On an insane-o-meter, this race rates a nine." Twenty-year-old
Matt Kringel was muttering this last February before a practice
run at Red Bull Crashed Ice, a cutthroat skating competition on
a ski slope just outside Duluth. The question was not whether
Kringel or the 64 other men and women careering down Spirit
Mountain would make it to the finish, but who their
beneficiaries were. "If I bite it," allowed the college junior,
"it won't surprise me." ¬∂ A cross between speed skating, luge
and Roller Derby, Crashed Ice played out on a slick, steep
1,000-foot course not unlike Kringel's digestive tract--both
were tied in knots. About every 37 seconds the skaters, in
groups of four, would slam into walls and crumple in horrific
pileups. The few hundred spectators on hand would shout
encouragement...and condolences. ¬∂ Of all the extreme events on
this year's sporting calendar, Crashed Ice was perhaps the most
extremely dopey. The spectacle was one of dozens staged by
energy drink Red Bull in its struggle to "revolutionize" the
increasingly corporate and TV-centric realm of extreme sports.
This is an article from the Aug. 4, 2003 issue
The Crashed Ice course was like something out of Greek mythology:
Skaters plunged through a maze of corkscrewy turns and narrow,
spiraling tunnels. You half-expected a Minotaur to pop out from
behind one of the padded plywood boards that lined the track.
Ah, the Minotaur. Part bull, part man, the fearsome beast dwelled
in a labyrinth so artfully designed that only its architect could
find his way. It fed on youths until it was slain by Theseus, a
mortal who unwound a ball of thread as he entered the lair so he
could retrace his route.
In the modern world of energy drinks, Red Bull is a kind of
Minotaur, a caffeine-pumped monster with a 65% market share and
annual sales of more than $1 billion. The success of this pricey
(an 8.3-ounce can sells for up to $6 in bars, where it's often
mixed with vodka in a buzz-building cocktail) and sugary (it
tastes like a melted lollipop) concoction is equal parts man and
bull. In the spirit of Theseus, who killed the monster of myth,
we will attempt to find the beauty and the beast in Red Bull by
threading our way around the information on the side of its can.
"Red Bull's effects have been recognized by world-class athletes"
The man part of the Red Bull story is marketing maverick Dietrich
Mateschitz, who created the company and a new beverage category.
Tanned, suave and reclusive by design, the 58-year-old Austrian
had made a good living selling toothpaste in the Far East, but he
dreaded becoming a "gray man in a gray suit." On a flight to
Thailand in the early 1980s Mateschitz read that the richest man
in Japan had made his fortune from a syrupy picker-upper that was
said to cure hangovers. Mateschitz realized he could make an even
better living by selling energy.
As it happened, a Bangkok toothpaste distributor Mateschitz knew
was peddling a similar drink called Kratingdaeng, or "Red Bull."
Mateschitz got its rights, added fizz and changed the formula for
Western tastes. "Fifty percent of our test group was crazy about
Red Bull, and 50 percent said it tasted terrible," he says. "I
thought, Great! You can't beat ambivalence. It's attention, it's
controversy, it's discussion that keeps a product alive."
To build brand image Mateschitz used grassroots sales tactics
that got college students and nightclubbers to roll over in sweet
surrender, like puppies awaiting chest rubs. His approach banks
on crudely drawn cartoon ads, sample-wielding proselytizers and
the myth that Red Bull is an Un-corporation that eschews
marketing altogether. It's a neat parlor trick that takes tons of
marketing to pull off.
At the heart of Mateschitz's promotional campaign are niche
sports--the hairier the better. Last year Red Bull plowed $80
million into sponsoring hundreds of alterna-athletes, from street
lugers to big-wave kayakers, and underwriting dozens of stunts
and competitions: kiteboarding from Key West to Cuba,
motocrossing in Spanish bullrings, wakeboading through
underground Missouri caverns and Flugtagging (flying in a
homemade air machine) over San Francisco Bay.
