HANNIBAL – Hannibal may have a new sport - 40 drone racers from eight states competed in Hannibal's Inaugural Bill Lear Innovator Cup Drone Racing Finals on July 20 and 21 at the Hannibal-LaGrange University's campus.

HANNIBAL – Hannibal may have a new sport - 40 drone racers from eight states competed in Hannibal's Inaugural Bill Lear Innovator Cup Drone Racing Finals on July 20 and 21 at the Hannibal-LaGrange University's campus.

The drones were raced six at a time for two minutes, with their times recorded by the officials. Each pilot had 10 chances to compete before the finals.

No one was allowed in the race area during a race, with the pilots wearing goggles connected to their drones to see the race layout. They were led by white cones on the ground as they flew through many gates of different sizes and shapes.

Some hit a gate and went down. While there also was the danger of colliding with another drone, this was rarely seen. The drones could run out of battery life, but this seldom happened.

The races were scheduled for both days but the threat of rain on Sunday caused concern, and the tournament almost ended Saturday night. As officials debated whether to continue with the finals, darkness stopped the races at 9 p.m., so the finals were continued on Sunday. Fortunately for the racers, who can't compete in rain, the sky cleared Sunday and the finals continued, concluding by 3 p.m.

Patrick White of Amityville, N.Y., won first place. As a student, he is the 2019 collegiate drone racing champion. Earlier White explained he has been racing drones for more than two years.

Second place went to Christian Van Sloun of Des Moines, Iowa, and third place to Silas Grever of Mount Vernon, Ill.

By mid-afternoon Saturday, White was already in first place, with Grever following in second.

At age 13, Grever was the youngest pilot competing. He has been racing drones for two years and builds them himself, using instructions from the Internet. He recently placed eighth in a race in Atlantic City, N.J., and does not know anyone else in his home town who is a drone pilot.

Among the most enthusiastic people there was Race Director Shawn Ames of Moberly, who said, “We think this is the future of racing. It's a brand new sport. It's safe and teaches kids a lot about technology.”

Some competitors build and race drones as a hobby, while drone racing has become a profession for at least one pilot attending. He was Paul “Nurk” Nurkkala of Indianapolis, who has competed around the world, noting “It is my full-time job.”

He won the Drone Racing League World Championship in 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This was a very difficult race, because the temperature was 120 degrees at night, and his goggles were foggy with humidity.

“I'm not here to defend my championship,” he said. He began racing in 2014, reporting, “My in-laws bought me a little toy for Christmas. It's their fault,” it became his full-time career, he joked.

His success is due to “lots of practice,” Nurkkala said. “I will spend a month, 10 to 12 hours a day – practicing. My strength is I can outwork them.” He has competed across the United State and also in Germany, France and Saudi Arabia. It is rewarding, he said, because, “When you spend so much effort to become good at something, all the work you have done is immediately validated when you win.”

The drone pilots competing in Hannibal were all male except Michele Meier of Farmer City, Ill., who noted she and her husband, Chris, call themselves “Bonnie and Clyde.” She recommended other women join her because, “there is nothing in this sport women can't do.”

Some racers represented the same area, such Joey Dowding of Meridian, Kan., and his friend, Darren Smith of Stillwell, Kan. Both build and race drones in their free time.

“Racing is in my blood,” Dowding, adding that when his wife wanted him to quit racing cars or motorcycles five years ago, he changed to drones.“It's safer, and you still have the amazing sensation of speed.” He holds his local club championship and reported the drones are raced about 40 miles an hour.

Gail Bryant, leader of Hannibal's Bicentennial Celebration Committee, reported the racers came from Illinois, Tennessee, Kansas, Colorado, New York, Iowa, Missouri and Indiana.

“I would like to thank the Bicentennial Committee, Hannibal-LaGrange University and all of the participants for making the Inaugural Bill Lear‘s Innovator’s Cup a huge success,” Bryant said. “I would also like to thank all the spectators that came out to watch the event. It certainly was an exciting competition.”

See photo gallery for more pictures of the drone races.

bdarr@courierpost.com