Red Bull news shakes up Cup garage
SONOMA, Calif. -- Many of us like coming to Infineon Raceway for the wineries. Hey, give me credit for being honest. After work we occasionally like to get away from the beer-drinking crowd typically associated with NASCAR and sip a fine glass of pinot noir and cleanse our palates with a Comte cheese or sorbet.
It's easy to forget whatever ails you here surrounded by rolling hills, vineyards and a nearby coastline that is absolutely breathtaking.
Then you approach crew chief Ryan Pemberton at the back of Brian Vickers' hauler and you realize not everybody has the same luxury. You realize scenery that makes this a favorite stop for many can't erase the anxiety many inside the 10 turns of this 1.99-mile track feel.
"What do you want to talk about?" asked Pemberton, his voice mumbling and shaking.
He knew what. Ever since it was revealed earlier in the week that Red Bull Racing planned to leave NASCAR after this season, that's all anybody associated with the organization is talking about.
It's all many in the garage are talking about.
Can general manager Jay Frye find investors to keep the organization going? Who will drive the cars? Who will sponsor the cars? Will performance suffer? Will morale drop to the point things implode?
"It was a big blow to everyone at Red Bull to hear that," said Kenny Francis, the crew chief for Red Bull's Kasey Kahne. "I think it was a big blow to the whole garage area."
The trickle-down effect from Red Bull's decision digs deep. It impacts drivers, crew members and organizations beyond the one sponsored by the energy drink from Austria.
If affects Clint Bowyer, who was being courted to replace Vickers. It affects Vickers, who can't have many options for a quality ride outside of the one he's in even though he says he's looking around.
It affects crew members from both cars, although not so much Kahne's since Francis and most of his crew already are slated to move with the driver to HMS in 2012.
It affects the entire sport when a sponsor that targets 18- to 34-year-olds has to look in another direction because NASCAR's demographics aren't paying off.
It affects so many it's hard to remember that a race will take place Sunday.
"It's an unfortunate deal for a lot of people," Francis said. "You just hope Jay and his people can find investors to keep it going. I worry first if the deal doesn't come together that people find some work. That was always my concern at RPM."
Francis has been through this more than anyone deserves. He was at Evernham Motorsports when it merged with George Gillett and later Richard Petty Motorsports. He was with RPM last year when finances were in such disarray after Gillett bailed that there was doubt whether the organization would make it to the end of the season.
He knows the number of lives that are impacted.
"There's not a lot of jobs in the series, a lot of good ones," said Francis, who has been promised a job with Kahne at HMS. "What you have to worry about is morale. We fought that for three years with the other organization [RPM]. Hopefully, Jay will come up with a package pretty soon that will make everybody feel good and make everybody want to stay."
If it doesn't, things will become more dire.
Will somebody please pass the pinot? This is depressing.
It is depressing when you look around the garage, too. Most of the crewmen pushing Martin's car to the grid could be looking for jobs because they'll be replaced by Kahne's people. Bowyer needs sponsorship if he hopes to remain at Richard Childress Racing. Carl Edwards is talking to Joe Gibbs Racing because Roush Fenway Racing may not have enough sponsorship to pay him what he wants.
JGR may not be able to pay Edwards what he wants unless it gives him sponsor Home Depot, which means Sunday's pole-sitter Joey Logano could be out of a job if another sponsor isn't found.
There aren't enough wineries to make this a pretty picture.
Maybe this will all have a happy ending like the one at RPM, although how happy can it be when a four-car operation shrinks to two? That's a lot of people on the street.
"The toughest challenge you always worry about is the people," said Robbie Loomis, the vice president for competition at RPM.
I hate to hear that news. When I think about it from the sports vantage point and the big sponsor leaving, two seats going away ... I really hate to hear that news.” -- Jimmie Johnson on Red Bull's plan to leave NASCAR after 2011
Kahne experienced that Monday when the report first surfaced about Red Bull's plan to bolt.
"A lot of the pit crew and guys working on the cars were like, 'Man, what am I going to do? I have family,'" Kahne said. "As soon as that gets started, it doesn't make the team any better. That's just the way it is. There's no way it can be good.
"You start thinking about your life and things ... your family. That makes it difficult."
Loomis was lucky he had Francis to keep the ship from sinking at RPM.
"He's the guy that came to me with four or five races left and said, 'I'm going to do everything I can to keep everybody focused,'" Loomis said. "And he did. You talk to Kenny each week and you wouldn't know he was any different than the week before."
Francis hopes to do the same at Red Bull, which is in far better financial shape than RPM was, with no worries of not finishing the season. It still will be a challenge.
"This is a real good race team," Francis said. "We're just finally getting things turned around and going in the right direction. You can't just turn it around on a dime. You saw it last year with Roush. It took them nine months to get things turned around.
"We're six months in and we're starting to see the light and feel good about things. There are a lot of good people that have been working hard to get this thing right."
And Francis doesn't want to lose all that. He doesn't want to see friends and families suffer even though his future is set.
No one does.
"I hate to hear that news," said defending race champion Jimmie Johnson. "When I think about it from the sports vantage point and the big sponsor leaving, two seats going away ... I really hate to hear that news.
"Granted, it's a competitive beverage sponsor to what we deal with at HMS, but still the more corporate or international involvement, the more Fortune 500 companies and the more Fortune 50 companies we have involved in our sport, the better our sport is going to be."
Unfortunately, those companies aren't spending what they once did. It's why Tony Stewart can't just tell Martin to run 29 races for him next season and let Danica Patrick run seven as she prepares for a full-time Cup ride in 2013. He doesn't have a sponsor.
More wine, please.
But the good part about being at the track is the race and activities going on around it make for good distractions. Crew members and drivers are so focused on the event that they temporarily forget about the problems.
Points leader Edwards is so focused that he canceled his trip to run the Nationwide Series race at Road America to focus on his Cup car.
"I used to tell people last year I loved getting on the plane and getting to the track," Loomis said. "Things get a lot simpler. As complicated as this seems, you're just trying to race a stopwatch and be better than everybody in the garage.
"It's more the Monday through Thursday that's tough."
Pemberton seemed somewhere in between those two places when he was approached behind the 83 hauler.
"Can we talk later?" he asked politely. "I just want to focus on getting the car ready. I need time to think about all that other stuff."
A lot of people do.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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