Some pilots love flying in large competitions against top pilots on full send, but I know a lot more pilots who enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere of locally organized race events. The competition is less intense and the event is as much about sharing a day flying with friends than it is about seeing who can go faster. Anyone can organize this kind of race day, and it’s a great way to meet other local pilots.
Whether large or small, organization is key to getting the most flight time and having pilots and spectators enjoy the race event. Here are some of the most important areas to focus on that make a big difference in the race day experience.
From start to finish, a race day runs smoothly when attendees know what to expect. You don’t need a lot of rules and restrictions, but you do need to be very clear and firm on the ones that you establish. If you make a rule for safety, or to keep the event moving smoothly, stick to it without exception. You can bend other rules if it’s obvious to everyone else that there’s a consequence. For example, our group won’t stop you from flying unless you are being unsafe—but if your equipment is out of spec you’re not allowed to score points, be ranked in the standings, or win any prizes.
If pilots don’t have a clear understanding of how things will run, they will make assumptions that probably don’t line up with your own. Different ideas on how much time there is between heats and when it’s acceptable to change video channels have the potential to derail a race event schedule very quickly. Uninformed pilots will assume they have as much time as they need to get set up and can change channels any time they want! These can quickly derail a schedule and possibly cause arguments.
Before the Race Event
Communication and setting expectations begin with the race announcement. The first step is to announce a race with enough time for people to arrange their schedule, but not so long that they forget about it. Be sure you have covered all the basics so people can find the race:
- Date of the race event
- Times for registration, practice, and racing
- Location and directions
- Special instructions for parking or finding the venue if it is not obvious
- Available amenities like seating, facilities, or food nearby
Let pilots know what is expected of their equipment and how it should be set up:
- What race classes you will run and how they are defined
- How to find out what channel a pilot is on
- When and where it is acceptable to change channels
- Whether you want pilots on a specific channel before they arrive, and what it is
- If any equipment will be unacceptable (such as a VTx that is not outputting properly), and what you will do about it if this happens (perhaps being disqualified from a heat or the entire race)
If you want help with setup or tear-down, make sure you ask for it up front as well.
At the Event
Hold an all-pilot meeting before you begin practice and racing. Always begin this meeting by repeating the first rule of flying with others at an event: no powering on if there are pilots in the air. From there, you can talk a bit about safety, (such as not going on the course to pick up a quad until the race is over) and the format of the race. Let pilots know where to find the heat list and schedule so they know when they are racing.
Provide a course map. Ideally, this map should have a satellite photo of the area with the course drawn over top. Take pilots on a course walk so they understand each feature and can get a look at it and ask questions. Before you let pilots back to begin practice, reiterate the rule about powering on again. Nothing ruins a race day faster than when it’s not followed.
Plan your Course Carefully
Completing a race quickly takes a lot of focus, and there’s an expectation that the course will be safe to fly during the race. When you design a course, think carefully about where crashes will happen and what direction the aircraft will go if a pilot loses control. Basically, don’t put your pilot area or anything else important on the outside of a turn or after a gate.
After safety is considered, work in a variety of obstacles and sections that can be taken with differing speeds. Most enjoyable courses have fast sections and slow, technical sections. If you use too much of the same kind of feature, the course will be boring after a while. You can get away with having difficult course features even flying with novice pilots if you leave a lot of room for the pilot to set up for the next element. If a pilot can slow down or circle around if a feature is missed, they’ll enjoy the course more than if missing a feature results in an immediate crash.
The further a pilot has to walk to retrieve a crashed quad, the longer it takes to get the next heat started. Consider placing more difficult sections closer to the pit area, and easier sections further away.
Most importantly, your course needs to be highly visible and easy to understand. Crashing out because you didn’t have the skill to pilot an obstacle at speed is just part of racing—but it’s much more upsetting to crash out because you didn’t see or understand the course markers. Make sure your course markers are large, high contrast, and very visible. You might consider the Lumenier flag or the GetFPV flag for these purposes. Race gates are a common and popular obstacle, too.
Give Updates During the Event
As the race event moves along, pilots need information about what’s happening. Are things on schedule? Am I up soon? What are the race results? Make it easy to find out this information at any time—and make announcements when things change. When you do, be sure you have everyone’s attention first.
Like me, you may not be very loud. When I organized my first races, I had a “designated cat herder”. This person’s job was to get people’s attention when I had announcements to make, and to check in with pilots through the event to make sure they understood everything. This allowed me to move on to other duties, and made sure everyone had the right information. This became less important as we ran more races and the pilots got used to them, but in the beginning it was a huge help.
Later on, we invested in a small PA system with a microphone and speakers. You can pick these up for under $200. Some have an internal battery and even act as a Bluetooth speaker. We hook up our timing system for race starts so the signals are nice and loud.
“This is much more fun to watch.” I heard this from a spectator at our last race event. She was commenting on how the addition of our timing system which announced the lap counts and times added quite a bit to the experience. In a small, local setting you may not have another pilot exactly at your skill level, so flying against your own times and looking for improvements is a fun way to enjoy a race day.
If your group can afford a large one-time purchase, the ImmersionRC LapRF 8-way is the current gold standard of professional timing systems. You hook it up to a laptop running race management software such as LiveTime. Groups on a budget can build their own timer from open-source hardware and software designs with projects such as RotorHazard, Chorus, or Delta5.
Personal timers such as the TBS RaceTracker and the ImmersionRC LapRF Personal “puck” are excellent for personal practice, but aren’t really designed for a race event. They’re best used for practicing by yourself and the occasional informal laps with a friend.
Overseeing setup, course design, timing, announcing, scoring, heat management, frequency management, tear-down, and communications are all part of the job—plus numerous unexpected things that come up throughout the day. It’s not just a lot to do; it’s too much to handle alone. To survive this kind of responsibility, an organizer needs a team to rely on.
Anyone who is interested in helping out is a great asset. Train them to take over different tasks for you. When your team has people who can accomplish different tasks, you won’t have to oversee these yourself. After a while, this will free you up to tackle only the most important tasks or those you enjoy the most. Eventually your group may be able to run a race event without you, so you can just show up and race like anyone else once in a while!
Practice Makes Perfect
You might not think of race event organizing as a skill you could practice, but as with any other skill it’s essential to improving. How can you practice organizing? Racing micro quads like the AcroBee indoors among friends is perfect for this. The dangers of full-size race quads are no longer present, so there’s much less at stake and the event is much less stressful to run. You can even work on course designing with micro flags and gates.
A lot of the skills are directly transferable to full-size race events. Pre-race communication, course design, timing, scoring, and frequency management are all very similar. At the same time, you’re training your most likely event co-organizers. Best of all, no matter how well the organization goes, you’ve still spent your day racing with friends.