So you wanna be a drone racing champion. Cool, most of us do! However, getting there takes a ton of practice, dedication, and adulting tends to get in the way of stick-time. Fortunately, this drone racing practice guide is intended to help you maximize the amount of time you afford to practice so you can go from novice to racing veteran as quickly as humanly possible. Here are some fundamental principles and practical tips to follow, collected from the likes of Captain Vanover, FPV_Davis, Freefall, and top pilots of The Other Guys, Freefall’s home MultiGP chapter in Colorado.
Maxim #1 Practice with your crew.
If you’ve been holding off on racing until your skills are on par with the MultiGP pilots you see on YouTube, I encourage you to throw that logic in the trash. While the maxims in this drone racing practice guide are helpful and valuable truths, they are no substitute for the technique that can only be learned by watching and racing pilots above your skill level. Every champion has a tribe of people that helped them get to the top – people that encouraged them to push harder and faster and lent a helping hand when things got tough. The sooner you find your crew and race them every chance you get; the faster your skills will improve. Plus, there’s no reason to be intimidated by the pros. They’re all great people and more than happy to help and encourage you. Just don’t power up in the pits while they’re in the air. Bridges are meant to be power-looped, not burned. [wink]
Maxim #2: Practice mindfully, not mindlessly.
Whether you’re flying in a simulator or getting in some real stick-time, you won’t be doing yourself any favors by merely flying through gates and ripping packs. Stick-time on its own has little value. To practice drone racing effectively and efficiently, be intentional about a specific problem you want to solve or a move you want to perfect each time you plug in. If it helps, every time you plug in, the ESC’s on your quad should sing a little song that says “What. Are. You… Working…On?”
Most importantly, understand that to practice two things at once is to perfect neither. For example, don’t work on tightening up both your Slit-S and your slalom with every practice lap. Choose one. Perfect it. Then move on to the other. In fact, Alex Vanover recommends breaking down your practice track into individual sections and practicing them one at a time before linking them all together for a complete lap. He spends one to two packs working on each part of a track before practicing the track as a whole.
Maxim #3: Practice makes permanent, not perfect.
We all know repetition is key to muscle memory, but we often don’t realize that the human brain’s procedural memory can’t distinguish between correct and incorrect movements. Take bowling for example. If I aim for the center pin and miss, my procedural mind has no idea my ball went straight into the right gutter. If I aim for the center pin again, my ball is likely to go straight into the right gutter again because my muscle memory is repeating the same movements as before. With each failed attempt, I am inevitably training my muscle memory to throw the ball into the right gutter! It may sound counterintuitive, but the quickest way to hit the center pin, in this case, is to stop aiming for it. If I instead aim for the left gutter, not only am I more likely to hit the center pin (since I keep missing right) but if I miss it again, I at least missed it in a manner that did not commit the same incorrect movement to memory through repetition. By aiming in the opposite direction I miss instead of my intended target, I can make smaller and smaller corrections until I eventually hit the center pin. Missed it just a skosh to the left? Try and miss it just a skosh to the right on the next throw. This method is hands down the fastest way to fine-tune your hand-eye coordination.
Of course, the same concept applies when practicing drone racing. If you mess up a corkscrew gate by taking it way too high, don’t try to correct it by aiming for the perfect line. Correct it by intentionally taking it too tight. You’ll find the perfect line with far fewer attempts because you never committed the wrong line to muscle memory.
Maxim #4: Go slow to go fast.
It’s quite the oxymoron, I know, but it’s also very true. Being the fastest pilot around the track isn’t necessarily about being able to rip through a track at full throttle. As Rob (Ninja FPV) Schmitt will tell you, “just because you’re flying your quad fast, doesn’t mean you’re flying the track fast.” It’s all about keeping tight racing lines, planning your apex two or three gates ahead, and perfecting smooth turns instead of relying on raw power to compensate for abrupt directional changes and overshot lines.
By practicing technical features in a slow and controlled manner, you set a baseline for your muscle memory. Once you have the movements and race lines committed to memory, you are better equipped to maintain a fast and smooth line as you gradually pick up the pace and add more throttle.
This, of course, is much easier said than done! As soon as you have 7 other pilots on the line with you, the temptation and adrenaline begging you to go heavy on the throttle are hard to resist. Timothy (Sky FPV) Ichiyasu says “It’s NOT easy to have this kind of restraint. But being able to accurately assess how fast you are capable of flying at a given moment makes all the difference.” So, above all else, practice restraint.
Maxim #5: Follow your line, not the track’s line.
