When other kids her age were going off to summer camp, Lincroft resident Rachel Jacobson was perfectly content to instead head off and marvel at the speed of the thoroughbred racehorses at nearby Monmouth Park.
Fast-forward a few decades, and now Jacobson finds herself president of a league where competitors go even faster than those horses: the Drone Racing League, where a drone can reach a speed of 90 mph.
And Jacobson, named to the post last April, is in the midst of an expansion of operations with legal, regulated sports betting playing a prominent role.
On Monday, the DRL announced that a sixth state, Illinois, had approved wagering on the races, joining New Jersey, Colorado, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
The latest approval comes just in time for the final two out of 16 races of the DRL’s fifth season. The 15th race takes place at 8 p.m. Tuesday, viewable on Twitter and Facebook, with the final event also being shown nationally on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
There will be “pre-flight shows” on Monday and Friday at 7 p.m. on Twitter, with expert sports bettors teaming with leading drone pilots to explain how to get in on the action.
Even drones impacted by COVID-19
Like all competitions, the DRL was upended a bit by the current pandemic. So instead of in-person events in outposts such as London, Munich, and Miami, the pilots have continued their rivalries in “virtual fashion.”
DRL Racer4 drones — about the size of a typical dinner plate — can accelerate from 0 to 90 mph in less than a second. The DRL SIM in play this year uses real-world drone physics so that pilots can fly an exact digital replica of those drones in the virtual environment.
The fan interest remained even with the shift, so earlier this month the DRL announced a partnership with DraftKings, which, while best known as a daily fantasy giant, is also now a leading player in sports betting.
DraftKings experimented with free contests on drone races last year, and a company official said that the response — more than 150,000 entries — was about one-third higher than typical for a new sport.
More importantly, DraftKings’ research showed drone racing fans, who skew younger than for sports such as the NFL or MLB, are three times more likely to place a bet than those other fans.
How young is too young?
Some states have resisted legalizing drone racing and iGaming contests over concerns about the tender age of the fan base as well as the competitors.
Others allow the races but set a minimum age for competitors.
And sure enough, the dominant pilot this season has been “Headsup” — known to his parents as Evan Turner — a 17-year-old from Maryville, Tenn. (Jacobson notes that he turns 18 in February.)
But as it happens, Headsup — in winning nine of the first 13 events and placing second in the other four — had already clinched the title when the DRL made its national debut on NBC. So Headsup served as a guest analyst, and underage issues with betting have been averted.
The Drone Racing boys club
Jacobson is a former athlete herself, having played softball at Cornell University.
So when she sees each set of races with 12 pilots and notices that all of them are male, she wishes that were not the case.
But while Jacobson said she is eager to see the first female join “the boys’ club,” she said spots for the season are based on merit. She said finding girls and young women and helping them learn how to compete at the highest level will pay off down the road.
“We have a big initiative going for young girls introducing them to the sport,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson says she was fortunate to gain a job with the NBA right out of college and to work there for 21 years in the consumer product, licensing, and marketing divisions. Some of her favorite moments, she says, came from global travel such as working at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
The Giants football fan and mother of 11-year-old twins had previously interned at Monmouth Park each summer, learning behind-the-scenes business operations.
Beyond the NBA
In 2017, Jacobson — wanting to tap her entrepreneurial tendencies — left the NBA to become the chief business development officer at Landit, a company focused on helping women advance in the workforce.
Then the opportunity to oversee the DRL came along, and Jacobson said she jumped at it — never imagining that in her first year she would face the challenges, both home and at work, brought about by COVID-19.
The younger demographic of drone racing fans, who are coming of age with sports betting advertisements everywhere, creates an ideal opportunity for gambling companies to get a foot in the door with that coveted group.
A look ahead to the next races
During the races — which only last about a minute, or half the time of a typical horse race — it is not unusual for one of the competitors to virtually “crash,” which spells doom for any of that pilot’s bettors given the speed of the race.
In the virtual version, each pilot has a particular color and his virtual drone is represented by a pair of parallel lights in the mode of laser beams. The opportunities to make up ground at curves is vaguely reminiscent of Formula One racing — only without the inherent danger.
After preliminary races to determine “pole position,” the pilots compete in multiple races that eliminate a couple of players in each stage.
And as with any sport these days, there’s the “DraftKings U-Turn,” the “T-Mobile Gate” and a presence for sponsor Allianz as well. In-race betting also is expected to be offered in most or all six states.
With Headsup again sitting out on Tuesday, DraftKings in New Jersey has Amari as the -250 favorite followed by Nubb at +300. Both have been among the DRL’s top pilots this season.
Tuesday’s race is a a virtual version of the indoor ecological center in Arizona called Biosphere, where a real series of drone races took place in 2018. The finale is similar, but with a virtual replica of the Allianz Riviera arena in Nice, France.