"We encourage people to come to us with harebrained ideas," says
Jack Dadam, Red Bull's executive vice president of sales. "We
reject a lot, but we approve a lot too." Among the events funded
were mountain-bike races down cliffs in Utah and B.A.S.E. jumping
off sheer 4,000-foot cliffs on Baffin Island. This summer
B.A.S.E. jumper Felix Baumgartner plans to strap a carbon-fiber
wing to his back and glide the length of the English Channel. Red
Bull will foot the bill.
Some of Red Bull's events, such as the Flugtag, are witnessed by
hundreds of thousands of people; others, like Depth Charge, are
seen by just a handful. Many have names that hint at anarchy: Red
Bull Mountain Mayhem, Red Bull Rampage, Red Bull Trash and Crash.
"There's an edge of danger to the sports we do," says Kristen
Ulmer, a former competitive free skier who has appeared in more
than 20 free-skiing videos. "Our stuff isn't mainstreamed or
made-for-TV." Climb an ice tower in the X Games and you've got a
top rope--so what if you fall? "If we screw up, we're gonna get a
compound fracture or die," Ulmer says. "Kids can really relate."
"Stimulates the metabolism"
The bull part of the Red Bull story grew out of rumors about the
drink's contents: that each skinny silver can contains the
caffeine of 20 cups of coffee; that the drink is addictive and
leads to hard drug use; that it's liquid Viagra; that its secret
ingredient, taurine, is bull urine, or bull semen, or bull
testosterone. Red Bull doesn't encourage such speculation but
doesn't exactly discourage it either.
"People ask me if it's true that Red Bull is made from bull
testicles," says salesman Robert Hohensinn, the company's very
first employee. "I tell them sure, but only two testicles to a
can." In the early days he worried that the gossip might hurt
sales. "Then I realized it actually helped," Hohensinn says. "The
more teachers hated Red Bull, the more their pupils had to drink
Red Bull's athletes drink it devoutly and buy into its mythology
religiously. "It gets you up for things you don't want to do,"
says ice climber Will Gadd. "When your mind wants to wander, it
helps you remember what you're doing." Which makes Red Bull sound
like a kind of recreational Ritalin.
"Vitalizes body & mind"
The skydivers and paragliders rolling and looping through the
skies over Chicago last August were not reenacting the invasion
of Normandy. This was V-day, not D-Day. "We've come to North
Avenue Beach to vitalize the lakefront," said a Red Bull flack
while scanning the heavens with binoculars.
The vitalizing she referred to was a three-day aerobatic
tournament called Wings over Chicago, which reinforced the slogan
Red Bull gives you wings. Thirty-two extreme aerialists had
converged on Lake Michigan to vie for $16,000 in prizes. All
swooped down at speeds as fast as 70 mph, hoping to land on a
small floating platform 50 yards offshore. Their jumps had a high
degree of risk and a low margin of error.
Suspended beneath soft wings, or foils, paragliders typically
take off from mountaintops. But on this gusty late-summer
afternoon they were being towed by speedboats and reaching a
height of 1,500 feet before being let go. Their flips, stalls and
partial collapses were judged for precision and difficulty on a
10-point scale, much like Olympic figure skating.
The skydivers dropped out of planes from 4,000 feet. Their scores
depended largely on how far they glided after descending to an
altitude of 10 feet above the water. "We're into pushing the
extreme envelope," said Red Bull events director Paul Crandell.
"We've given a couple of extreme sports a fun twist and
The Windy City wingding set Red Bull back a cool $400,000. The
promotion was so low-key that few of the 10,000 beach bums were
aware they were witnessing a sporting contest. There wasn't a
scoreboard in sight. "If we were a publicly owned company, some
bean counters would say this isn't cost-effective," Dadam said.
"They'd tell us to spend $20 million on a TV commercial that runs
during the Super Bowl and reaches 30 million people. Well, we're
privately owned, and we don't look at it that way."
"Increases concentration and improves reaction speed"
The "ultimate attention deficit disorder lifestyle" is how the
35-year-old Gadd describes his two favorite pastimes, ice
climbing and paragliding. Swigs of Red Bull's turbocharged tonic,
he says, sharpened his focus in the late 1990s, when he
established the 10 toughest ice routes in the world, and in 2000,
when he coasted on thermal updrafts from the Pacific to the
Atlantic over two months--a distance of nearly 3,500 miles.
