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Phoenix Cup 2016 FPV Drone Race Event

This article was originally published in June/July 2016 issue.
by Stephanie and Trey Player, Aerial Escape

Five  goggled racers sit in the racing recliners on the stage, focused on preparing for their upcoming heat.
Five goggled racers sit in the racing recliners on the stage, focused on preparing for their upcoming heat.

The wildly successful Phoenix Cup, one of 40 regional qualifying races for the 2016 MultiGP Championship, drew in over 50 pilots to compete for a spot in the regional finals. Presented and hosted by Flite Factory, a Phoenix-based manufacturer of FPV racing parts, the race was an exciting, adrenaline-pumping experience for both pilots and spectators alike. “When I started doing this race, it was just going to be a local race for local pilots,” explained Dustin Pennington, owner of Flite Factory. “Then pilots from out of state began to hear about it and the race grew really big, really fast.” A total of 52 pilots participated in the race, hailing from Florida, Colorado, Texas, California, Nevada, Missouri, Utah, New York, Arkansas and of course, Arizona. One pilot even flew in from Hungary to compete!

Nico Punzalan, the event coordinator for the Phoenix Cup, explained to Drones Magazine just how much planning went into preparing for the Phoenix Cup: “We had an idea around November 2015 that we wanted to run the Phoenix Cup and starting in January we really went gung-ho. This was all put together within two months, with most of the final setup coming together in the last two months.”

Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-4Special consideration was given when determining the date and location of the event. Nico went on to say, “We met with Joey from the Dirt Nitro Challenge, which brings in 1,000 people a day just for that event and we were excited to partner with him because we want to be able to do this every year at the same location, coinciding with the Dirt Nitro Challenge as we did this year.” None of this would have been possible without the support of our numerous sponsors for this event.” (See the full list below) Adding their technical prowess to the event, MultiGP, one of the world’s largest drone racing organizations, operated their fine-tuned proprietary system aimed at checking in all the pilots, assigning each racer his own unique frequency and notifying the racers via text message when they were scheduled to race. “We want to reduce the human capital it takes to run this kind of event,” said Chris Thomas, CEO and founder of MultiGP. “In the past it would take 30-40 volunteers to coordinate an event like  this; today we’re running it with only three or four people. We also provide our support for free, so anyone could put an event like this together.”

Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-34All in all, the race went off without a hitch. One of the main concerns during the planning phase was the issue of using multiple frequencies at once. “Frequency management is always kind of an issue that we have,” said Nicco, “but because of MultiGP, we had good channel separation on frequency so no one really had issues.” With MultiGP’s system, pilots were assigned a frequency that they maintained throughout the race to ensure there was no frequency interference, which ultimately contributed to the success of the event.

“It’s our single goal to make this a legitimate sport,” said Chris from MultiGP. He continued, “Our model is to start at the grassroots. We’ve built this huge network [of FPV racers]. If you see it on TV and say, ‘Hey, I want to do that’, and there’s no local group that’s doing this, what are you going to do?” At, you can set your location and search through local chapters to join a group or you have the option to add a new chapter in your local area. Overall, the goal is to bring FPV enthusiasts together so that individuals have opportunities to connect with others that share their love of racing.

Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-17Speaking of “love of racing”, the illuminated race track was mind-bogglingly remarkable to witness firsthand. Sporting a customized LED light track designed and built by FPVLightrax, trendsetters in the worldwide FPV racing community and also based out of the Phoenix area, the course was aesthetically pleasing yet suitably challenging for the pilots. “This track is their largest to date yet, with over 100 pieces and over 100,000 LEDs,” said Dustin from Flite Factory. “They’re coming out with new stuff all the time.”

With an idea that came to life due to the sweltering desert heat, FPVLightrax founder David Moquay explained, “It gets so unbearably hot here [in Phoenix], we realized it would be a lot more pleasant to fly at night.” Thus the LED light track idea was born out of necessity in his very own backyard as they started out with laying down a single LED rope light on the ground. As they continued to try out new ideas, experiment with shapes and layouts, they really began to see the potential right away. “Slowly, but surely we started refining our skills and eliminating things that didn’t work. Drones were not really attractive to the public during the day, you kind of lose sight of them very quickly, whereas at night with LEDs it becomes a new sort of light show. Now we’re trying to look for environments where we can control lighting and also taking advantage of the natural environment around us, so we’re hoping to take the track into nature and really take advantage of some of the gifts that nature has to give us.”

