LYNCHBURG — The infield at Lynchburg City Stadium likely didn’t know what hit it.
Accustomed for years to the time-honored and predictable paths of baseballs and baserunners, this weekend’s flying objects must have seemed more like buckshot.
But the drones followed their own track above the diamond, racing a winding circuit marked by flags and gates at upwards of 40 mph in the Multirotor Rundown, a weekend series of first-person-view drone races above Calvin Falwell Field.
The concept is simple: a pilot’s drone navigates the course by means of remote control and goggles that show him a real-time view from a camera attached to the drone.
Saturday’s preliminary rounds resembled a robotic track meet, complete with bullhorn and scoring tent, and a pit area where competitors made last-minute adjustments and fixed broken components before running their drones out for the next race.
The competitors ranged from far and wide, but none farther or wider than 13-year-old Soren Monroe-Anderson and 15-year-old David Spencer, natives of Anchorage, Alaska.
The duo got interested in drone racing after seeing a YouTube video (“That kind of got us hooked,” David said) and have been practicing since. Soren, now living in Hanover, New Hampshire, had been visiting David in Alaska, and the pair made the Rundown a stop on the return trip with Soren’s mother, Cynthia Monroe.
“We’ve been flying for a while, and we just thought it would be a fun experience,” Soren said.
The teenagers enjoyed the camaraderie with other pilots, who were willing to share piloting tips and expertise with their younger counterparts.
“Most people are really encouraging,” Soren said. “If you need a part, then you can go get it from someone.”
The other teams, five of them and 62 pilots total, came from all over the Eastern Seaboard. Lynchburg shopkeeper Jeremiah Guelzo also was among them. Guelzo runs a retail hobby shop downtown, Stone Blue Airlines, along with an online store that caters to multirotor pilots worldwide.
“There’s a lot of local racing that happens,” Guelzo said, “but this is the big one.”
The weekend is, for all intents and purposes, an East Coast championship for drone pilots hoping to qualify for the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, set for Aug. 5-7 in New York City.
Events like the Multirotor Rundown are the best way to eliminate a stigma that drones have accrued in recent years, Guelzo added.
“Everything you hear about drones is like we’re spying in people’s windows,” Guelzo said as pilots buzzed the track practicing between rounds, “and this is far from it.”
It’s a growing sport, Guelzo said, and one that’s still finding its way to best cater to an audience. Some spectators speckled the City Stadium stands, having paid the $5 gate, but most present were the “grassroots hobbyists,” as Guelzo called them, who were parts of the racing teams.
Guelzo hopes that will change in years to come, drawing spectators to what he would like to see become an annual fixture in the Hill City. The inaugural, which surpassed the 60-pilot cap that organizers had installed, was a good start.