on Facebook, and had left my channel which, before the video had less than 10,000 subs with upwards of 40,000.

 

I’m bringing all of this up not to flex, but instead to share what I think are some of my proudest moments as a pilot and content creator. While the video itself was surrounded by a fair bit of controversy (which I fully acknowledge now that it IS a controversial flight), what I choose instead to reflect on was the sheer number of people that got to experience drone racing and FPV for the first time as a result of the flick. Since I published the video over a year ago, many hundreds of people have informed me through comments, in person, or through friends of mine that they have started flying FPV drones as a result of that video. I know how FPV has changed the course of my life, and I have a small hope that it can help change the course of others’. Despite the negative opinion that has chased that video around, I stand proud that the video has introduced people to something that I truly and deeply love: FPV.

 

“Flight of the Year” in the small remainder of 2017 went on to become nominated and win 4 different film festival awards, including best of FPV and best in show. Since starting creating videos nearly two years ago at this point, I had started to consider the implications of my growing skills in videography and drone work, and these film festival awards had solidified that pursuit for me. My videography friend Winston and I decided that it was time to start a company which we call “Cinactive.” The word “Cinactive” is supposed to bridge the gap between “Cinema” and “Active/Action.” The long term goal of our company is to be experts in “camera movement.” Whether we are using drones, gimbals, buggies, robots, cranes, etc, we want to be creatively moving the camera to capture images in ways that people have never seen before. In pursuit of this goal, we’ve adapted Cinactive to become a full-service media house where we creatively tell stories and learn how to produce the highest level of content so that we can continue to grow into our raw skills with drones and other cool filming tools.

 

As 2018 came to a close, I was able to race in two more major races that brought in many of the best pilots from around the country and around the world. Mega Drone X was an awesome race that took place in the Mega Caverns of Louisville, KY. I beat a gaggle of DRL pilots for first place at this awesome race. Shortly into 2018, I traveled with friends to Sebring, Florida, where I raced against the reigning USA national champion and Australian champion. I wasn’t able to take first place, but after a tough battle and some mental toughness, I placed 4th place overall. These two solid finishes at races would springboard me into the 2018 DRL season 3.

 

During late 2017 and early 2018, Jawz and I were practicing harder than ever. 3-4 times a week we would rent out an entire warehouse, and spend 8-10 hours flying pack after pack, fixing quad after quad. We had been bit by the bug. Witnessing the 2017 championship forced us to push harder than ever. We knew that we needed to get fast. We would often find ourselves returning home from a night of training at 4:00am. I even received blisters on my thumb at one point we had flown so much in a week. But it all paid off. After working so hard through the winter, I came into the first race of the year strong. In qualifications at DRL Level 1 for season 3, I confidently set some of the fastest times. I advanced into semifinals where I became the second pilot to clinch their way into finals and skip over the sudden death (JET had done the same in the round before me). In finals, I had a rough start, but started winning heats. Lots of heats. Like with my nearly flawless run in semifinals, I started crushing the competition because our indoor training in a small environment, my skills were perfectly up to snuff with the highly technical track of Tehachapi. When I found my cool in finals, I won every heat except for the 6th round, which put me into a golden heat against the one and only McStralle, who last season had booted me from a win, and then in Munich booted me from finals. I played some mind games with him, got inside his head, and we both launched strong. Mcstralle launched a little too hard, and crashed on the first turn, while I flew through clean. The race was over, and I became the first winner of DRL season 3, earning my ticket to Saudi Arabia for the Alliance World Championships.  Standing on the podium holding the propellor trophy is among the greatest feelings I’ve ever experienced. I came into the race with the confidence that I was fast, flew my race, and took home the victory. It was incredible, and I had gotten the pressure of going to championships off my shoulders before the season had hardly even started. What a way to start the year.

