The news of Red Bull's pending departure from NASCAR at the end of the 2011 season sent shockwaves through the NASCAR community Monday afternoon. Those shockwaves will continue to be felt throughout the sport for many months, as the organization attempts to figure out where to go next.
At the moment, Red Bull fields cars for Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne, as well as Truck Series rookie sensation Cole Whitt. Plans were already in place for Kahne to move to Hendrick Motorsports for 2012 and Vickers is currently in his final contract year with the organization.
By leaving the sport at the end of the season, Red Bull will leave two vacancies at the sport's biggest level, taking with it their sponsorship money and appeal to the 18-36 male demographic.
With NASCAR constantly looking to draw the interest of the younger demographic, the loss of a well-recognizable energy drink brand the caliber of Red Bull is a setback in that pursuit. Yet, the fault lay not with NASCAR.
The company runs all of its operations out of their main headquarters in Austria, not ideal for a sport that is dependent on personal business relationships at the shop and within the garage.
The best teams in the sport – Hendrick, Gibbs, Childress, etc. – are operated by owners that are fully involved on a day-to-day basis. For these owners, the team is not simply another business venture or a new way to expand their brand awareness; it is about racing and winning.
Owners and organizations that come into NASCAR expecting to make a big splash right away usually fall to the wayside – just look at the stellar ownership history of Bobby Ginn and George Gillett, for example. When Red Bull made the jump to NASCAR, they expected just that. Instead, they were faced with the harsh reality of the sport and have never fully recovered.
Vickers and AJ Allmendinger struggled to make races their first season in 2007. Then, as it appeared Allmendinger was making progress, he was let go in favor of former Red Bull Formula One driver Scott Speed. Again expecting big things out of their in-house driver, Speed fell flat on his face, struggling mightily for the two seasons he was in the Sprint Cup Series before being let go by the team via fax in November. In addition, Vickers, the team’s star driver, was forced to sit out the majority of last year with blood clot issues.
Despite his best efforts, team general manager Jay Frye often worked with one hand tied behind his back as the major decisions were ultimately made half a world away, with little knowledge of how the sport works.
The loss of Red Bull’s brand identity, their attraction to the young male demographic and their sponsorship dollars will be missed in NASCAR, but their ownership style will not. Too often people come into the sport expecting to make money quickly by finding instant success. When they fail to find that success, they often quickly cut their losses and hightail it back to wherever they came from.
Yet the ones who often suffer are the employees that are left to fend for themselves. Rumors are swirling there are already people working to find investors to salvage the program without the help of Red Bull moving forward, yet there still remains a cloud of uncertainty that will linger around this organization for the remainder of the season and time to come.