The latest Gadd fly covered a world-record 263 miles of remote
Texas hill country. Fueled by Red Bull and carried by wind and
thermals only, he kept aloft for 10 hours and 38 minutes. Flying
low, he needed to stay alert: At times power lines loomed
heart-thumpingly close and his body shook with fear. Red Bull, he
says, concentrated his mind wonderfully.
Gadd says the swag he gets from Red Bull buys time, which allows
him to get results. "That's the biggest gift," he says. "Red Bull
gives me the freedom to dream a little larger, maybe a little
Slugging back his fourth Red Bull of the afternoon during the
Crashed Ice prelims, Kringel said, "This stuff is addictive.
What's in it, nicotine?" The first time Ulmer chugged Red Bull,
she got more hopped up than a fourth-grader on a Quik bender.
"One can, and I turned into a maniac for five hours," she
recalls. "My personality was multiplied by a thousand. I was
centered and excitable but not jittery. It was pretty cool. I
felt like I was breaking the law."
Ulmer would have been, too, if she hawked Red Bull in some
countries. The kicky elixir is not for sale in Canada, Denmark,
Norway or France. Part of this is due to marketing restrictions,
part to bad buzz. Red Bull has courted controversy in
Switzerland, Sweden and Hong Kong, where a half-dozen people have
collapsed and died after downing the brew, often laced with
booze. The company insists there is no scientific evidence
suggesting a link between its drink and the deaths, and that the
likely causes were exertion and preexisting medical conditions.
Of course, there's also no scientific evidence to suggest that
synthetic taurine, Red Bull's magic bull-et, is anything but a
marketing gimmick. After all, taurine is just an amino acid that
the body replenishes on its own. As for Red Bull's claim that
taurine promotes detoxificatoin, the German Institute for the
Protection of Consumer Health calls it "misleading," and the
company itself admits that taurine's "main function is simply
that of a flavor enhancer."
The real source of Red Bull's energy boost is sugar and caffeine.
For all the hype, one can has slightly less caffeine than a cup
of Starbucks coffee and slightly more than an Excedrin Extra
What's most endearing about the Red Bull Flugtag is the fact that
it's so thoroughly pointless. Flugtag, which means "flying day"
in German, is a competition in which contestants build and power
their own flying machines. In theory Flugtag fliers launch
themselves off a platform and soar over water. In practice most
of their contraptions don't so much soar over water as nosedive
Red Bull has been holding Flugtag in various foreign ports of
call since 1991. The event made its U.S. debut last October at a
pier off the Embarcadero in San Francisco. "We want to show the
fun side of Red Bull," said Dadam.
Thirty-five teams boldly took (or attempted to take) to the
skies. There was a surfboard on wheels propelled by a
20-foot-long rubber band of surgical tubing and an outsized
martini glass with a James Bond double dangling from its rim by a
bungee harness. There was a flying toaster, a flying chef who
catapulted himself from a frying pan and a cold warrior
straddling a massive Red Bull can and rejoicing in the title Dr.
Strangebull. There were airships fashioned from old PVC pipe,
papier-mache, Styrofoam, duct tape, twine, chicken wire, chewing
gum and staples. Lots of staples.
No bull-flinger defied gravity for long. "Baby, I'm driving my
'57 Cadillac off the pier and all the way to Graceland," said
Flying Elvis. Alas, the jumpsuited King leaped off the ramp and
fell straight into the chilly bay and the waiting arms of scuba
divers. He had hardly left the building.
When the final Flugtagger had flown, Dadam gazed out across the
dock strewn with bobbing wings and broken dreams. "I look around
and see 25,000 people," he said. "Was this worth three quarters
of a million dollars? I'd say yes."
"Not recommended for children"
No Red Bull athlete has taken the company for a bigger ride than
Randy Laine. Two years ago the jet skier straddled a 70-foot wave
in the Pacific Ocean. To even be allowed aboard the Red Bull
observation boat, one had to sign a waiver that began: "I expect
to be killed on this trip...."
This winter Laine is counting on El Nino to stir up the sea
enough for him to tackle a 100-footer. "Want to know how the Red
Bull Tour differs from Jackass?" he asks. "When our 'elite'
athletes attempt the insane, they've got experience."