A racer makes his way toward the final gate before the finish line, as the Phoenix sunset illuminates the horizon.
A racer makes his way toward the final gate before the finish line, as the Phoenix sunset illuminates the horizon.

Experiencing the track at night, in person and watching via the flat screen TVs connected to the pilots’ live video feeds was beyond spectacular. In essence, viewers are right there with the pilot, seeing what he (or she!) is seeing and experiencing the rush of adrenaline as they speed through the course and just barely avoid hitting an obstacle, yet also feeling the pain and sharing in their anguish when they aren’t so lucky and crash to the ground. The LEDs on the obstacles were beautifully and brightly colored and in various shapes (rectangles, hexagons, diamonds and the newly released triangles). For spectators, it’s a truly mesmerizing, ethereal visual that pulls you in and won’t let go.

Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-19 Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-21So how did the race go, you ask? Nicco explained the guidelines to us: ”For the MultiGP race, it’s on a point system. Each lap is one point,” and racers have two minutes and 15 seconds to complete as many laps as they can in each round. If racers were in the middle of a lap when time ran out, they could finish that lap and still receive a point. Transponders were connected to each individual quadcopter, recording their lap time as they passed through the sensor bar at the finish line. Based on the challenging nature of the track, a pilot could potentially obtain 3 points per round with a good run, with the possibility of a 4th point when completing their last lap after time ran out.

There were a total of five rounds, divided into eight heats. Five pilots raced in each heat, adding to the competitive nature of the race. Not only were the pilots focused on trying to get through the track as quickly as possible, but now they had to keep in mind avoiding collisions with other racers, as well as with the obstacles on the course.

Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-23 Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-24 Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-20 Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-22Chris Thomas spoke with the group of pilots before the races began. He went over all of the rules and guidelines of the race and reminded the pilots that they could keep up with their points by checking their status on the MultiGP website. “At the end of the five races, we will take your total points and that will determine your placement in the Phoenix Cup. There will probably be some head-to-head ties, in which case there will be a sudden death,” he described. “The winner of that race will not only win the cup, but will also win the propellers from the person who lost. It’s important and it’s a ceremony for us. What happens is that when you lose, you bring your propellers in front of everybody and you present them to the winner. It’s an important tradition.” And then the heats began.

It was a highly competitive, tight race all the way until the end. As Chris predicted, tiebreakers were needed to determine the top four spots: Zachry Thayer of Team BIG WHOOP (Colorado) and Tony Thompson of Team AerialMOB (California) were tied for first place, while Jesse Perkins, also of Team BIG WHOOP, and Dr. C of Team Atmospheric Adventures (Florida) had to battle it out for third place.

Jesse, who had been flying for a little over a year, was actually motivated to focus more on racing when he heard about the Drone Nationals. At this event, he raced with a Shrike 185mm (an original design by teammate Zachry). At the start of the tiebreaker with Dr. C, he got ahead and was able to keep a sizable lead. Dr. C took a tumble that he wasn’t able to recover from, placing him in fourth and thusly resulting in Jesse taking third place. Jesse attributed part of his success in this race to a wider angle camera  lens, which led to some distortion issues, but ultimately broadened his perspective to be able to see more of each obstacle, which helped him to avoid them and stay centered.

Now was the time to find out who would walk away the first place winner of the Phoenix Cup. “The final tiebreaker race [between Zachry and Tony] was one of the most epic races ever,” Nicco declared.

Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-27 Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-30 Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-31 Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-29Zachry, who also had been flying for just a little over a year, came from a background in RC cars. As a software engineer, he has
designed and worked on his own frames (Shrike 185mm), with never even a thought to buy something else premade. He and his team describe their builds as “light, durable and powerful.” When speaking of the track, he said it was “the most amazing track we’ve flown yet.” Throughout the heats, Zachary consistently launched ahead of the other racers right out of the gate, flying what seemed like Mach speeds and shooting way ahead of the competition; it seemed like no one could pass him, but as the race led to  a tiebreaker between he and Tony, he reflected, “It was an emotional rollercoaster. I was stressed out from the previous race [heat] because I crashed on the second lap.”

Tony, on the other hand, seemed to have been born with wings. His grandfather was an aviation mechanic for 50 years, both his parents are pilots and he himself got his pilot’s license at the ripe old age of 17. “Aviation is in my blood,” he asserted. With that kind of background, it’s no surprise that he too designed his own frame, the UFO Jurrive 250mm. “The perfect ‘X’ platform is designed to protect your gear,” he commented. As a frequent skydiver, he is accustomed and drawn to the surge of adrenaline, yet he said he felt more adrenaline pumping during the last sudden death race than he ever has during a skydiving jump. “We were head-to-head. Whoever crossed the finish line first would win, so I went dragster on it, trying to get in front … and I passed him.”

Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-32 Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-28What happened next blew the minds of all of the spectators: Both pilots crashed and could not recover. How it happened: After Tony passed Zachry, he almost immediately missed a gate and had to circle back and go through it again in order to make it count. Zach was able to get ahead at this time, but crashed further on in the course, not too far from the finish line. As Tony recovered and proceeded through the track, he then hit an obstacle and crashed as well. Zachry got further in the course before he crashed, so therefore Zachry was named the first place winner!

Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-33However, that wasn’t good enough for the crowd. While it was a technical win for Zachry, everyone was pushing for a rematch to determine the winner of the opponent’s propellers. One of them HAD to complete a lap in order to earn the props. Again, they took off. Zachry launched ahead and zoomed through, narrowly missing obstacles in some spots. Tony missed a gate again and as he was circling back to go through, he said “my nerves got to me, and I crashed again.” He was not able to recover. Zachry completed the lap and finished it off with a mini-quad victory dance, which included multiple tricks, flips and barrel rolls in celebration of his win. The crowd roared.

So what’s next? Since this was one of the first regional qualifying races of the 2016 MultiGP Championship, the top four will advance to compete in one of 10 regional finals. From there, those finalists will then compete in the MultiGP Championship at the AMA Headquarters in Muncie, Indiana in September 2016. Not only do the Phoenix Cup finalists have that championship to look forward to, but they have also been extended an invitation to compete in the 2016 US National Drone Racing Championships later this year.

The top 3 finalists of the Phoenix Cup toast their win. From left: Jesse Perkins (3rd), Zachry Thayer (1st), Tony Thompson (2nd). Photo credit: Chris Lambeth.
The top 3 finalists of the Phoenix Cup toast their win. From left: Jesse Perkins (3rd), Zachry Thayer (1st), Tony Thompson (2nd). Photo credit: Chris Lambeth.

As for the Phoenix Cup, it received all-around rave reviews from the sponsors, pilots and spectators alike. David from FPVLightrax contended, “It was really exciting to see the audience participation, being able to watch what the pilots were seeing and get as excited as the rest of us.” When it comes to the future of LED
light tracks, he added, “We have an internal team of designers that are edging to create new flight lines, elements and games. We’re also planning on trying to take this course and as many tracks as possible to get many pilots to experience it and really reach out to the public to see what the potential is for this industry. We will continue re-inventing the track, making it more interactive and having it react directly to the pilot.”

Phoenix-Cup-2016-FPV-Drone-Race-Event-1If you missed this year’s event, you definitely don’t want to miss it next time. “We’re already planning for next year as we kind of have a system now,” Nicco expressed. “This was our event, we ran the hell out of it to make sure that it was an event to remem- ber.” It sure was, Nicco … It sure was. We’re already looking forward to the Phoenix Cup 2017!

Want to set up or join a chapter in your area? There are nearly 300 racing chap- ters across the world via MultiGP at the time of this writing. Visit www. and set your location to see what’s going on in your community.


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