Red Bull set to quit NASCAR?

Strong rumours that Red Bull is to quit NASCAR at the end of the current season have sent shockwaves through the sport – and the wider world of motorsport sponsorship.

According to reports by The Associated Press, Red Bull is set to announce that it is quitting NASCAR Sprint Cup competition at the end of the 2011 season.

The story from The Associated Press says that “multiple people familiar with the decision” have confirmed that a team executive was dispatched to Michigan International Speedway this weekend to inform NASCAR officials and other industry representatives of the decision and that an official announcement will follow once the team and its employees have been formally told.

It’s unclear why Red Bull have made the decision: one theory is that a fall in NASCAR viewer numbers has particularly hit the 18-34 demographic which is the Austrian energy drinks giant’s core market.

Red Bull is involved in a wide number of motorsport sponsorships around the world, including F1 with its championship-winning team led by Sebastian Vettel, and the concern is that underlying pressures because of the world economic situation are forcing them to reign in their more costly sports operations.

The fear is that as a result, Red Bull may look at the most costly owner/sponsorship of all their sporting involvement – and could even decide that one or both of its two F1 teams, Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso, can no longer be justified. While the main F1 team has been immensely successful, it’s not unknown for corporate sponsors to decide to quit while on top when faced with balance sheet pressures.

It’s possible that the current NASCAR team management headed up by Jay Frye might seek buyers for the team and find some way to carry on NASCAR operations into 2012, but with all teams suffering from chilly financial times at present it’s hard to see who has the sort of financial resources to step in if the likes of Red Bull are calling it a day.

The sources quoted by AP had no information on what would happen to the team’s operation or staff, or what exactly the reason for the pull-out is, nor whether their pull-out from NASCAR will affect just the main team or all their other sponsorships in NASCAR series, such as Cole Whitt in the Truck Series, and which could impact the decision of whether or not Kimi Raikkonen makes any further forays into the sport.

In NASCAR, Red Bull is both the team owner and primary sponsor of the two-car operation which currently fields Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne. The team has not had much success in NASCAR since entering Cup competition in 2007, which started with a debut year that saw Vickers fail to qualify for a third of the races and ultimately end up placed 38th in the championship, and AJ Allmendinger miss 19 races and place 43rd.

Allmendinger was fired toward the end of 2008 in order to make room for Scott Speed after Red Bull ousted him from their Toro Rosso junior F1 team and offered him the NASCAR slot as compensation. That relationship eventually broke down altogether and Speed is now suing Red Bull as a consequence, after he was in turn ejected from the team to make way for the return of Brian Vickers from medical leave. Vickers won a race in 2009 and made the all-important Chase that year, and both of its current drivers have five top-ten finishes apiece so far this season.

There have been rumours that Red Bull – thought until today to have deep pockets and a solid commitment to winning in NASCAR – have been circling Carl Edwards, Juan Montoya or even Kimi Raikkonen as potential replacements for Vickers, whose current contract expires at the end of this year. Kahne is on loan from Hendrick Motorsports and due to return to that team at the end of the year as Mark Martin steps down.

In response to the AP story, Red Bull published the following statement:

Red Bull Racing Team is currently seeking outside investors as we evaluate next steps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. We are not at liberty to comment on details while negotiations are under way.

Red Bull fully supports NASCAR and will continue its investment in America’s premier form of motorsports for the remainder of the 2011 season. The team’s focus will not waiver as we fight for victories and a position in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup.


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