Thanks to exposure on ESPN, the DRL is the most high-profile FPV race league, but it's just one of several competitions vying to be the home of drone racing. The DRL is a small, closed league that takes elements of car racing, gaming and reality television to make drone racing into a TV show. The International Drone Racing Association sponsors live events like the Drone Grand Prix in Dubai, while other leagues such as DR1 will be televised on Fox Sports this year. Meanwhile, MultiGP has chapters all over the world and is open to anyone who wants to race.
Temkin races in as many of these leagues as he can, but that may not be possible for much longer. Taylor dropped out of competing in the DRL because he said it would have required signing an exclusive contract. Such an agreement would have prevented him from defending his titles in other leagues. "DRL is for sure the kingmaker, but I need to fly at all the races," he said. "The contract said I can't do that. It's not fair to my rivals if I'm not there."
There is not only a split between the racing leagues but also a division between people who race and freestyle fliers. Most racers do both, but freestyle drone pilots like Rotor Riot are often the most visible face of the drone community, thanks to slick FPV videos and trick flying demonstrations at drone races. "I know Rotor Riot takes credit for making the sport popular, but none of them race," said Thayer. "There is a real division between racers and freestylers, but everyone calls themselves racers. I think if you're a good pilot, it shouldn't matter what you call yourself. But it is a confusing situation."
"Any sport that's only two years old is a clusterfuck. MMA was a disaster two years in, so we've got time to figure it out."
These fault lines reveal the central identity crisis facing the sport. The DRL is planning season three, and DR1 is gearing up for its new season. But most drone racers still wonder how to define their sport and make it appeal to a wide audience. Is it the next BattleBots, or is it the new Formula One? Is it like pod racing or professional gaming? "Drones can go faster than a human body could go and survive. We have an amazing experience to present to the world, but no one has figured out how to do it right," said Zoe Stumbaugh, a former motocross biker and current drone racer. "But any sport that's only two years old is a clusterfuck. MMA [mixed martial arts] was a disaster two years in, so we've got time to figure it out."
While this is certainly a major concern for racers, a more pressing issue is money. No one agrees on how many professional racers actually make a full-time living out of flying drones. Temkin thinks four to five. Stumbaugh thinks it's maybe five to seven, and Taylor said three racers, tops. (It's at least three, since Temkin, Stumbaugh and Taylor all fly full time.)
Thayer and Temkin sell their Shrike frames as a small business out of their Colorado home, but they haven't yet pulled any money out of it. "We put some money into the business and tripled it, but it's just self-sustaining, so that any money we make goes back into the business," said Temkin. "It's a tough business. I imagine it's like fashion. There's this thing that's 'in,' you produce a crap load of it, then tomorrow no one wants it."
As the popularity of the sport rises, the first generation of racers are under pressure to sustain their careers. "There are so many more people racing now. You have people coming out of the woodwork who are ten times better than you, but you have no idea, because they don't put anything on YouTube," said Temkin. "You have this 16-year-old kid who shows up at a race, and a lot of times the pressure doesn't mean anything to them, mainly because their mom or dad paid for their hobby and they have nothing to lose. I have something to lose now."
The few lucky trailblazers are under pressure to sustain the sport. Taylor said that he has been avoiding the local race scene in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because of resentment and petty attacks aimed his way. "Jealousy sucks," said Taylor. "Where I think I've failed is when I see some bad apples come in, spreading so much negativity. It's easy to knock someone down rather than look at yourself and work harder. Instead people are saying, 'Look at him, why don't I have that?'"
Sponsorships are rare in drone racing, and the purses for winning a race usually don't break the four-digit mark, unlike the multimillion-dollar purses that professional gamers win. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a good idea of how to make the sport more lucrative. "It's fucked up that [Temkin] had to win to be a paid racer," said Stumbaugh. "How about if everyone in DRL got a salary? Wouldn't that make more sense?"