SALT LAKE CITY — Matt Key races around the park at up to 80 miles an hour and never leaves his seat. He’s afraid if he stands up, he’ll fall over.
“I can't even stand up. I have to sit down in the chair because I'm wanting to tip over,” Key said.
Key is one of a new breed of “e-athletes” promoting and competing in a new sport — or maybe we should call it a “sport” — drone racing.
The race began for Key when he bought his son a toy quadcopter for Christmas.
“We thought this was the most amazing thing we've ever seen,” Key said.
Soon Key, who in the Navy had worked on aircraft carrier propulsion systems, was custom designing drones, and the tiny aircraft quickly invaded their home according to his wife Susie.
“In my bedroom, in the front room, in the kitchen and pretty much everywhere,” she said. “He brought in folding tables and had drones on them in the bedroom. He actually, like, set up an area in half of the room.”
Matt Key eventually moved his drone-designing operation over to Drones, Etc., an online business where he now works part-time with his wife and older son.
Weekends he and his friends pilot their racing drones through outdoor courses outlined by flags and gates.
They fly small machines stripped down for speed and, using onboard cameras, navigate with a drone's eye view beamed back to video goggles. That’s called FPV or first person view.
“(It’s) very immersive,” said pilot Christian Petersen, who goes by the moniker FPV Provo. “Your brain actually thinks you're in the cockpit.”
“It is out of body,” he said. “I remember when I first started doing this I would fly around and I see this guy standing there and it’d take a second to realize, ‘oh that's me.’”
He’s a stay-at-home dad who races while the kids are at school.
In just a short few years, what started as a fringe hobby for do-it-yourselfers, has become what some people call a new kind of NASCAR.
“I hope it's not that boring,” Petersen said. “We turn right and left.”
Petersen, who like many, was turned on to drone racing by YouTuber Charpu.
“We call him the godfather of FPV because he was one of the first to really push the drones to their limits,” Petersen said.
Petersen competed in the inaugural season of the Drone Racing League, an online race series backed by the owner of the Miami Dolphins.
He’s hoping to qualify for the 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships which will be broadcast by ESPN from New York City this summer. The International Drone Racing Association recently cut a deal with ESPN to broadcast the race and other events staged by the IDRA.
Petersen recently returned from Dubai’s World Drone Prix, a race with a $1 million purse. He served as a team navigator and came in sixth. First place and $250,000 went to 15-year-old Luke Bannister of England.
“If he's the future of drone racing then I need to win now or I'm never going to get a win,” Petersen said.
Part of the appeal of drone racing is that people who are older than 15 can compete.
Shane Conner said, at 43, he can no longer play the sports he once did, but he can race around the park.
“I had to give up sports due to my knees, my joints,” he said. “And so this allows me to get that freedom, get that ability to explore and I almost feel like I'm exploring within my own body still and have that adrenaline rush.”
“I never skateboarded, extreme sports, BMX and all that, but I feel like I'm almost part of that type of scene,” he said. “I'm on the edge, the frontier of something new like that.”
“It's really exciting to feel 43 years old, graying and still part of a community that feels extreme. Feels like you're on the edge.”