As his drone whizzed around the final corner, Chad Nowak focused his gaze on the finish line. He had trained for the past year for this moment, and flown from Australia to the California State Fair on his sponsors’ dime for the chance to compete in the National Drone Racing Championships.
Like many of the other 100-plus competitors at Bonney Field on Friday, Nowak is a rising star in the fledgling world of drone racing who has built a fan base through his YouTube channel. Unlike the others, he went home $10,000 richer after winning the individual championship race.
“Don’t screw up,” Nowak said, when asked what was going through his mind near the end. “You’re in the zone. You’re not really thinking, you’re reacting automatically.”
The individual win capped a monumental day for Nowak, who also finished first in the freestyle competition and led Team Immersion RC to victory in the team race.
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One of Nowak’s sponsors was Fat Shark, which produces the First-Person View goggles racers use to follow their drones. Senior category manager Simon Cox flew out to cheer on Nowak and other Fat Shark-sponsored racers.
“It’s probably the biggest race that’s ever happened. Being U.S. Nationals, this is such a big thing for us,” Cox said. “We want the racing scene to really kick off. It’s good to have guys flying in the parks and whatnot ... (but) a couple of the racing meets that have happened have been very low-key.”
Cox has a personal interest in drones beyond his professional obligations. He flies drones on his own in his free time, and advises race organizers on how to run the events with knowledge he gained from 25 years of racing cars in Australia.
Joshua Woodruff, 19, drove up from Los Angeles to watch the competition. In between studying aircraft fabrication at Antelope Valley Community College and working two other jobs, Woodruff sells wings that can help drones move up to 100 mph.
Woodruff, who has been selling parts since 2013, said drone racing has become much more popular as of late.
“This is amazingly huge.The biggest event I’ve been to was maybe a third of this size,” Woodruff said. “The whole (First-Person View) crowd has slowly gone up, and then over the last eight months it’s exploded so fast.”