Since 1999 Red Bull's North American extreme gods have assembled
in late autumn for a bull session that borders on the Dionysian.
Tales of revelry are floating around, many involving empty
tequila bottles, police chases and dives off hotel balconies.
"We've been kicked out of Mexican strip clubs!" Ulmer says
wistfully. "Do you know how ridiculous you have to be to be
kicked out of a Mexican strip club?"
The renegades met up most recently in Las Vegas. They kept
trouble at bay by attending race car school, learning to drive
BMW roadsters and scaled-down Indy cars. The only man to come
close to mischief was off-road rallier Steve Barlow, a three-time
winner of the Baja 1000. His racer hit a concrete pillar. At the
awards banquet Barlow accepted a trophy cobbled from a crumpled
Red Bull athletes may be team players, yet they almost never
compete in team sports. "Uniforms make us suspicious," says
marketing director Norbert Kraihamer. "Extreme sports are better
suited to expressing the individual."
To be considered Red Bull-worthy, an individual must win, but not
consistently. "It's not about being Number 1," Kraihamer says.
"We look for influential sportsmen who make statements." Red Bull
likes crazy, just not crazy reckless. "Most of us are decent,
college-educated, taxpaying citizens without death wishes," says
Gadd. "We know that if you die, the game's over. [If we didn't,]
we'd just play in traffic."
When looking for a downhill mountain biker, Red Bull turned down
two-time world downhill champ Missy Giove, famed for her fuchsia
hair, unstilled tongue and ovaries-to-the-wall exuberance. Missy
the Missile took a stunt-flier approach to racing: If she didn't
crash, she usually won.
Instead Red Bull signed Marla Streb, an articulate crash avoider
with a master's degree in molecular biology. What she lacks in
fearlessness, she makes up for in schmooze. "There's a sense of
honor about being with Red Bull," she says of the handshake deal
that bestows bonuses based on race results and press coverage.
"Nothing is ever signed."
The world demands a certain amount of conformity, and Red Bull
athletes (there are about 360) tend to conform only to
themselves. Still, they have a few things in common. "We want the
type of athlete who is always about to be fired by the coach but
is too gifted," says Kraihamer. "The ideal candidate is, in a
way, the same as Dietrich."
"Made in Austria"
Erupting from two interlocking volcanoes high in the Austrian
Alps is a massive sculpture of stampeding bulls. In a valley
between the cones is Red Bull's new headquarters.
Mateschitz works in a less ostentatious building next door. Climb
the stairs and you're confronted with a vast painting of a
labyrinth. Lurking within its blind alleys and intricate
passageways is a shadowy figure, a red Minotaur. "Every boy is
fascinated by mythology," says Mateschitz from his office
doorway. "I was most fascinated by Zeus, the king of the gods.
When he came down to earth to see Europa, he changed into a
The father of Red Bull is a lifelong bachelor--born, naturally,
under the sign of Taurus--whose habit it is to clutch privacy
about him like a leather jacket. He appears in daylight about as
often as Dracula. A few longtime employees swear they have never
seen him in person. "Whenever possible, I escape," Mateschitz
says. "Being anonymous is a high priority. I hate to be
At heart Mateschitz is as much an adventurer as his athletes are.
Last year he broke his left shoulder on a motocross in the
Tunisian desert. He loves Red Bull (he drinks eight to 10 cans a
day) and speed in all forms. To house the firm's collection of
vintage airplanes, he's building a humongous glass hangar at
Salzburg Airport. The fleet comprises the Flying Bulls Aerobatics
Team, which performs at air shows all over Europe.
Mateschitz's current crusade is Grand Prix racing. He hopes to
sell it in the U.S., where the sport has never taken hold: NASCAR
Nation deems the European open-wheel style too tony, too
predictable. And there are no Yanks to root for.
