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Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)
FITCHBURG - You wouldn't expect to see this small city included in a list with Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, Munich and London, but Fitchburg made the cut during the Drone Racing League's selection of where to hold its world championship races this year.
The Drone Racing League chose Fitchburg as the official New England site of one of its six 2017 Allianz World Championship races, which culminate in a winner-take-all world championship event.
Ashley Ellefson, director of operations for the league, said the organization looked around aggressively for a community to host the New England race.
"Fitchburg was the ideal location, and the Johnny Appleseed Trail Association, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber (of Commerce) and the city of Fitchburg were all amazing in support of our efforts," she said.
The Drone Racing League discovered the Fitchburg site after meeting Matthew E. Myers, marketing and communications manager at the North Central Chamber of Commerce, in August at a national trade show for sporting events.
Mr. Myers said he started recruiting the group to come to Fitchburg, but had no idea, at the time, that it was a full-scale production with a large film crew.
"I didn't know what to think," Mr. Myers said. "I didn't watch it last year. It's very exciting for north Central Massachusetts and Fitchburg. These sports are cutting edge and where the sporting world is going and we're excited to be on the cutting edge of sports."
The Drone Racing League competition was held in Fitchburg April 13 and 14 in an old paper mill at 431 Westminster St. (Route 2A). The event was closed to the public. The series will be broadcast on ESPN June through August.
North Central Massachusetts is an emerging sports tourism location, said Roy M. Nascimento, president and CEO of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce. Strategic investments have been made to attract events and exhibitions to the region, he said, and the Drone Racing League and the Johnny Appleseed Trail Association worked closely with the site selection team to find the right space for their New England race.
The Drone Racing League joins a growing list of companies that have recently come to north Central Massachusetts, Mr. Nascimento said, including Great Wolf Lodge, which selected Fitchburg for its New England location; AIS, which recently moved its operation to Leominster; Nypro, which chose Devens for the expansion of its medical device manufacturing operations, and, most recently, the developers of Game On Fitchburg, who have proposed a site in West Fitchburg for an indoor sports complex.
"This was part of strategic investments to recruit visitors, groups and youth sporting events to the area," Mr. Nascimento said. "We're excited Fitchburg was selected. The Drone Racing League looked around pretty aggressively and New York was a possibility."
Mr. Nascimento said about 400 people, primarily the film crew and racers, descended on the area for four nights during the filming.
"I think it had a great economic impact with people staying overnight at hotels, eating at restaurants and visiting local businesses," he said. "An equally great benefit was the exposure we received for New England, North Central Mass. and Fitchburg. It shows North Central Mass. is a great place to do businesses in."
Ben Johnson, who works in the Drone Racing League's communications department, said the league is hosting six professional races as part of the Allianz World Championship Circuit in 2017. The 16 full-time pilots who race for the league represent seven different countries and are the best first-person-view drone pilots in the world, spending all of their time practicing, he said.
"Identifying a one-of-a-kind venue in the Northeast was key for the season," Mr. Johnson said. "The other five races will take place in Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, Munich and London, as we bring professional drone racing to new fans around the world."
The league chose Fitchburg because the old paper mill was an interesting space in which to create a race, he said, and because of local support.
"It's a great area," Mr. Johnson said. "We spend a lot of time away from home creating races in non-traditional event spaces and this requires creativity and support from local partners to help imagine a vision of futuristic sports. It's a difficult task, and the venue and local partners are absolutely critical. The teams we worked with in Fitchburg were great, and we're excited to bring the race to TV."
The Drone Racing League still has two races to go in the 2017 season, Mr. Johnson said, and "there is absolutely a chance" Fitchburg will be on the 2018 schedule.
The 2017 season will air as 15 episodes on ESPN, Disney XD, and ESPN Deportes in the U.S., beginning June 20 on ESPN at 8 p.m., with new episodes airing every Tuesday and Wednesday night this summer.
"After tremendous success of the first season reaching more than 30 million broadcast viewers in the U.S. alone," Mr. Johnson said, "we believe the second season will bring more fans into the sport and expose the incredible skills of the pilots to audiences young and old around the world."
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