DR1 Racing hopes big drones will take series to new heights on TV and beyond
By Simon Ward
DR1 Racing, the organiser of a leading outdoor team-based drone racing series, expects to head to new markets and expand the season in the coming years on the back of the introduction of larger aircraft, new broadcast deals and increased professionalism in the sport.
The second edition of Los Angeles-based DR1 Racing’s DHL Champions Series gets under way this week with television coverage of the first of five events, all in Europe, and giant Pro Class drones intended to attract new fans in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Deals have been agreed with broadcasters covering more than 100 countries, with Eurosport, Fox Sports Asia and BeIN Sports and CBS in USA all returning as rights-holders, and new partners including Fox Sports Latin America.
DHL, the international logistics company, has extended its title sponsorship deal with the Champions Series to 2019, while Mountain Dew, the soft drinks brand owned by PepsiCo, is the exclusive beverage partner of DR1 Racing for a third year, and the presenting sponsor of the circuit.
The Pro Class drones, with frames of more than 800 millimetres and weighing amost five kilogrammes, are four times larger than the old ones, and are seen as a game-changer in terms of the presentation of the sport.
Brad Foxhoven, the founder and chief executive of DR1 Racing, told Sportcal: “Our drones accelerate from zero to 100 [miles per hour] in as little as a second. It [the larger craft] does a lot of things. First, it’s easier to see. The previous drones were the size of a basketball, and came with a high-pitched screech. The Pro Class is four times bigger than any other professional drone in the world and has a distinct roaring sound.”
DR1 Racing claims that the Champions Series, which now involves five teams of three pilots, culminated with the most-watched drone racing event in the world last year, and Foxhoven claims that ratings have been good in comparison to traditional motor sports.
However, he believes that increased action and the potential, if not necessarily the likelihood, of crashes will help to take the series to a new level.
Foxhoven said: “I’m big into the psychology of sports and what drives entertainment and passion. The racing drones are bigger, louder and more aggressive… and there is a thrill in seeing one take off. The brain is recognising how fast and dangerous they are, and these bigger drones help create this higher level of excitement."
Echoing the ambition of similar nascent series, Foxhoven said: “We want to be the F1 of the skies. We refer to ourselves as being in the motorsport class, not simply the drone class.”
After launching in the USA in 2016, the Champions Series is moving to Europe this year, with events at “iconic locations” in La Mothe-Chandeniers in France, Krvavec Alpine and Castle Sneznik in Slovenia and Tulove Grede in Croatia.
It culminates with the finals at the Post Tower in Bonn, Germany, the headquarters of Deutsche Post DHL Group, to be aired in November.
DR1 Racing has sought to find a balance between exotic locations and workable legislation in its choice of venues, and is targeting Europe this year, in part because of the strong motorsports culture there.
However, Foxhoven said: “Because we are in the air we can go to places traditional motor sports cannot go, and we’re pushing the envelope on where drones can fly [but] the bigger drones require more safety and accommodation. You need different permits and approvals for these larger aircraft.
TV comes first DR1 Racing has targeted established broadcast platforms over social media, believing they offer critical mass, and the TV coverage is presently based on six post-produced one-hour round-up programmes featuring the racing and supporting content.
Foxhoven said: “We’re still trying to introduce this emerging sport. So for the show it is about asking who are these pilots? Who are these teams? Why are they doing what they are doing? It’s balancing telling the story of the sport, and seeing the actual racing. It worked well for us last year, and we are continuing this into season two."
He added: “For our sponsors and partners broadcasting is where it is at. That is going to move the needle more [than social media] at this point when we are wanting to be seen as legitimate as F1 or MotoGP. When you look at some live streams of other drone racing events, there’s sometimes only 100 to 200 people watching. That isn't enough to attract the level of sponsors as Pepsi and DHL."
BeIN Sports’ coverage in USA starts on Thursday evening, and there will be regular shows at the same time for a further five weeks, while CBS will show the finals on 3 November.
Champions Series programming on Eurosport in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific region gets under way on 25 October, and runs until early December.
In October 2016, Eurosport agreed an initial one-year deal to show the DR1 Invitational and then expanded to all six races from the 2017 Champions Series.
This year the coverage is expanding, with Foxhoven saying that whereas European coverage was previously split between Eurosport 1 and Eurosport 2, it will now be largely focused on the main channel.
He is also pleased with the company's new TV partner, saying: “Fox Sports Latin America got pitched by every major series, and they picked us as their drone racing partner."
DR1 Racing expects to move into live TV coverage next season, and, with full-time pilots, has plans for a truly international circuit that is not condensed into a small window in the year.
Foxhoven said: “Last year we were in USA, now we are in Europe. We will expand into Asia, and to Latin America now we have a broadcaster there.
“Last season, not all of the pilots were considered full-time professional pilot. It was harder to get them to compete throughout the year as they had day jobs, but now they’re locked in full-time. We’re proud to know we have a broad international selection of pilots representing the global interest of this sport."
Through its main sponsorship deals, DR1 Racing's circuit will continue to be known as the 'DHL Champions Series fueled by Mountain Dew'.
In a statement, Dirk Ude, the head of Global DHL Advertising, said of its extended deal: "With this continued collaboration, DHL is supporting a thrilling sport that is not only growing rapidly around the world, but also attracting completely new stakeholder groups and delivering top entertainment value. Our engagement is based on a perfect brand fit, as DHL and DR1 Racing share the same attributes such as performance, speed and precision."
Asked how he sees DR1 Racing within the wider drone racing landscape that also includes other international series such as the Drone Racing League, featuring indoor events, the Drone Champions League, and the Drone Racing World Cup and Drone Racing World Championships organised by the FAI, the world air sports federation, Foxhoven believes it has carved a niche for itself.
He said: “By introducing the larger drones, we’ve separated ourselves from the other series. Additionally, the team format, alongside the outdoor locations, showcases a clear identity for DR1 Racing. Every league is trying to make a name for themselves, and the audience will choose the series they want to watch. Our ratings from last season show how we have risen above the others with the most-watched drone racing event in the world with our Champions Series Finals."
However, talks have been taking place involving the various series and the FAI about standardisation of rules and formal structures.
Foxhoven said: “We need to have an open level of conversation with other drone racing organisations to decide the way ahead that works for this sport, and makes it more accessible for fans worldwide."