Tony Knittel - Drone Racing League (DRL)
"I think people have a really hard time dealing with failure.. and frankly it's ok to fail, it means you get to become better at what it is you are striving for when you actually get there."
Picture this: You're living your day to day, going about your 9-5 routine, you decide to pick up a hobby while you're at it and then boom. One thing leads to another and everything changes. This hobby turns in to more than what you could imagine and now, you're living your best life. I mean, it seems like it was an easy journey, but, just like the good 'ol cliche - nothing worth having comes easy.
We've known Tony for a few years now, but never really asked the specifics on how he got to where he did. We knew he made a career change that had to do with drones. But, it wasn't until one day, when the MUNUM team was checked in at a Las Vegas hotel for a tradeshow, and we randomly flipped the channel to ESPN and saw his face on TV, that we realized, "Oh, snap. That was a legit move Tony did right there." Doing this segment with him shows how persistence and taking risks can be so rewarding. Read on to find out more about this awesome Influential Individual.
The basics: Who is Tony Knittel? Where did you grow up and where do you currently reside?
My name is Tony Knittel and Im 36 years old. I was born in Montclair Ca, but raised in Fontana CA in an average subdivision neighborhood. I was raised by my Mom and Stepdad along side my older brother by 2 years. We had, what I would call and average lifestyle. Both my parents worked full time to make ends meet, some times we’re hard then others but they always provided for us. I loved sports (especially baseball) growing up, played a couple years of little league ball, later played hockey for a few years and then found a love for tennis throughout highschool. I was always playing some sort of a musical instrument growing up and to this day, mostly the guitar, drums or ukulele.
After graduating high school, I went off to college at Cal State San Bernardino to pursue a degree in criminal justice, however not finishing college. During College I met my wife, the love of my life, my best friend. I decided to stop going to a university and put myself through the Sheriff's Academy. Unfortunately on day one, I broke my ankle halting that career before it even started and it was all my girlfriends fault (now wife). Ya see, she called me the morning of that day and left me a voicemail wishing me good luck, but then saying to “break a leg” because its bad luck to wish good luck. Little did she know that later that day I’d actually break my leg. LOL. After healing the injury and years later, I was hired by the Los Angeles Police dept. I worked there for almost a year realizing this wasn't the career for me. We had our first child together, making me realize that I needed to be there for my family, and make sure I came home every night. I left Police work and went back into retail management.
Going from one retail management career to another, I was later laid off during the recession at the same time finding out we were pregnant with our second child. At that time I decided to go back to school for Emergency Medicine to become an EMT. After school I was hired with a private ambulance company and fell in love with the career. While working as a Medic, I started flying drones for fun, but soon realised I wanted to go pro with this new, unheard of field. I became sponsored quickly within a couple months and started racing more and more. I realised I didn't like the way the leagues were ran, so I ventured to start the first ever Drone Racing Podcast with a buddy of mine. The podcast was a success for some time. I then realized I had a love for broadcasting.
There was a new league coming up that was the talk of the town, and they were on track to be on TV. Which no league had done yet. I contacted the company and sent them an audio real of me commentating on a race i found on youtube. Mind you, the commentating was horrible, but like I told them, this is the worst I’ll ever be, and will only improve from here out. They gave me a shot and flew me to a race in New Jersey. After the race, they hired me on the spot so I flew home and left my job running 911 calls on the daily, to now using a microphone. This was a difficult transition for me, losing that feeling of being needed and helpful in society was detrimental to me. I went through a bit of depression, but fortunately I had the support of my amazing wife to get me through it. Years into this career and Im having a blast. DRL (The Drone Racing League) has flown me all over the world to commentate on races, never before seen. It’s been amazing to have this opportunity. I’ve met some awesome people and seen some incredible things while traveling. In the off season of filming, I also work on the Drone Racing simulator that our company has created. My wife and I eventually moved out of CA, to the good ol state of TN. We absolutely love it here. The weather is fantastic and nature is amazing out here. Thats it.. thats me in a nut shell!
Congrats on everything that you’ve accomplished so far. We knew you before drones were in the picture, and to say you’ve done a 180 in terms of profession is an understatement. How’d you come around getting in to drones? I’ll tell ya, I tried controlling one, and it took no more than 5 seconds for it to come crashing to the ground lol.
A lot of the Influential Individuals we interviewed in the past had a different career path before being where they are now. Your story is pretty similar. What was the decision behind making the switch from being where you were to what you’re doing now?
