On the Fly
Indy Resident Paul Nurkkala is an International Drone-Racing Star
Paul Nurkkala clearly remembers the beginning of his drone obsession.
“I got into drones starting at Christmas time of 2014,” he says. “My in-laws bought me a toy drone for Christmas. I just pulled it out, and that was the thing that I got hooked on.”
Now a competitor in the internationally televised Drone Racing League, Paul Nurkkala (also known as Nurk) has taken his fascination to magnificent heights. A resident of Castleton, Nurkkala, winner of the 2018 Drone Racing League Allianz World Championship, competes in races across the globe and in the DRL SIM, a true-to-life drone racing game on Xbox and Steam Since venturing down this path, Nurkkala has also discovered the captivating visual content drones can create, regularly producing YouTube videos of his own while also contributing to commercials, movies and more.
With a background in software engineering, Nurkkala began researching drone repair after breaking the first drone he received. Through this research, Nurkkala started down a drone-racing rabbit hole.
“I got a YouTube University education in drone repair, and in the process of that research I stumbled across a video of drone racing,” he says. “I found that video while I was sitting at work, and I remember sitting there and just thinking, ‘I have to do that.’”
One month later, Nurkkala had built his first drone. A few months after that, he won his first competitive race. As wins began piling up, Nurkkala was eventually invited to compete in the Drone Racing League.
“At the time, it was a TV show on ESPN, and now it’s a TV show on NBC,” he says. “In my second year as a part of that series, I became the 2018 Drone Racing League Allianz World Champion.”
Nurkkala now professionally competes in races at various levels, with prizes that range from $5,000 to $100,000.
“I’ll compete anywhere, from a little micro drone race at the Dayton Air Force Museum to local amateur series to pro-am series down in Daytona Beach – and then all the way up to globally televised Drone Racing League events,” Nurkkala says.
When it comes to the Drone Racing League, Nurkkala says wins are calculated based on a points system.
“For the races that are on the Drone Racing League, you have a series of heats that consist of a semifinals and a finals,” he says. “Through those heats you race all six drones at the same time, and first to the finish wins. Then, you assign points based on your finish order. You accumulate points to move on to the final round, and then the final round is the person with the most points at the end.”
Due to the speed of drones, Nurkkala says crashes are likely.
“These drones go 0 to 90 miles an hour in less than a second, and they top out at 90 miles an hour,” he says. “You’re trying to fly them through obstacles that are only 7 feet by 7 feet. If you map that out, it ends up that every millisecond that you’re late, you’re about 8 feet late from making a mistake. So crashes are common, but the top pilots are finishing all, if not most, heats.”
Through Drone Racing League competition, Nurkkala has been able to travel all over the world, while connecting with fellow drone racers of various nationalities.
“[The league] has this effect where it brings people together, because everyone’s gone through the same narrative of crashing, building, fixing and having frustrating moments,” Nurkkala says. Because of this shared narrative, I’ve been able to interact at a deeper level with people around the world – people that don’t even share the same language as me.”
In addition to the technical side of drone racing, Nurkkala says a high level of mental toughness is required to succeed, like any other professional sport.
“The absolute most difficult part of racing is the mental side – it’s letting go,” he says. “I can practice until my fingers bleed, but if I don’t deliver on that on race day, there’s no point. So not only am I focusing on improving my skills as a pilot, but I’m trying to improve my skills as a competitor as well.”
After finishing fifth in the 2019 DRL Allianz World Championship, Nurkkala will try to reclaim his title in the upcoming 2020 season, which kicked off on Wednesday, October 21 on NBCSN, Twitter and Facebook Watch.
“The biggest goal is always to maintain world championship status,” Nurkkala says. “That kicks off a little bit later in the year, so nothing is getting too affected by that yet. I’ll be doubling down on training pretty soon for that.”
To keep up with Nurkkala’s progress in the Drone Racing League, be sure to visit thedroneracingleague.com and nurk.tv.