Red Bull's departure makes sense, but delivers a blow to Vickers
Red Bull Racing will pull out of NASCAR and focus its efforts in Formula One
Staying in NASCAR offers flat incentives given Red Bull Racing's youth market
RBR driver Brian Vickers feeling the pressure as he looks toward free agency
Energy drinks all operate under the same basic formula. They mix together a concoction heavy with sugar and caffeine, giving the user a boost of stamina and enthusiasm. Suddenly anything seems possible, no task seems too great. Mountains can be climbed and tall buildings leapt in a single bound.
This, inevitably, is followed by the crash, when the buzz wears off and reality sets in. When the kick in performance becomes a kick in the head.
Surely Brian Vickers knows how this feels. He must be suffering from just such a buzz kill these days with news that Red Bull Racing is throwing up the white flag. It was announced earlier this week that RBR is leaving NASCAR at the end of this season and focusing its motorsports efforts primarily on Formula One racing, where it has become a dominant force.
This news shouldn't be too surprising for several reasons. First, Red Bull Racing (RBR) has not been much of a factor in NASCAR dating to its formation in 2007, with Vickers as its primary driver. Over the years nine drivers have suited up for RBR, including Kasey Kahne this season, and all have produced mediocre results at best. The organization has only one victory and 12 top-5 finishes (nine by Vickers) in 280 Sprint Cup starts. Kahne is 19th in the Sprint Cup point standings and Vickers is 24th, with three top-5s between them.
Meanwhile, Red Bull Racing is thriving in Formula One behind young superstar Sebastian Vettel, who won the series championship last year at 23 and is off to a sensational start this season with five victories and two runner-up finishes in the first seven races. His RBR teammate, Mark Weber, is third in the point standings and has yet to finish outside the top-5 this season.
In addition, while the Sprint Cup television ratings have bumped up slightly this season, they continue to sag in the 18-to-34 age group, which is precisely the audience that Red Bull targets. Buying home improvement products and purchasing insurance aren't priorities for most twenty-somethings, so such companies as Lowe's and Aflac do not have to be overly concerned with the lack of young eyeballs on NASCAR. But teens and young adults are primarily the ones guzzling energy drinks, and if they are not watching NASCAR then what incentive does Red Bull have to be in the sport, especially when the RBR drivers consistently run in the middle of the pack?
Finally, Red Bull is an Austrian-based company with no strong ties to the United States and certainly no longstanding connection with NASCAR. Red Bull had been on the market for 10 years throughout Europe and Asia -- where Formula One rules -- before it was ever offered in the U.S. The company has stated recently that it is planning expansion efforts into Africa, Russia and India. Not sure how well NASCAR is drawing in viewers in Cairo and Calcutta these days.
So in many ways, it makes sense that Red Bull would decide that its NASCAR prospects had gone flat and it was time for a change. Still, the news had to be frustrating for Vickers, who took a major leap of faith after the 2006 season when he left the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports operation to join RBR's start-up efforts in NASCAR.
Vickers was there for the good times in 2009, when he gave Red Bull Racing its only Sprint Cup victory (at Michigan) and was one of the 12 drivers to qualify for the Chase for the Championship. He endured personal hardship in 2010, when he missed the final 25 races of the season with a mysterious ailment that was eventually diagnosed as being the result of blood clots.
It was a roller-coaster ride that Vickers said only strengthened his commitment to Red Bull Racing once he was cleared to drive again this year. After everything he had been through since joining the team, Vickers was determined to see RBR become a legitimate championship contender.
It was obvious before this season began that Vickers had consumed the Red Bull Kool-Aid and was convinced the good times were going to roll in 2011. In late January, during the preseason NASCAR Media Tour, Vickers was asked to describe the changes he had seen at RBR since that inaugural 2007 season.
"How much we've grown since the beginning is immeasurable," Vickers said with a smile. "When I was hired at Red Bull as the first driver, I think I was the sixth employee. I walked into the shop and there were only a handful of other guys there. It's incredible to watch the team grow as much as it has to the company it is now.
"We've learned a lot as a group, and where we are right now is as good as we've ever been as an organization. The enthusiasm is as high as it's ever been. I'm really excited about the growth I've seen through the years."
That was the buzz talking, the energy-induced enthusiasm. Five months later came the crash.
The future is now uncertain for nearly all involved with Red Bull Racing. There appears to be a slim chance the team could remain together under a new ownership group. Team vice president and general manager Jay Frye seemed unusually optimistic on Tuesday, saying, "We're very enthused and excited about some of the prospects and things we got going on." It is doubtful many of the RBR crew members and other team officials share in his excitement.
As for the drivers, Kahne was always just a one-year rental, biding his time with RBR before his new contract starts with Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. All that this decision does is make 2011 another lost season for a driver who has not quite lived up to the promise he showed in 2006, when he won six times and qualified for the Chase.
Meanwhile, though Vickers' original five-year contract with Red Bull Racing was set to expire at the end of this season, he had expressed hopes of re-signing with the team. Now he must venture into the murky world of NASCAR free agency, with a record of only two wins in 234 Sprint Cup starts on his resume. It is not the career many envisioned for Vickers after he won the Nationwide Series championship in 2003 at 20.
On his Facebook page Wednesday afternoon, Vickers posted, "There's been a lot going on. I'll let you know when there is more to report, but for now we need to keep moving ahead."
Moving ahead, because the buzz is gone from Vickers' Red Bull past. And it has likely left a somewhat bitter taste in his mouth.