Steve Zoumas held his award high at the top of the race winner’s podium as the champagne sprayed.
But this wasn’t the Daytona 500 or a Formula One event. Mr. Zoumas — who races under the nickname “Zoomas” — was celebrating the first-ever win in the inaugural season of the Drone Racing League, a budding sport featuring robotic helicopters that dive and weave through obstacle courses.
“You look up at the huge screens on both ends and see your face blown up,” Mr. Zoumas told the News-Review, describing the experience. “It was just surreal.”
Big money has been pumped into making drone racing the sport of the future, with million-dollar prize pools at exotic locales such as Dubai. And, as in other racing sports, teams and leagues are forming to draft the best racers across the globe.
Mr. Zoumas, a sponsored 31-year-old racer out of Wading River, has already set himself apart from the rest, handily winning the first race of the newly formed Drone Racing League in Miami last year.
“He had a simply dominant performance in Miami,” said DRL founder and CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski. “You have to fly like a champion in that moment … In every event, he finished very strong.”
An owner of his family’s construction company by day, Mr. Zoumas has always enjoyed remote control vehicles. When he was 10, he drove RC trucks and later upgraded to helicopters and planes.
Mr. Zoumas said he grew tired of the hobby now and again. That is, until November 2014, when a friend showed him an online video of drone pilots using first-person-view goggles to race through the trees.
Mr. Zoumas was stunned — and needed to know more.
“I didn’t know how it was possible,” he said. “That night I ordered a set of goggles and found a guy online custom building [drones]. Since the first time I put the goggles on, I just loved it.”
Drone racing involves piloting the small, roughly one-foot-wide devices along a course while using the goggles to “see” what the drone’s onboard camera is looking at. This allows racers to navigate obstacles and fly accurately far beyond their line of sight.
“There’s no bigger adrenaline rush to me than flying with the goggles on and absolutely going fast and staying a foot off the ground,” he said.
Since he first started racing, the Shoreham-Wading River High School graduate has become an active member of the drone community. He regularly flies with friends on Long Island and wins national events, like a team race in an underground cavern in Kentucky. At that event, Mr. Zoumas competed with a Canadian medical student for their sponsor, Ready Made RC.
Mr. Zoumas was even selected to take part in the World Drone Prix in Dubai. There, he made it past two rounds of eliminations into the final 32 of 150 racers before a technical failure forced him out of the competition.
“They were the best pilots in the world,” Mr. Zoumas said. “If you were a great pilot, you were there.”
But Mr. Horbaczewski — who previously worked for the Tough Mudder brand of endurance events — said the DRL is trying to set itself apart by standardizing the sport and making it more accessible to viewers.
“The goal is to build a major sport,” he said, citing eSports and professional poker as examples drone racing hopes to follow. “There’s already a huge audience of people who are watching racing sports and, in the end, this is a racing sport.”
The DRL has participating racers fly the same type of drone, a change from other races where competitors custom-build their devices. Each DRL drone is outfitted with colored LEDs and onboard cameras to allow viewers at home to see the action more clearly.
Mr. Zoumas was contacted by the league before it launched, after league executives spotted online videos of him racing drones.
“This is the biggest name in the business,” Mr. Zoumas said.
So far, Mr. Horbaczewski said, the efforts have paid off. Videos of the racing league’s first event racked up a combined 40 million views online, he said — and Mr. Zoumas’ performance in that race was front and center in the videos.
Mr. Zoumas won eight of the nine heats he competed in and managed to score the five fastest times around Sun Life Stadium in Miami, where the league had set up a twisting course that raced around the stadium seats and underneath the concrete pilings.
In the finals, Mr. Zoumas had his racing strategy locked in: At the start of the race, he “launched” off faster than his competitors and stuck to a steady line, forcing his opponents to take more aggressive routes to catch up.
Every racer crashed into an obstacle at some point during the three heats, but while other drones sputtered and tore apart after their collisions, Mr. Zoumas’ drone managed to survive the crash unscathed and finished the heat in first place.
“I think I got a little lucky there,” he said. “But sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”
Mr. Zoumas said the races were unlike anything else he had done before. While other drone racing events were more casual, the DRL race had camera crews monitoring their every move and broadcasting it on the stadium’s giant television screens. But Mr. Zoumas didn’t get distracted.
“I was sitting next to [the other pilots] and some of their hands were shaking,” he said. “I guess I just controlled my nerves better than everyone else … Once I started flying, I knew what I needed to do.”
Mr. Zoumas has already competed in the DRL’s second race, through an abandoned mall in Los Angeles in March, but couldn’t say how well he did since broadcasts from the race will be posted online within the next two months.
Mr. Zoumas said the recognition is a nice aspect of his involvement, but even as a professional drone racer, he treats the sport as a hobby. He said he’d keep racing even if he didn’t win prize money.
“I’ll always fly,” he said.
The racing lifestyle hasn’t been much of a problem for Mr. Zoumas and his wife, Jennifer. A section of the their garage is devoted to drone racing, with a handful of custom-built drones hanging on the wall.
“With the support of my family, it’s a way of life now,” he said.
The couple has three children, but Mr. Zoumas said he’s only away on racing tours for a weekend here or there.
The couple’s youngest son, Niko, is already following in his dad’s racing footsteps.
“He just turned 4 in February and he can actually hover a drone,” Mr. Zoumas said. “He’ll fly for three minutes and keep it in the air.”
Video Teaser credits: (Music: “Epic Song,” BoxCat Games) (Video: Courtesy, Drone Racing League)