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Red Bull's rocky marriage with NASCAR ends in divorce

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Getty Images for NASCAR

The impending departure of Red Bull from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series should be far less surprising than it has turned out to be to industry observers.

From the start, the Austrian energy drinks company seemed like a bizarre fit for a sport more in tune with beer than with hypercaffeinated beverages. Red Bull - like all of their peers in the niche - built a reputation on energy and developed it by investing in edgy, reckless, in-your-face entertainment that had a calculated element of crazy in it (viz., the Red Bull Flugtag, the air races, etc.). Their American motorsports investments have gravitated to sports that embraced those "extreme" ideals - motorcycle racing, rallying, drifting, and so forth.

Though its marketing efforts might suggest otherwise, NASCAR did not offer much of that. Sure, in the past you had stories of Tiny Lund going after another driver with a giant lug wrench, and Lee Roy Yarbrough sadly went actually crazy at the end of his turbulent career. But current-vintage NASCAR is the poster child for bland, corporate product promotion and placement. Even the "have at it, boys" seems calculated, forced - an attempt to inject a sense of controlled unpredictability and hazard into the racing instead of letting it happen organically, because the sport has actively tried to quash that sort of organic chaos.

Red Bull and NASCAR came about because, in 2007, Toyota was set to become the first totally foreign manufacturer to enter the series as a full-time manufacturer. It was an enormous public relations opportunity with a sport that had become synonymous with American motorsport. On paper, Red Bull's partnership with Toyota was a one-two punch which, coupled with the cubic dollars the Austrians would bring to the table, should have resulted in a total knockout.

It didn't quite happen that way.

Maybe an object lesson could be had in the Red Bull Toyota show car. Red Bull wanted to roll it out with a totally silver-plated body. The silver car would have been a visual indicator of Red Bull's wealth and prestige, a rolling imprint of complete excess that was wholly out of character with NASCAR.

What rolled out of the paint shop was a car painted silver, with red-edged blue decaling. The silver paint still looked impressive and distinctive, but it resembled aluminum or nickel more than something you could buy in a jeweler's shop. It looked tough instead of flashy. It was showy on a NASCAR scale, but it was not the disposable paparazzi-magnet Red Bull envisioned. It looked ready to race, not ready to roll down a fashion runway.

And that more than anything explains the fundamental disconnect between NASCAR and Red Bull - their images and their intent just did not mesh.

At the end of the day, the cars, the teams, the drivers in NASCAR are all the intellectual property of the sanction, not the sponsor. Red Bull entered NASCAR expecting the series to activate their product, but NASCAR does not work that way - they expect sponsors to activate the sport and, by extension, sell product by association.

Nobody pointed to the Red Bull stock cars on the track and said, "There goes a Red Bull." No, it was always, "There goes Brian Vickers in the Red Bull Toyota." In other words, in a basic sense the customer base's attention was divided between their loyalty to a sponsor and their loyalty to the sport and its driver properties. It had always been thus in NASCAR because of the top-down manner that the France family employed to run things.

For a company like Red Bull - equally top-down in management, equally jealous of their control and image - it was a roadblock, a loggerhead that clashed with their plan of attack. And if it wasn't bad enough that corporate culture clashes were letting the air out of Red Bull's balloon, the race team itself - with all of its operating budget - barely surfaced above the midpack level.

It didn't help that the team's operations were controlled as if connected by marionette strings to the puppeteers at Red Bull's Austrian base, or that Red Bull's insistence that the team use drivers from other disciplines with little to no experience in stock cars ended up causing serious struggles on track. In fact, the team's only victory to date was a fuel-mileage win by driver Brian Vickers - a NASCAR veteran, not one of Red Bull's "in-house" driver development graduates.

Red Bull's corporate strategy has played far better in the European-based Formula 1 series. In fact, F1 is a perfect marriage for Red Bull. First of all, it is largely local to the company's base. Then there is the ability to brand every element of the team - the Red Bull and Toro Rosso team cars are called "Red Bulls" and "Toro Rossos," with no distracting co-branding outside of the engine manufacturer.

Perhaps the biggest attraction in F1 for Red Bull is that the paddock and corporate climate perfectly aligns with Red Bull's own self-image. Money flows through F1 like water from a fire hose - in fact, there is a not-so-subtle competition between teams to see which ones can spend more than the others. That kind of money and attention naturally results in glitz, glamour, grid girls, and a high-rolling image that smacks of the elite. The drivers, young and wealthy beyond their dreams, conduct themselves with an air of careless bravado and an assurance of their own immortality. Combine all of that with the nimble, high-powered technological marvels that are the F1 cars themselves, and it could not be a better situation for Red Bull.

With all of that - plus a World Championship under their belts to boot - why would Red Bull need to concern themselves with the decidedly more blue collar appeal of NASCAR racing? What's reckless about a driver like Trevor Bayne, a Scripture-spouting mama's boy type who is the best example of NASCAR's ideal future star? He's more apt to drink milk - or so his image-wranglers might want you to think - than to stay up all night partying with starlets and gorging himself on Red Bull before going off to break speed limits on a crotch rocket.

Maybe a legitimate run at the Sprint Cup might have changed things, but given the way that Red Bull ran its teams they'd have been more likely to have built a rocket and flown to the moon. Interlopers do not simply kick the door open and set a crate of money down and expect to buy their way to a championship in NASCAR. NASCAR demands an informal apprenticeship, a probationary period while the series assesses whether the teams, the crews, the drivers, and the owners can play nice and become good citizens, before a race team can become a contender. Successful teams are grown in NASCAR, not bought. Red Bull, however, is not a patient company - maybe that, as much as anything else, was the most fundamental problem of all.

It was clear from the outset that Red Bull and NASCAR would be a shaky marriage at best. The tragedy here is not that it fell apart - in a sense, it was a foregone conclusion - but that so many will be affected by the aftermath. The loss of a deep-pocketed, albeit distant and bureaucratic, sponsor like Red Bull would be a big enough one in and of itself - when that sponsor is actually responsible for the team's very existence, it becomes an even greater catastrophe for those who rely on the team for employment and subsistence.

But in the grander scheme, Red Bull and NASCAR going their separate ways is not the earth-shattering crossroads that many have made it out to be. Rather, it is a failed experiment in cross-breeding two different species of entertainment companies. It is an object lesson in partnerships and the dangers of mutual exploitation that all sanctions would be wise to heed.