 

Next up: DRL Biosphere 2. Level 2 for season 3 was my bye race, so I skipped forward to the race in Arizona. Prior to running the track, I was confident that this would not be my race at all. It was big, open, and involved a lot of big open straightaways, but at the same time, there were a few, key technical sections that had to be overcome to be fast. I didn’t realize it when I was racing, but when I watched the show when it came out, I could see that my lines through some of the outside techincal sections were much faster than my opponents’. These lines combined with holding my own on the more open sections allowed me to earn faster and faster lap times. I had a flawless semi-final run, cleared a perfect score of 40 points, and earned top qualifier for the finals. In the finals, I also started strong. I had a huge battle against Gab707 in the first heat, and then did well in the next couple. However, it was getting late, and I had woken up earlier than anticipated that morning. My fatigue was catching up with me and I started making mistakes trying to push through my tiredness. At the end of finals, I had secured enough early points in the race to make it to the golden round, but I definitely didn’t deserve to be there the way I had been flying. In the end, I crashed slightly before JET and Gab in that final round, and took third position on the podium.

 

While I didn’t win the event, I think I look back at biosphere 2 as one of my favorite DRL races ever. In one event, I established for myself and others that I was here to be fast, not just there to clean up garbage. In addition to flying well, it was one of the best bonding experiences the DRL group has had as well. Our sleeping accomodations were on site — meaning every night after racing we would walk back to the dorms that we were sleeping in, and we could spend a lot more time relaxing and enjoying the cool dessert evenings around a fire. While this didn’t directly involve racing, I remember being so totally at peace enjoying a few drinks and a fire with these people that have fast been becoming some of my best friends in the world. And.. we’re all there because of drones. I think that humans spend their lives searching for these connections and the opportunity to unconditionally love one another, and one of the things that I believe these drones can do is help break down the barriers between people. When everyone shares this same common interest, it’s so easy to see the person that you’re spending time with. When you have a commonality it breaks down backgrounds, educations, races, and even languages. These moments sitting around a fire, listening to people play the guitar and sing perfectly embodied this feeling I’ve had. For that, I will remember it forever.

 

After Biosphere, I entered into what I think has been one of the biggest slumps of my career so far. I think that the thing that messes with people the most in such a circumstance is that it’s unpredictable. When you start to feel down about your performances, it starts to spiral. Even if you can think and talk your way out of these situations, you find that no matter what it’s so easy to blame yourself for what’s going on. While I was satisfied with my performance at Biosphere 2, I still beat myself up quite a bit over the defeat because it should have been within my control to win the event. The crash I made was uncharacteristic, I was leading, and I had space to work with. I was six inches off the line I needed to be on, tapped the ground, and it was over. My 2018 slump contained 4 races, not all of which were DRL events, but all with preventable mistakes. First up: DRL adventuredome. I once again started practice and qualifying strong, but as soon as I had to start picking up the pace to stick with the leaders, I found myself making more and more mistakes. I twice hit “shards” which were little protrusions on the side of the dome that stuck into the course, and once hit a roller coaster that I knew was there but hadn’t yet crashed on. Eventually, I found myself in a sudden death race with Jrod, who wiped the floor with me by taking an early lead and flying smooth. I simply couldn’t keep up and crashed attempting to catch him. He made a wise observation that “the warehouse (where I typically practice) is good training for technical courses, but it hurts you when you need to fly wide open.” And adventuredome definitely required wide open flying foro which I was not prepared. At one point, I recall the pilot Nubb stating that he practices at home flying “wide open” meaning he keeps the throttle all the way at the top and designs courses where he can fly full throttle, occasionally hitting technical obstacles. I didn’t know it at the time, but this incepted an idea in my mind that I needed to change my flying style to remain competitive in DRL.

 

