DETROIT: John Chapman was registering pilots at one of Detroit’s flourishing drone racing competitions when a small boy walked up to the table.
Chapman watched as the Plymouth, Michigan boy, 11, registered for the event and went on to navigate the field on his own.
“He was just this level of maturity from a little 11-year-old kid just kind of blew me away,” he recalled.
That boy, Jake Capobres, now 14, is currently ranked fourth globally in the MultiGP top 100, the largest league in the world. Once a young newcomer described by Chapman as someone who had regularly cut his neighbour’s grass to earn money for his drones, Jake is now sponsored by several drone-centric companies.
“I was shocked,” Jake said of his 2020 placement. “I didn’t really expect it.”
His age does make him stand out. Detroit Drone Racing’s crowd skews a bit older compared to other clubs. The oldest member is 74 and many others are in their 20s or 30s. According to Chapman, globally, many tend to be in their late 20s, early 30s. But Jake Capobres, now a ninth-grader at Plymouth High School, would be the youngest for Detroit.
Drone racing is a competitive sport in which people fly, and sometimes build, smaller radio-controlled aircraft around a course, either indoors or outdoors. The drone has a camera that is connected to the flyer’s goggles, giving the person the view inside the miniature cockpit.
And Detroit has a competitive drone racing scene. Detroit was one of the first cities in America to hold a drone race, Chapman said.
“What’s really good about Detroit is that all the competitions are really stiff, no matter like what level you are in (or) speed,” Jake said.
Jake’s father, Don Capobres, a principal in a real estate development company, insists his son didn’t get his mechanical skills from either of his parents.
In preschool and kindergarten, Jake was always found folding paper airplanes. He turned mint boxes into little race cars. A regular present for him was remote-controlled helicopters from Walmart.
Soon, after a visit to a drone racing hobby store in Garden City, Jake was spending hours putting his aircraft together – intricate wiring, experimenting with the circuit board. Sometimes Jake would consult YouTube, but a lot of it was his own time working at the drone and becoming familiar with it.
“One of the unique things about him is he’s young for sure, but no one his age is really building their own drones,” Don Capobres said. “Everyone assumes that I’ve done the electrical soldering or do the repairs for him. And that’s probably one of the biggest surprises that people have after getting over his stature.”
“I've never seen another 11-year-old kid who’s building his own drones. Every other 12-, 13-, 14-year-old kid I saw, they had a dad that was building it for him and that wasn’t Jake,” Chapman said.
Jake’s first competition was in an Ohio mall. He said he didn’t know what to expect, holding his one drone that was a little too heavy and big and watching competitors who had been on ESPN speed across the course.
But he learned and he practiced. His drones now are lighter, quicker. Jake brings huge suitcases of his drones to competitions. He goes through three of them in a race – they crash, a lot – scrambling to fix them between courses.
Last year was his first full year of competitive racing. Jake and his dad would jump on a plane or in a van, traveling to local and international competitions in America, where he has been getting on the podium more consistently.
At one of Jake’s first wins in Detroit, Chapman recalled thinking, “I wasn’t sure that I still was gonna be able to beat him in that race. I was giving all I could but he crossed the line.”
Chapman and Jake’s father both agreed that something clicked for Jake this year. His progress skyrocketed, as he excelled in races and landed on the Multi-GP Global Leaderboard.
“He’s made a big jump and we're all pretty amazed,” Don said.
Don calls Detroit a hotbed of drone racing with a supportive community. Even among the gentle trash-talking, the other members are open to giving Jake tips and helping each other.
“These guys are veterans and Jake’s looked up to them for since I can remember,” he said.
Seven other Detroit pilots are on the Top 100 MultiGP board, including Chapman at 17th and Terry Ascott at 19th.
“There’s a lot of Detroit pride from all of our pilots. We want to see everyone from Detroit do well and beat people from anywhere else,” Chapman said. “So anything we can do to support each other and to help each other out, we’re actually going to do.”
Detroit Drone Racing started as a drone photography club in 2012 but began to race in 2014. It has a practice field in Westland that provides insurance for pilots in case of crashes.
Covid-19 has impacted the sport, reducing the number of pilots who participate.
Jake has been travelling in the summer for outdoor venues, but Don said they have been taking steps to be careful and practice social distancing.
The 2020 international board is not as comprehensive since many pilots were not able to compete due to travel restrictions, Don added. Chapman said he was disappointed by the cancellations since he said he wishes to see Jake’s improvement on the bigger stage.
Due to the tight community, the shock of Jake’s age is starting to wear off, his dad said. And young people are emerging in the sport – there are younger pilots on the MultiGP board and Detroit Drone Racing has one other teenage member. Jake is even teaching his own friend how to fly, watching him hit and overcome the same obstacles Jake had.
It’s the type of expansion to young people Don hopes to see more. He said he and his wife have noticed Jake’s analytical skills improving, learning to problem solve after years of drone wiring and building on his own. It’s an inclusive sport, he said.
“We think it’s a great way for young people to get interested in STEM right without getting it to force-fed down their throats,” he said. “It’s not a by-invitation-only league. Anybody, any skill level... no one will look down on you.” – Detroit Free Press/Tribune News Service