On a baking hot day at the California State Fair, as the smell of sweat and old Subway sandwiches commingled in the racing paddock, officials crowned the first US national drone-racing champion. That man was Australian.
Chad Nowak of Brisbane, won all three events at the competition. He won the individual time trial, was on the winning team time trial squad, and won the freestyle trick event.
The sport of first-person view (FPV) drone racing is still in its infancy. It involves small, custom-built drones with cameras attached to them that broadcast video feeds back to specially-designed goggles that allow pilots to see what the drones see. The drones are fast and nimble, and can hit speeds nearing 70 mph.
Part of the reason for the competition was to bring together racers, enthusiasts, vendors and manufacturers from across the world to forge connections as the sport grows. As the Drone Nationals’ website put it:
For the inaugural US race, we want to accelerate the spirit of international competition and camaraderie so please come race with us. It will most likely be the only time that you can race as a non resident or citizen.
Roughly 120 racers competed in Thursday’s time trials and Friday’s seeded races, and a smaller group took part in the freestyle event—all of which were riddled with technical glitches. Some racers struggled to get their drones into the air; others weren’t able to get reliable video footage back to their goggles.
Nowak put his win down to the fact that he had a reliable video feed throughout the competition. He told Quartz he hadn’t gone into the competition expecting to win—his goal had been “just staying airborne.”
Nowak had only been racing FPV drones for about a year prior to the event, but had been piloting other radio-controlled devices for about a decade. Like many of the racers Quartz spoke to during the competition, Nowak had found flying drones fun, but it really clicked when he first flew a drone with a first-person camera. “It’s like a whole different world,” he said of the feeling of flying through FPV goggles.
Carlos Puertolas, also known as Charpu, who is arguably one of the best FPV pilots in the world, didn’t qualify for the time-trial finals, and crashed quickly during the freestyle event. But he left the event in the evening smiling and laughing with a group of racers, including Nowak.
Tommy Tibajia, whose racing nickname is UmmaGawd, crashed almost immediately during the freestyle event. But he was cheered on by his peers, and when he retrieved his drone, he smiled and said: “that was the best 10 seconds of my life.”
There were only about 60 people in the stands on a second straight day of 100-degree weather, including, at one point, the California State Fair’s mascot. The first two fans—sitting alone on Bonney Field’s baking steel bleachers at 9am—were Don Fuller and Larry Alver. They’d traveled about 35 miles to attend the event. Fuller owned a drone, and brought his friend along to watch the nationals. Fuller said he was enjoying the event, and although the two were alone in the stands, believed there are “too many people interested” in the sport for it to not take off. Roughly 1,000 people were watching the event’s livestream at any given point on Friday, competition organizer Scot Refsland said.
One Reddit user, chatting about the event on the /r/FPV page, summed up the event’s issues as the sport attempts to grow: “My first thought: ‘wow we live in amazing times.’ My second: ‘man that’s kind of a crappy feed.'”
Refsland said that despite hitches, he was happy with how the inaugural event transpired. “Safety was perfect,” he said. Refsland said the nationals will be back next year, although not necessarily at the California State Fair, which has right of first refusal on next year’s event. Nowak said if he could find a way to get back—and the organizers let a non-American back in next year—he would return to defend his title.
Although Nowak said it would be great if someone could pay him to be a full-time drone racer, he admitted that FPV racing isn’t yet about winning titles. “If it’s not fun, what’re you doing it for?”