After adventuredome, I had two major drone races outside of DRL that I attended. The first was in Tianjin, China, and the second was in Des Moines, Iowa. Both races were excellent, and I’m proud to have been a part of them, and I strongly believe that the right people won each race. That being said, at both events, I made huge preventable mistakes that took me out of the competitions. These mistakes, building upon my already wavering faith that I could recover from this slump hurt badly. In China, I was minding my own business, flying covertly behind the leaders in the heat. I needed to place second or better to advance to the next round, so I planned on a late pass, taking the win from the two leaders. On the final lap, I accelerated to exectue the pass and crashed in a spot that I hadn’t crashed in the 10 batteries I had flown on the course, ending my run. To be honest, it was just.. Shocking. I almost couldn’t believe that I got knocked out because I was flying confidently and calmly – despite that I was flying my own race, I still made a mistake. The same thing happened in Iowa. The course was an interesting mix of technical and wide open flying, but I decided to crash in the carousel section of the course, an element that I had flown thousands of times confidently, but in one fell swoop while again flying confidently and smoothly, I crashed myself out. Moments like these were particularly painful for me because I believed that I was sticking to my racing strategy. I wasn’t trying to go fast, I wasn’t uncomfortable with the flying, I was rested: I had done everything right. BUT I still kept making these mistakes and it was draining away my confidence. Just around the corner was the DRL race in Munich, and shortly after that the Allianz World Championship. If I couldn’t get my mojo back, I was in serious trouble.

 

Heading into DRL Level 6: BMW Welt, all my confidence was gone. No longer was I thinking about pushing hard and winning races, but instead I was hoping merely to survive. My eyes were not set on standing atop the podium, but instead on not humiliating myself in front of a live audience. This all showed in my flying — I was timid, cautious, and made silly mistakes. Despite an okay attempt at qualifying, I still managed to crash early in the semifinals and get midaired. When I finally found myself some clean air, I flew one of the slowest laps possible and didn’t even make it into the finish gate because the iris had closed. In the end, I got booted from semifinals in the first ever DRL race that didn’t go to sudden death. I was out. It was over. All momentum that I could have built heading into Saudi Arabia was gone, and there was nothing I could do about it any more.

 

After the race was over, I was relaxing with some of the pilots from the race in the hotel lobby/bar, sharing a few German beers and reflecting on the race. An hour into our celebration, Nick Horbaczewski, CEO of DRL, walks in. Out of idle curiosity, I motion across the lobby for him to come sit, and I ask him “how did the audience react.” This started a conversation that lasted a few hours, where he and I and several other pilots sat around chatting about racing and the DRL experience, as well as what it would continue looking like into the future. Eventually the crew that remained behind closed down the bar, and we were asked to move to the hotel lobby where the 5 or 6 of us sat on the floor continuing to chat about racing. Nick wasn’t easy on us – he reflected that the attitude that we were expressing of “staying alive to fly another day” was just not an acceptable attitude for a racer. He said (paraphrase): “Look at Dunkan (who had just won his third straight DRL event and took second at the previous event) — every time he flies, every time he puts the goggles on, he’s there to win. There’s nothing that’s going to get in the way of it except for himself. Before you fly – Dunkan has already decided he’s got it in the bag.” My reaction to this was that “we have to think about our contract first” if we go hard and crash out every time, we’re not going to be able to race again the next season because we won’t have done our best.” Nick looked back at us very seriously: “then you’re not here to race.”

 

While his words were harsh, there is truth to what he was saying. He went on to give the example of the movie “Rush,” which is a historical non-fiction drama based around the two 1970s Formula 1 drivers and epic rivals Nikki Lauda and James Hunt. As it turns out, I had seen the movie before as Ron Howard is one of my favorite directors, but I had seen it prior to ever doing any professional racing. Nick encouraged us to go back and watch the movie, which I did that night. I bought it, downloaded it, and kept it ready for the plane ride home back to the states. What I think Nick wanted us to see in the movie was this “do or die” mentality expressed by the racers. Whether the person behind the wheel was cautious to the point of pulling himself out (Nikki) or brash to the point of facing down death each run (Hunt), each driver recognized that winning was the only thing that mattered. Second place is unacceptable, and if you aren’t giving it everything then you don’t belong. While there is a diminishing point of return to this attitude, if you aren’t starting from that perspective, in your training, racing, preparation, and mentality, you might as well be sitting on the podium in Munich worried about what the fans think more than zoning in your brain on what it will take to win.