To change that Mateschitz founded a European motor sports
academy. Separately, Danny Sullivan, who won the Indianapolis 500
in 1985, chooses four Formula One prospects a year to drive for
Red Bull. They are competing this year on European junior
circuits. The most promising driver has a made-for-marquee name:
Though the project's likelihood of failure is high, Mateschitz
thinks it's worth a shot. Of course, this is a man who while
waiting for Red Bull to receive licensing approval in Austria
tried to introduce doughnuts in the land of the Sacher torte
(nobody bit) and recently launched LunAqua, spring water
purportedly bottled under a full moon for extra energy. "I'm a
marketing person," he says. "In the worst case, if it doesn't
work, what have I lost? Pride? Money? All those things can be
replaced. The challenge is to build a mystique."
Or, as the Red Bull slogan puts it, to find wings. "The most
important thing in life is to find fulfillment," Mateschitz says.
"There are many possible paths that lead to dead ends or put you
in the wrong direction. You keep moving for stability and
happiness. For me Red Bull was the perfect path."
GOING TO EXTREMES
AN ACTION SPORTS TIMELINE
Red Bull didn't invent extreme sports any more than Dietrich
Mateschitz pioneered the marriage of caffeine and sugar.
Skateboarding and snowboarding go back almost four decades, and
Warren G. Harding was president of the U.S. when the first
triathlon was held. Herewith, a brief history of X-rated games.
The Course des Trois Sports (Race of Three Sports) is held in
Marseilles, France. Competitors cycle (about 7 km), run (5 km)
and finish with a swim (200 meters). The next triathlon won't be
held for more than 50 years.
Emilio Zamudio wins the prize for longest ride at the inaugural
barefoot waterskiing competition in Cypress Gardens, Fla.
Teams from the U.S., Mexico and Japan compete in the first
National Skateboard Championships, in Anaheim. All three networks
cover the event, and the winner receives a $500 scholarship.
Talk about the mother of invention! Searching for a way to keep
his daughters occupied so his pregnant wife can get some rest,
Sherman Poppen nails two wooden skis together and calls the toy a
Snurfer. The precursor of the snowboard is born.
Surfing, considered by many the first action sport, is chronicled
in Bruce Brown's documentary The Endless Summer, helping
immortalize the art of hanging ten.
Encinitas, Calif., resident Frank Nasworthy adapts the
polyurethane wheel for use on skateboards. The Cadillac wheel, as
the honey-colored orb is known, revolutionizes the sport.
Ten competitors enter what is thought to be the first downhill
mountain-bike race, on Repack Road in Marin County, Calif. Alan
Bonds, the only rider who doesn't crash, is declared the winner.
Dec. 28, 1978
Undaunted by the high cost and difficult terrain, 170 competitors
set off in all manner of motorized vehicles on a two-week journey
from Paris to Dakar, Senegal. French publicist Thierry Sabine
conceived the race while lost in the wilds of the Sahara during a
rally a year earlier.
Scott and Brennan Olson, hockey-playing brothers from Minnesota,
attach polyurethane wheels to hockey boots. Four years later,
they sell the company that will become Rollerblade and
mass-produce in-line skates.
Inspired by the increasing number of people parachuting off fixed
objects, Carl Boenish coins the term B.A.S.E. jumping, whose
initials stand for Building, Antennae, Span and Earth.
Acclaimed French director Luc Besson's movie The Big Blue is
released. The film is credited with popularizing the sport of
French journalist Gerard Fusil conducts the inaugural Raid
Gauloises in New Zealand. Only nine of 26 teams finish the 10-day
"Challenge of the Warriors" with all five members intact.
The American public is introduced to skysurfing--which combines
skydiving, surfing and a portable video camera--through a Reebok
commercial with the slogan Life is short, play hard. Two years
later the first World Skysurfing Championships are held, in
After thrice competing in the Raid Gauloises, Mark Burnett stages
the first Eco-Challenge in Utah.
ESPN hosts the first Extreme Games in Newport, Providence and
Middletown, R.I., and Mount Snow, Vt. The name would be changed
to the X Games the following year.
Already a legend, Tony Hawk makes skateboarding history at the X
Games in San Francisco when he completes the first backside 900
Mike Metzger becomes the first person to land a ramp-to-dirt
backflip on a full-sized motorcycle.
Move over, James Bond. In the film XXX, Vin Diesel becomes the
action hero for Generation Y, playing an extreme sports star
turned government agent.
The IOC announces that BMX racing will be added to the program
for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.