HAWTHORNE, Calif. — Decked out in high-tech goggles, Steve Zoumas dived low and saw the final gate zooming toward him: a 20-foot-tall metal-framed box ringed with neon. Boom! His sight went black. The crowd let out a collective “whoa” as pieces of his aircraft, which had just smashed into a concrete barrier, went flying.
Zoumas was fine, but his drone was destroyed. He took off his goggles and crossed to the pilots’ lounge for the replay. Once again, his quadcopter drone, a buzzing machine roughly the size of a loaf of bread, zoomed daringly around obstacles and through hairpin turns. And once again, it met its demise.
“I was pushing it that lap,” said Zoumas, a 31-year-old construction company owner. “I just wanted to put on a show for the crowd.”
Welcome to drone racing, in which participants fly remote-controlled drones against competitors at up to 80 miles per hour along looping courses that include hairpin curves and drops. Many races take place in open fields, but here, racers and spectators gathered in an abandoned, rubble-strewn mall that was set up with gates marking the course across two floors.
Fans sat on bleachers behind protective mesh, passing around antenna-equipped goggles to see the pilot’s view. Big-screen televisions showed off unique camera angles, while glowing copters whizzed by, emitting the high-pitched hum of weed whackers on steroids.
Racing is a labor of love for many pilots. Many are born tinkerers and spend hours customizing their drones with new parts or building them from scratch. Some say they have spent more than $10,000 on frames, motors, batteries, propellers and camera mounts.
Ken Loo, a 31-year-old pilot known as Flying Bear, said he and his wife had put off having children so he could spend more time racing. He said he would give up his high-paying Silicon Valley job if he could figure out how to fly drones for a living.
Of course, that is the sticking point. Drone racing is still something of a guerrilla sport, even though ESPN has agreed to air a drone special on its ESPN3 channel this fall. Money is tight, and most pilots have to keep their day jobs. While high-profile races like the World Drone Prix, held last March in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, pay as much as $250,000 to the winning pilot, such affluence felt distant in the shell of the Hawthorne Plaza Shopping Center.
That could change if drone racing hits it big, attracting a mass audience and the sponsors who want to sell to them. Nick Horbaczewski, the entrepreneur who founded the Drone Racing League last year, thinks he knows how to pull that off.
The trick, he said, is making the audience feel the same thrill as the pilots. That is why his league lights up each quadcopter and its pilot’s goggles with matching colored LEDs, which help spectators track the tiny drones. It is also why pilots wear T-shirts emblazoned with nicknames like KittyCopter, Rekrek and Zoomas. Pilots’ back stories and slick editing build up the drama for videos put online.
The fast-talking Horbaczewski, 35, helped turn Tough Mudders, a quirky half marathon in which people pay to slog through artificial quagmires, into a more than $100 million business as its chief revenue officer. He sank his own money into the drone league last year, though he also raised $8 million from the likes of Steve Ross, the Miami Dolphins’ owner; the talent business Creative Artists Agency; and the media giant Hearst.
But there is plenty of turbulence ahead. Similarly promising quasi leagues have failed before. Take professional paintball, which seemed like a surefire winner at its peak in 2005. A sport in which combatants shoot at one another across an obstacle-strewn field promised a built-in audience of gun enthusiasts and video gamers.
Paintball thrived for several years, airing its own show on ESPN3 and drawing sponsors like Budweiser, Monster energy drinks and the United States Army. Then manufacturers of paintball equipment consolidated and cut back on ad spending. Interest in the sport dwindled, and its main league folded in 2014.
Further complicating things, multiple drone-racing leagues are vying for attention. Horbaczewski’s major competition is the International Drone Racing Association, which announced last month that it would have a special on ESPN3 in the fall. There are a handful of other big leagues around the world, and grass-roots races pop up constantly.
The hodgepodge of organizations has bewildered would-be sponsors, frustrating some who found the experience of backing a race a sinkhole for time and money. Multirotor Superstore, an online retailer of drone parts based in Santa Cruz, Calif., already sponsors pilots like Loo with discounts and access to new gear at grass-roots events.
But the owner, Michael Silviera, said he had spent $20,000 sponsoring the I.D.R.A.’s United States National Drone Racing Championships last year — to disappointing results. His company’s logos were not displayed as agreed at an after-party he helped pay for, he said. That would have stung more had promised crowds actually turned up for the event. Attendance was fewer than 100, although he had been told to expect 10,000 fans.
“That hurt quite a bit,” Silviera said. “Now we’re a little hesitant about doing things.”