 

And that’s what the next month until DRL finals became: what will it take to win? To that end, I reviewed everything I had learned. What does it mean to fly my own race? How can I prepare myself to fly my own race? I knew that my own race needed to be faster than everyone else’s consistent/fast speed, so I put in the work. For the month between the Welt and Finals, I practiced every single day for up to 6-8 hours a day. I also spent time reflecting on HOW I flew, reflecting on Jrod and Nubb’s comments about flying wide open. Thus, I learned a new way to hold my controller so as to move my thumb into a position where it would be easier to push the controller to full throttle and fly from that position confidently. When we designed courses to practice, we would set up elements that historically we would never do because it was a waste of time. BUT we did our best to emulate the way that DRL courses would be constructed and built elements that fit that. Rain, shine, cold, hot we went out and put in work bringing the baseline up to the point where our comfortable would make everyone else sweat.

 

Despite that I wasn’t coming off a win into DRL finals, which I wish I had, I was able to garner confidence from the fact that I was flying better than I ever had. I knew that I had pushed my baseline speed up higher than I had ever been on the Racer3 on wide open courses, so now it was just a matter of execution. I changed my sleeping schedule ahead of flying halfway around the world, so I knew I would sleep when I arrived. I prepared in every way that I could imagine, and set out to win the Allianz World Championship. The one thing that we weren’t prepared for when we disembarked the plane in Saudi Arabia was the raw, unadulterated heat and humidity. Since we were going to be flying this race outside, we were worried about how bad it might be, but 110 degrees F at night plus 80-90% humidity is.. Overwhelmingly hot. To put it in an analogy, walking outside would literally fog sunglasses up to the point of not being able to see. This presented many challenges for film crews, for tech ops (keeping lenses temperate and clear of fog), and for pilots (keeping goggles from fogging up before you had to fly.) I remember through each day of filming draining upwards of 20 water bottles because I was sweating so profusely — it was unreal.

 

In qualifying and time trials, I was flying confidently. Despite a wide-open, long course that could kill your battery before finishing if you didn’t fly it properly, I consistently brought the drone home with ease, and kept up with the other racers. However, I wasn’t feeling much faster. So, I went back to the hotel that night, re-watched Rush another time, reviewed DVR and listened to music to amp myself up and force myself to double down on feeling the need to win above all else. Heading into semi-finals, my group was the first to race. Where we stood, preparing to be introduced to the crowd of 4,000 people, I was sweating, nervous, and bent over because my stomach hurt so bad from the raw adrenaline and fear pouring over me. Despite my confidence, I remember two moments while we were waiting to walk out that I thought I was going to vomit – it was horrendous. We did our walkouts, got to the cockpit, and prepared to run our first heat. The nerves had subsided, but were not entirely gone. As the announcers finished their pre-race schpeels, we put our goggles down and prepared to race. We hear an announcement over the loudspeakers “15 seconds to race” and it’s followed 10 seconds later by a beeping 5 4 3 2 1 go countdown. At “4” the crowd started counting down with us: “4!.. 3!… 2!.. 1!..” And the crowd roared as we all took to the sky and rushed past the audience into the first turn. As soon as we took off, the nerves disappeared and I remembered what it felt like to race. I knew that I was there to win, and the rest didn’t matter. Time to have some fun. Semifinals built and built – I had a major mistake that cost me some points, but I didn’t let it get to me. I shook it off, sat back down after properly amping myself back up, and absolutely dominated a heat with the fastest time we had seen yet, clenching my way into the finals for DRL 2018. I was guaranteed top 6. I was in the finals.

 

