My friend OSprey recently wrote about Open vs. Spec racing. It’s a discussion that’s started a few different times in the community, but there still seem to be a lot of misconceptions. As a pilot and race director for both open and spec classes, I’ve seen both sides of this debate from many different angles. Let’s break down some of the common points and get to the heart of the discussion.
Getting on the Same Page
First and foremost, different people define “spec” to mean different things. Discussions often fall apart when terminology is understood differently by each party. Here are some things people mean when they think “Spec”:
- Formula racing defines a set of rules (a formula) that must be followed in constructing the vehicle, often within a range of acceptable specifications.
- One-make, or Stock racing usually means that all pilots use the exact same parts.
Depending on who you’re talking to, Spec can mean either one of the two definitions above—or it can encompass both. Even these terms are used inconsistently across disciplines. If you’re discussing Spec, be clear about which kind of racing you mean. These are different types of racing with very different advantages and disadvantages, so it’s easy for a discussion to derail if a common definition isn’t being used.
In drone racing right now, Open class racing is the most prevalent among amateurs. Some common criticisms of Spec racing are valid, but others apply only to Formula or One-make racing and not to spec as a whole.
Is Spec More Competitive?
In my experience, there’s no difference in how serious pilots take the racing with Open vs. Spec class—but it is a very different kind of competition. With Spec racing, you see the competition taking place on the race course, as pilots fight for position based on skill alone. With Open class racing more of the competition takes place off the course, in the build phase. Open class pilots spend more time making purchasing decisions and often compete in who can buy the best parts. With a formula race, pilots still spend time considering how to work within the formula, but the effects of this effort are limited. In one-make racing, there’s no selecting parts at all.
The portion of competition that happens off-track is largely invisible to those watching the race. While spec isn’t truly more competitive, it appears more competitive to the spectator so it is more exciting to watch. Exciting neck-and-neck battles become more common when the quads are more evenly matched. This is a huge advantage of spec racing as a spectator, as a pilot, and even as an organizer. It’s one important reason why DRL—perhaps the most popular professional racing league—operates on a one-make spec class.
Is Spec Less Expensive?
How much you spend on a Spec racer depends a lot on how the spec is set up. Are the spec parts inexpensive? Can you use what you already own? Are you building an Open class racer anyway? A formula class can be written to allow you to build a racer with old parts that you might not fly anymore. Just as easily, a one-make class could specify high-end parts that cost a lot. This is really up to the organizers of the class, so there’s no definitive answer on which type is less expensive.
However, there are tools available to Spec organizers which can’t be applied in an Open class. This goes beyond just specifying low cost parts. For example, specifying lower pitch propellers and smaller motors would reduce stress on batteries and ESCs. This can lower component failure and parts replacement rates. Spec can help avoid the “arms race” of Open class, where buying more expensive parts is almost always a path to better performance. These tools all have the potential to keep Spec racing costs down, but are only realized if organizers decide to implement them.
Is Spec Racing Slower?
One common theme among spec classes, and perhaps even the primary goal, is limiting performance. This means the very newest parts and technologies will be off limits.Open class racers are free to make upgrades throughout a season, while Spec classes will only update when the season begins and a new spec is put in place for the next season. Spec racing will always be behind and, yes, at least bit slower. Often, the spec class is intentionally much slower.
As Osprey noted, this really is not a bad thing. Even Formula 1 cars, the pinnacle of auto racing, are limited from reaching their true speed potential. The fastest recorded speed in a Formula One race is 231mph, but there are production road cars that can top 300. Racing has never really been about speed, but is actually about making the best of your time while working within a given set of constraints. A performance limit is precisely what makes Spec racing more competitive on instead of off the race course.
Does Spec Stunt Technological Development and Reduce Market Competition?
Without question, a one-make spec reduces development and market competition. A formula spec that is essentially a parts list will do the same thing. In both cases, specific manufacturers are favored over others in the market and nobody is given an incentive to develop better parts for those races.
One-make and parts lists aren’t the only options. Setting up a formula based on a performance limit would allow any manufacturer to develop something that met the spec. This could actually encourage manufacturers to develop for it, because if they don’t they may be missing out on pilots who want to fly it.
Another effect of a performance-driven spec (as opposed to a parts-driven spec) is more innovation in unexpected areas. With an open class, to gain a performance edge you can get a bigger motor, higher pitch prop, more battery voltage… more, more, and more. You buy your way to the highest performance you can afford and everything just gets bigger as you go. By limiting power, you have to find more innovative ways of gaining time. Does re-configuring your motor layout improve cornering? Can you gain time with better aerodynamics? What about camera latency and picture quality? These kinds of innovations are more likely to develop if simply adding more power isn’t an option.
The Benefits of Spec Class
Many pilots treat the open class as inevitable, but most sports even at the amateur level are separated in ways to make competition more fair. It would be difficult to find an auto race where absolutely any car would be allowed.
The above questions lay out much of the advantages of Spec, but the are other benefits to setting boundaries to a class. When you set up the rules that govern your spec, you also have the ability to decide what kind of racing it will be. Your spec could be about raw speed, but it might instead focus on agility, endurance, or any other aspect that’s important to your group. Our open class races can last only two minutes, but our spec class races sometimes last nearly double that time. This makes for a very different racing experience that shifts from quick reflexes in short sprints and instead rewards consistency and smooth lines over the long haul.
The Benefits of Open Class
For all that Spec classes bring to the table, there’s always going to be a barrier to entry. You’ll have the initial cost of buying into the spec, and you may not like all of the rules within it. As a pilot, you’re no longer able to choose parts that you like just because you want to try them, or that you’ll enjoy flying when the race is over and you’re on your own free time. For this reason, spec race organizers have more work to attract competitors. A casual pilot can’t simply pick up their weekend quad and show up to a spec race. Smaller race groups may need an Open class to attract pilots. These are often freestyle pilots who bring their rigs to race events for the shared experience and the camaraderie.
Open class is also far easier to manage as an organizer. You can avoid setting up spec tests to keep pilots honest. A faster check-in and fewer spot checks before a race provides a smoother experience for both organizer and pilot. Don’t underestimate the benefits of a smoothly run event—pilots will only return to races they enjoy being at.
Should We Be Flying More Spec?
The answer for the group I organize is a resounding yes. We make it work because we have a performance-based formula series instead of a fixed parts list or a one-make setup. Our pilots love watching and racing in the close competition on the course, as well as the longer race duration and flight feel that differs from an open-class quad. But we also maintain our open class alongside it. Having the Open class available helps attract new pilots and gives us a place to try out new ideas—we race whatever we’re most interested in.
You won’t know what works for your race group unless you give it a try.
If you want to get started in Spec with your local group, I suggest you look into Limited Class. This class was introduced by the Bladed Fury MultiGP chapter in Wisconsin and aims to make formula racing close and affordable. To date it’s one of the most successful attempts for local drone racing groups. At first glance the spec looks slow, but give it a try and you might be surprised at just how much fun you’re having.