Red Bull's retreat stings the sport

6/21/2011 - NASCAR

The difficult part of auto racing, the part that's all about whether some company likes you enough to give you lots of money, showed its dark side this past weekend.

Red Bull will leave NASCAR at the end of 2011, as The Associated Press reported Monday morning before Red Bull Racing Team confirmed it later in the day.

It's never easy when a primary sponsor decides it's no longer in the best interest of the company to have its logo on your car, a move that costs any Sprint Cup team millions of dollars.

In this case, it's much worse. The sponsor is the team, leaving an entire organization and two Cup cars in limbo about the future.

This was a stab in the heart, and everyone in NASCAR feels it. If Red Bull can walk away, what else could happen?

It's scary knowing that everything you work for, everything you love about your career choice in racing, is contingent on the bottom line of a financial chart in a corporate boardroom.

Red Bull officials flew to Michigan this past weekend to inform team vice president Jay Frye of their decision. There were rumors about Red Bull's commitment, but the news still came as a huge shock.

Red Bull reportedly was close to signing Clint Bowyer to replace Kasey Kahne next season, and it shows that no one in the organization believed this would happen.

Word of Red Bull's decision sent shock waves through the garage. Hundreds of jobs have been lost in NASCAR since the economic downtown in 2008.

Just when things were looking up, a quality organization is in jeopardy. RBRT is far from elite status in Cup, but it is a major two-car operation that has two drivers -- Kahne and Brian Vickers -- ranked in the top 25 in the standings.

When several cars start each Cup race with no intention of actually racing, NASCAR can ill afford to lose an organization like RBRT.

Kahne will move to Hendrick Motorsports next season, but Vickers, whose contract is up at Red Bull at the end of the season, will be a free agent. So will Cole Whitt, Red Bull's talented developmental driver who ranks second in the Camping World Truck Series standings. Whitt will turn 20 on Wednesday.

Frye deserves better than this. He is one of the top executives in the sport, a true class act and a talented team leader who has patterned his management style after that of his mentor, Rick Hendrick.

Frye remains optimistic and is working on a plan to keep the organization intact. It won't be easy. Plenty of drivers are available for 2012, including Mark Martin, who raced for Frye in the past.

The problem is finding the funding to keep two Cup teams operating at a high level, an investment of at least $30 million. If anyone can do it, Frye can. People respect him and trust him. He's been down this road before at MB2 Motorsports, when team owner Bobby Ginn left the sport almost as fast as he came in.

Frye was hired by Red Bull's Austrian owner, Dietrich Mateschitz, in 2008 after a disastrous first year for RBRT. Mateschitz needed someone to right a sinking ship. He found the right man.

Vickers posted RBRT's first victory in 2009 and made the Chase. The team appeared on the verge of bigger and better things before Vickers was sidelined in May 2010 with a serious blood-clot condition that ended his season.

At a time when several cars start each Cup race with no intention of actually racing, NASCAR can ill afford to lose an organization like RBRT.

It was a huge setback for the entire organization, probably setting into motion Red Bull's thoughts of backing out.

Red Bull and Mateschitz entered Sprint Cup with Toyota in 2007, believing they could compete at a high level immediately. They couldn't.

The lack of knowledge and respect for what it takes to compete in NASCAR was evident. The team hired A.J. Allmendinger as one driver, a young and talented open-wheel racer who would need years of seasoning to become a quality Cup competitor.

Mateschitz later brought in Scott Speed, who raced for him in Formula One, another driver out of his element. So Mateschitz quickly learned that it was just as tough to race up front in Cup as it was Formula One, if not tougher.

His Red Bull F1 team won the constructors' championship in 2010 along with the driver's championship for Sebastian Vettel. The RBR-Renault team and Vettel are well on their way to repeating in 2011.

But it still took six seasons to become the best in F1. The team didn't win a race until the fifth season. And Red Bull bought the former Jaguar team, so it wasn't starting from scratch in F1 as it did in Cup.

It was a costly trip to the crown. Reports say Red Bull has spent close to $1 billion to reach the top in F1. Its NASCAR expenses are much lower, probably less than $200 million over five years.

Obviously, for whatever reasons or costs, it no longer was worth it to Mateschitz and the Red Bull brand. It's possible Red Bull could sponsor a car next season with another team, but RBRT is left in the lurch.

It's the dark side of a sport that requires major corporate funding to seriously compete, and it leaves talented drivers, crew members, mechanics and team managers at their mercy.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.