I was working as a Medic running 911 calls on the daily. I was pulling in overtime and double overtime shifts, picking up shifts in between my shifts just so I can make a living wage to support my growing family. Working in EMS I was only making about 13 dollars an hour, 14 when I finally left the field after 6 years. So not making enough money to buy a home in CA, the opportunity came about to go into the drone industry, so I found a way in that secured a good future for my family and I. And I gotta say, it's been great!
Did you ever come across certain family members or friends who criticize your career choices? What were their objections and how did you handle it?
Yeah.. My wife at the time thought I was nuts to be buying all sorts of toy parts for my drones. LOL.. But I told her when I first got started, “Watch, one day I’ll have a career doing this and it'll be paying the bills.” Of course this was hard for her to digest this, but eventually it came to fruition. I always remind her of that too.. LOL Aside from her, there were some colleagues of mine that gave me a hard time to leave a stable career in EMS to go work with “Toy Helicopters”. Little did they know the industry would take off the way it has.
A little off topic here, but another congrats to you and the fam for going vegan! It’s always dope to see others do the transition. Are there any challenges being on this lifestyle while you travel? In your opinion, what’s the best place you’ve gone to that had a pretty decent plant-based/vegan menu (we’re all foodies at heart over here)?
Thanks!! Yeah there are certainly challenges while traveling. A lot of places in the world don't offer vegan options, and most don't even know what it means to be vegan. So it can certainly be challenging at times, however DRL has always been amazing with making sure there are options of some sort available to me. I'd say the best place so far for vegan food has been Saudi Arabia. The people there were amazing! With some of the greatest hospitality and understanding towards vegan foods, and had a HUGE spread of vegan foods avail on the menus there.
What did you have to give up/sacrifice to follow your dream? If you could go back and change one thing, knowing what you know now, what would you have done different?
I'm not sure there is one particular thing, I’ve always lived life the way it takes me, and been one to listen to life as a whole, to give and take from it as needed. So for me I feel I’m right where I am supposed to be. It was extremely hard to walk away from my career in EMS, I LOVE that field, to know that you can literally save someone's life and see them smile again, is probably the greatest feeling in the world. Now i just have to realise that I do that in a different way. I still save peoples lives, just not in the EMS fashion. A lot of people get into flying drones as an escape from their troubles in life, or even as a way to cope with an issue they may be having, whether it be depression, illnesses or general troubles in life. The FPV (First Person View is what we call the industry) industry is full of amazing people. I’ve met my best friends in this career, I've been able to develop friendships with people who were going through hard times in life, and breathe life back into theirs with kindness, compassion, friendship and fun flying together. Even with my podcast I received letters from people saying I’ve given them hope again, in something so fun and amazing, something that allows them to defeat depression, anxiety issues, mental health issues... Flying FPV is an extremely unique feeling, the feeling of flying, freedom and one with nature, it's literally unlike anything else. To be behind a pair of goggles and seeing the world in the eyes of a bird, it's an incredible feeling. So all in all I wouldn’t do anything different, i just want to keep helping people on a daily basis in whatever way I can.
I'm not sure.. I hope still doing what I’m doing now!
Define a go-getter.
A go-getter is someone who sees the light at the end of the tunnel even before there’s a tunnel, a person who goes after whatever it takes to better their lives, or others lives. Someone who never gives up and doesn't accept defeat, but instead learn from it and become better.
Hmm.. That's tuff.. My mother has always been an inspiration to me, her being such a go getter and never quitting, she's certainly instilled that in me, however my wife inspires me on a daily basis, believing in me, putting up with me.. lol.. and always pushing me when I need it. She's the reason I keep going, even when I don't want to. I’d do anything for that woman, she's amazing and my best friend, the love of my life, i wouldn't be the same person if it wasn't for her.
Man.. no pressure eh? lol.. hmmm … If you have a goal in mind, if you see yourself years later in a certain position, go for it! Find a way to involve yourself in that industry, find ways to prepare for it, do whatever you have to do, to reach that goal. realize you will fail along the way, and that's ok… but the key is to learn from those failures and realize that they weren't really failures, instead opportunities to get better and better before getting to that goal, so in reality those failures helped you become the person you are once you get there. I think people have a really hard time dealing with failure.. and frankly it's ok to fail, it means you get to become better at what it is you are striving for when you actually get there. If that makes sense.. LOL
Every individual's story is different. Everyone's struggle is different. But, the ultimate goal is to be a better you than you were before. You have to give up a few things in order to move forward, you just have to keep your eye on the prize. 🏆
Follow Tony on IG: @kanoodle_fpv