A line of cones running through a MultiGP race track is pretty standard for every chapter across the world. However, it’s important to understand those cones are not necessarily the best racing line to follow. They are casually dropped on the ground to help keep pilots on the track. It’s up to you to find the best line through each feature of the track.
Of course, finding the best line is also largely an experimental process. Pilots are generally allotted two practice rounds on race day, so use them wisely. Practice entering and exiting certain gates at different angles to find a line that flows well for you. As Leo (Kumokraft) Barbera put it, “if you exit a gate and you’re not already lined up for the next one, your line is off.” Once you’ve mastered Maxims 4 and 5, you’ll be surprised when the fastest lap times you put on the board are the ones where you didn’t feel like you were going very fast.
Maxim #6: Consistency wins more races than raw speed.
This maxim is true regardless of race format, and true even at the professional level of drone racing. The pilots that win races aren’t just fast; they’re the ones that stay in the air! Whether you’re ripping packs at practice or on race day, Sky FPV recommends pushing harder and faster only when you can stay in the air for two minutes, 75% of the time. Get consistent and get those laps! Your wallet and your quad will thank you.
But consistency goes beyond merely staying in the air. You need to be consistent with your lap times too! I asked Bridger (FPV_Davis) Davis how he practices staying consistent and he said, “All I do is fly UTT tracks. Chris Thomas told me to do it.” So if you have it in your budget, picking up a personal race timing system and a few gates will be well worth it.
Maxim #7: Don’t ride the hype train into the abyss.
I wish I could take credit for this maxim, but this one is straight from the brilliant mind of Ninja FPV. Part of staying consistent on the track is staying consistent with your gear. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding the latest and greatest components to hit the market or fall prey to the 4S/6S debate. So again, practice restraint.
Bottom line: find the components that work for you and keep them consistent. If and when you do change something, change one thing at a time so you can accurately assess whether it added value to you and your quad. Better yet, build yourself a set of triplets – two identical quads for race day, and another identical quad (save for one component) for testing and practice.
Maxim #8: Look to the sky and find the speed you seek.
If your lines are tight, your flying is smooth, and yourself unable to use as much throttle as you’d like, it’s probably time to bump up your camera angle. There’s no right or wrong way to practice this in my opinion. You can practice by bumping up your camera angle a few degrees at a time, or you can jack it all the way to 65° and practice until you’re consistent again. Either way, it takes more than a few packs to find the angle that works for you, so give yourself plenty of time to find it. For more details on how and why camera angle is critical, read Jon Escalante’s brilliant article on the subject.
Maxim #9: Proof is in the
When it comes to improving your skills as a pilot, one of the simplest and most effective things you can do is getting into the habit of recording every single flight. Not only will this prove handy in the event of a dispute on race day, but it also gives you the opportunity to give 100% of your attention to perfecting your lines. When you’re in the air, your brain is doing a million things at once. DVR turns your practice session or practice lap into a focused study session so you can find lines you may have missed, correct mistakes you didn’t know you were making, or memorize environmental markers for when to slow down and when to gun it.
Maxim #10: Imagining it is just as good as doing it
This maxim is no BS. It’s scientific fact! So when you find yourself at work daydreaming in FPV, remember Maxim #2 and be mindful of what’s in your mind. Practice anything you want, any time you want, as long as it is with intent and purpose.
That said, if practicing in your mind is as effective as doing it, logic dictates that practicing it in a simulator is also equally as effective. In fact, Chance (Freefall) Hartman practiced almost exclusively in Rotor Rush during the winter. He warns that “it’s not exactly healthy to just practice on a sim” acknowledging the importance of staying consistent with what you fly, but he added that “it helps if you find something on a track that you can’t exactly do properly. For me, the winter was practicing my speed; I found a Sim that fit my flight style and feel of the quad almost perfectly so I did as much as I could to practice every track.”
Bonus Maxim: Practice having fun.
Although racing and taking podiums is both rewarding and fun, it’s not really what drone racing is about, or even racing in general for that matter. It’s about the community and the comradery we build along the way. Sometimes it’s all too easy to get caught up in the competition and go ballistic over a mid-air collision or get hot and bothered by the mystery guy stomping on your channel. But at the end of the day, drone racing isn’t really about being faster than the guys next to you: it’s about having fun with them and being faster than yourself. After all, my hope for this drone racing practice guide is that it will not only help you become a faster pilot, but also encourage you to share the truth of these maxims with the new pilots that follow you. Considering how many of us race on farmland, it’s fitting to close with a quote from Ceasar Chavez, a great activist and co-founder of National Farm Workers Association.
“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”