Up, up and away

Growing interest could mean racing's next big thing is drones

There’s big money in drones. Some 1.5 million of them were expected to be sold over Christmas in the UK alone, according to the Civil Aviation Authority. That’s less than half a million shy of the number sold in the USA during the entirety of 2016.

Naturally drone racing has similarly, erm, taken off.

The format is similar to that of the Red Bull Air Race, with a course of gates and obstacles laid out for pilots to thread their aircraft through. It sounds simple enough, but perfect lines and precision are needed with the 100mph-plus drones. Special goggles give the pilots a first-person view of the action via the drone’s camera, helping them clear the gates and avoid the other drones.

While consumer drones are only now increasing in popularity, there’s been money in drone racing for a few years already. Luke Bannister, aged 15 at the time, pocketed $250,000 in 2016 by winning the World Drone Prix, an event organised by Dubai’s Crown Prince.

Now though, two major worldwide leagues are battling it out for supremacy. It’s Champ Car vs IndyCar and ALMS vs Grand Am for the skies. The two leagues, the Drone Racing League (DRL) and DR1, have lucrative television deals already – DRL is on Sky Sports and ESPN, DR1 can be found on Eurosport, Fox and CBS.

That coverage has helped the leagues attract big-name sponsors and DRL’s list of backers would be the envy of most racing series. Despite being founded as recently as 2015, the series has Allianz as its title sponsor and backing from Liberty Media, Bud Light and Swatch, reportedly earning itself $20 million.

That’s up from $12 million the year before, its debut racing season. The final round, held at Alexandra Palace in London last summer, was witnessed by 1500 fans, but more importantly it found its way into millions of homes during the year.

DR1, meanwhile, has DHL and Mountain Dew on board, and tours the world with technical outdoor race tracks. The final round even tackled part of the mountain course on the Isle of Man.

As a spectator sport it is impressive, and on a national level there are racing clubs cropping up all over, helped by the relatively low price of drones. There’s no reason to suggest drone racing can’t continue its rapid ascent.