Leading into finals, the nerves were not nearly as bad. I had done better than the previous year, I had surpassed my expectations, and I was loving every second of it. With the same dramatic countdown, the drones were unleashed on the course. In the first heat, I battled back and forth with JET to the finish line, and just barely missed the winning spot and took second. In the second heat, I took and held first until the golden heat. Many races that I was a part of ended within hundredths of a second – I believe 3 heats had to be reviewed by the photo finish system to make sure they knew who won. Only one of those heats was I given the points for finishing before the other. The racing was epic – it was always close no matter what. In the end, Gab707 had slowly reeled in my winning position, placing him with 42 points. I was sitting atop the leaderboard with 43 points, and with a big win in the previous heat, Nubb had brought himself into the golden heat by earning 34 total points. It was a 3 way golden heat for the podium of the 2018 season. Me, Gab, and Nubb were lined up on the podium in that order. Having the pole position in front of Gab707 is critical – when he has space he is unbeatable, but when you can get in front of him, you can cause him to make mistakes. The crowd did another final countdown, and we launched hard for the first turn and the swatch gate. I managed to get out front, followed closely by Nubb and Gab. I maintained my lead and headed into the sky loop, which was my best section of the course. I could confidently take a more aggressive line than my opponents and gain some distance over them. As soon as I cleared the first gate, I knew I had some space to work with, and continued to fly confidently out front. As I brought the drone around for the second lap, we fly very close to where our bodies are located, so I could hear the spacing – it wasn’t much. It was NURK, Gab, Nubb in that order coming through the start finish gate and on to lap 2. I once again headed up for the sky loop, passed through it, and started heading for the down gate when I hear the crowd gasp: Gab had crashed heading up to the top, and I was certain that Nubb was behind him. Guaranteed top two. Keep flying. I head down and into the “city gate” section at the back of the course, and I hear the color commentator Tony Knittel say something to the effect of “NURK has some space now”, so I did the unthinkable. I backed off. I needed to make sure that I conserved my battery for the last sections, and that I didn’t push so hard that I would crash out. I started down the longest straight on the course, had no idea where Nubb was, and continued to fly my race. I could hear the commentator call out once again, “NURK is on the final stretch and Nubb will need a miracle to catch up” so I let the pace ride, rounded the corner and before I even hit the finish gate started shouting “I am champion of the world!”  I stood up, throw my goggles off, and yelled at the top of my lungs. I did it.

 

The next moments are all a blur.. Cameras surrounded the three pilots that had just flown, the color commentators are going nuts, cameras are flashing, and hugs are being distributed amongst the pilots. I remember just moving from person to person sharing big embraces. Now the other pilots had come in from the pilot lounge and were joining us on stage. McStralle says “I knew it would be you.” We did a couple short interviews that I couldn’t even tell you half of what was said in those — at the time of this writing I haven’t yet seen the show and how this story is told, so I’m very excited to see what was said. I didn’t cry, but I remember my face hurting from just holding this big smile – I knew I had done what I set out to do. For the last three years, I’ve had my heart set on one thing: becoming the best drone racer in the world. I’ve spent countless hours, cashed in innumerable relationship dollars, dried up back accounts, fixed, built, yelled, and trashed my way to become a professional drone racer and eventually the fastest drone racer in the world.  I called my wife later that night and shared with her the news – she squealed an told me that she believed in me (as she must as a wife); both of us are still in shock months later. It’s been hard to have known about the win for so long and not be able to share it with the majority of my drone friends. It’s insane, and I’m excited for the episode to air. We’re all going to be sitting together in a bar watching the drama unfold on television. I can’t wait.

 

But, I wanted to bring it all full circle. 3 years ago, I sat in a car, talking to a camera and said to myself: “I think I have what it takes to be the best.” At the time, I was so so so wrong. I was bad, unmotivated, and unpracticed. But through 3 years of hard work, dedication, and as corny as it sounds, believing in myself, I went from ameture to coach to rookie to world champion. What started as a philosophy that I was doing something big became something big.

 

To all that aspire to be great: fly your own race. Find and understand what you do best, perfect it, and let that be the thing that carries you through the race.

 

To all that have joined me along the way on YouTube, thank you so much for your continued support – I can’t wait to keep making awesome content for you.

 

To my friends and family: I know that I live a weird life, and you don’t see me as much as you want. I’m constantly traveling, and when I’m in the state I’m practicing. I know it can seem like drones are an excuse to stay away, but I’m pursuing what I love and I’m doing it to the best of my ability. Thanks for believing in me and what I can do.

 

To my wife: you’ve been along every step of the way. Even in the beginning when it seemed like drones would be a passing hobby, you trusted that I would be dedicated, motivated, and make the best of it. You encouraged me to stick with it, and in the bad times help me fly my race. I love you so much.

 

Thanks everyone for making it to the end of this. I’m honestly not sure why I wrote out this whole thing, but I feel like I’ve hit the end of a journey. For three years, I had been chasing the chance to become the best at something in my life. Even if it only lasts for a season, I’ve achieved something that I believe to be great. I’m not going to stop here, and you bet your ass off I’ll be training harder than ever to stay on top. But – I think that we can close off one segment of this journey and embark on another. What the next journey is, I’m not sure, but I’m excited to find out together with you.

Thanks again for reading, and stay flying.

5 thoughts on “Fly Your Own Race // My Journey To Professional Drone Racing

  • November 2, 2018 at 2:53 pm
    Permalink

    Great story! I’ve been racing, or rather learning for about 9 months now. You are one of the reasons I started FPV, I actually lost a wing in a huge field in 1999, I walked the field so many hours until finally I took another wing and installed a wireless camera, hooked that to a 10 inch DVD player,and had someone else fly while I walked the field to stay close(not much range) I finally found it, but the reason I tell this story is because as soon as I heard of FPV I knew I wanted to fly because I had already been thinking about it for years. Congratulations on your championship, your a true inspiration to the sport, never forget who you worked so hard to become, your a great champion! Keep tearin holes in the sky!

    Reply
  • November 2, 2018 at 5:34 pm
    Permalink

    Thanks for sharing Paul. Everything about your journey, especially your attitude and work ethic, made this happen. It was deserved and earned. Congrats on the start of your amazing journey.

    Reply
  • November 4, 2018 at 4:14 pm
    Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your path.

    Flying for me oddly is the 1st time in my life I’ve undertaken something without intention to take it to the top – the drive to the end goal you demonstrate.
    Due to health, money and other factors beyond my control, I know I can’t “Go for it”, as I have in the past with drag racing, business, competitive shooting, and business/engineering (again). My last endeavor (CNC laser control boards) was quite successful, but cut short by health issues, I knew that was probable going in, but started the business anyway – I thus learned I just can’t do that anymore, it’s not fair to those who you bring along, and besides my health issues have are now severe enough I doubt I could manage another run at it. I also knew I needed to find something to work for or it was going end badly.

    When I started flying Quads about 4 years ago, I vowed to learn to fly as well as I can, and to keep it a hobby, as counter as that is to my personality..

    Flying is now for me – a lifeline. My goal is the next level of ability, the next maneuver, or the next level of understanding, and if it’s interrupted by a period of illness or responsibility to my family, I force myself to wait it out, then have back at it. Getting through the pain and isolation of the illness is now part of taking the next step in learning to fly. (much better than seeing my ‘uptime’ as simply waiting to be sick again) The process keeps me in the game mentally, as my makeup requires I have a goal, and push for it with all my being. That keeps me in the “big game” mentally and is now how I live my life. It keeps me going literally because mentally, if I am not in a fight to win, giving that 110% effort, I fall into depression. That’s how it’s always been. I end up in a low, dangerous place without a goal to fight for. Because of this, quad flying literally is keeping me alive (and much happier).

    Following you and a few other pros allows me to vicariously be in the ‘big race’. I’m not much of a pilot in the grand scheme, but am proud of how far I have come, doing it by myself and within the circumstances I find myself in. I almost made Rampage this year, but circumstances forced me to cancel. Just the thought of flying with others kept me going all summer, and I was practicing hard as not to look too lame in front of all the highly skilled pilots. I’ll be there next year, and it gives me another season to improve.

    This is how I’m “Flying my own race”

    I wish you luck in the rest of your journey, and will be flying along from a distance.

    Reply
  • November 5, 2018 at 3:40 pm
    Permalink

    Loved reading your story! Thanks for taking the time to write it down. I like your advise that applies to everyone: “To all that aspire to be great: fly your own race. Find and understand what you do best, perfect it, and let that be the thing that carries you through the race.” Congratulations on your success! God Bless!

    Reply
  • November 7, 2018 at 5:10 am
    Permalink

    Hi Paul
    Thanks for writing this piece. I really enjoyed it. This is such a great insight into your journey and its a fine tribute to your unbelievable commitment, and success. Its really inspirational to see how focus and hard work can bring such rewards, and not turn you into a monster either! I hope you guys have taken a moment to enjoy the achievement – and I cant wait to see what’s next. Regards old pal.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *