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How Red Bull Pissed Off a Generation of Athletes

Preston Lerner
Photo credit: Tim McDonagh

From Road & Track

Phil Giebler is 40, now a graybeard—literally—wise in the ways of professional motorsport. Two decades ago, he moved to Europe to chase the dream of racing in Formula 1. Later, after a brutal wreck during practice for the Indianapolis 500, he opened a kart shop in Southern California. A large photograph on the wall of his office shows him racing at Indy during happier times, en route to being named rookie of the year. Another poster-size photo captures him in an open-wheel car wearing dramatic red-white-and-blue livery at Zandvoort, where he became the first American to podium in the A1GP series. But there’s no image immortalizing what Giebler considers to be the greatest drive of his career.

It was late 2002. Thirteen of the most promising American youngbloods had been flown to southern France’s Circuit Paul Ricard for the inaugural Red Bull Driver Search. They’d spent two days pounding around the course in a desperate effort to prove they were worthy of one of four slots on the fast track to a Red Bull–backed ride in Formula The shootout called for seven drivers to be eliminated in the first cut, and this was the final session before the ax fell. Although all the cars were supposedly equal, Giebler was assigned to a tired nag two seconds off pace. He begged Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan, who was running the program, to put him in another car. Sullivan refused.

“So I thought, I have to pull one out of my ass,” Giebler tells me. “It was all on the line. I wanted to do F1 with every cell in my body. Not having any money or much support financially, this was the holy grail—a chance to have everything I’d been lacking my whole racing career. I went out and laid down the laps of my life. I just nailed it. I was at least a second faster than anybody else in that car—maybe 1.2 seconds or 1.4. When I saw where I was [on the time chart], I was like, f*** yes! They put us all in a sealed-off room before our private interviews with the judges. All the other drivers were high-fiving me. I remember Bobby Wilson saying, ‘That was badass.’ So I felt really good. I knew there was no way they could dismiss what I just did.”

There’s a pause.

“I was totally relaxed when I went into the room for my interview,” he says. “Danny said, ‘Sorry, but you’re not going to the next round.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, right.’ I’m looking around. ‘It’s a joke, right?’ ‘No, you’re not going to the next round. You’re not advancing.’ I went numb and must’ve turned whitish-green. I asked them, ‘Can you tell me one thing that I could have done better—just one thing?’ Danny said, ‘Well, for the experience you had, we think you should have been a little bit quicker.’ That’s when I started to get angry. I said, ‘You could put Michael Schumacher in that car, and he couldn’t go any faster than I did. There is nothing left in that car. Nothing!”

We’re sitting in Giebler’s California office, but he’s back in that interview room at Paul Ricard. His voice, which had been flat and matter-of-fact, turns almost raspy, and I can see his eyes glistening over at the unfairness of it all. “They told me, ‘Well, you’re one of the older guys, and we thought you should have been more of a leader and helped the other drivers.’ Helped them? Why would I have helped anybody? I would have given my left nut for that thing. I’d sacrificed everything to chase this dream.” He dredges up a sickly smile. “So, yeah, it was a huge letdown.”

The Red Bull Driver Search wasn’t the first talent quest of its kind, nor was it the biggest. But it was the most elaborate and expensive, and it generated the most buzz. It became a template for how to stage a motorsport gong show and a cautionary tale about the flaws of the selection process. “I was jaded, because I’d already gone through multiple driver shootouts where I was the fastest guy and I didn’t get picked,” says Rocky Moran Jr. “So I knew going in that it was somewhat of a cosmic lottery.”

Technically, the first search produced four winners, but only one grabbed the brass ring—Scott Speed, who spent a season and a half in F1 before being replaced by Sebastian Vettel. Speed then raced for nearly a decade in NASCAR before winning four consecutive rallycross championships as a factory driver. Once abrasive and arrogant, Speed has matured into a thoughtful professional. To him, the program was a lifeline thrown to a drowning man.

“Basically, the end of my career was very well in sight because I didn’t have any money to do anything,” he says. “I’d literally just signed up for community college. People have to understand that if it wasn’t for that program—100 percent if it wasn’t for that program—I would be working some shitty job. Only because of those people am I here today. It didn’t matter how much I wanted it or how good I was, none of it would have happened without them.”

Photo credit: Red Bull
Photo credit: R&T

The driver search was the brainchild of Maria Jannace. An enterprising New York City advertising/marketing maven, she put together an ambitious plan for a five-year program to identify young Americans who could be groomed to race in Formula 1. She spent seven years shopping the proposal to American companies. None bit. Then F1 driver Mika Salo suggested that she pitch Red Bull, an Austrian energy-drink company that had embarked on an unconventional marketing strategy built around an organic association with extreme sports.

Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz already owned a stake in the Sauber F1 team and was eager to use motorsport to cement the company’s foothold in North America. But there was a problem.

“Our analysis was that there was no interest in Formula 1 in the United States because there were no Americans racing,” says Thomas Ueberall, Mateschitz’s longtime right-hand man. “Mr. Mateschitz always had an idea of an all-American Formula 1 team, and an American driver was the first step. We had to find a kid at a young age and then support him to learn the job of being an open-wheel racer in Europe.”

That’s why Mateschitz listened when Jannace cold-called him. “I knew I had all of about 30 seconds before he hung up on me,” she recalls. “But I was prepared, he was intrigued, and he flew over to New York. The deal was done within an hour of meeting, and he never compromised the program as I designed it.”

Sullivan, an ex-F1 driver renowned for his spin-and-win exploits at Indy, was hired as the face of the program, along with judges Skip Barber, Alan Docking, Bertram Schäfer, and the intimidating Helmut Marko, who would serve as Mateschitz’s representative. Sullivan and Jannace enlisted a wide array of scouts to identify candidates. Sixteen drivers were selected. Half were no-brainers. Giebler, Patrick Long, and Paul Edwards had already raced formula cars in Europe. A. J. Allmendinger and Bryan Sellers had won the Team USA Scholarship and proved themselves in New Zealand. Moran, Joey Hand, and Ryan Hunter-Reay were competing in Toyota Atlantics, one rung down the ladder from Indy cars. All could have been selected simply on the basis of their pedigree.

The other choices were more speculative. Speed was fast but raw. Mike Abbate was a 16-year-old karter. Grant Maiman, Joel Nelson, Scott Poirier, and Wilson had limited experience, mostly at the entry level. Bobby East and Boston Reid were oval-track guys adept in midgets and sprint cars. But young or old, most of them had absorbed the dirty little secret of career development—that without the financial support of a sugar daddy or a corporate sponsor, they had virtually no chance of making it to Formula 1. Suddenly, miraculously, here was a road map to the Promised Land. “It seemed like the break that everybody had hoped for but wondered if it would ever come,” Long says. “Not only was it the potential amount of funding that Red Bull was offering, but it was all the right players.”

The Red Bull Class of 2002 debuted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the U.S. Grand Prix weekend. The timing was propitious. F1 was regaining traction in the United States, thanks to the series’ return to the country. The drivers paraded through the F1 paddock with a film crew in tow. Long and Hunter-Reay were interviewed live during the global TV feed. Later, more than 270 journalists—which Jannace says was an Indianapolis record—convened for the driver-search press conference.

The junket to Indy was a fantasy brought improbably to life. But along with the glamour came the first hint that this was the real world, with all its messy complications. The welcome packet that the drivers found in their hotel rooms included a thick legal document detailing their financial relationship with Red Bull. “It was this really crude, clumsy, and egregiously predatory contract that was basically indentured servitude,” Nelson says.

Allmendinger and Hunter-Reay, who already had rides for the next year, bailed almost immediately. East decided that his midget expertise was a bad fit for F1. Everybody else stayed on. “The contract was crazy,” Speed says. “But at the end of the day, I had no choice. I didn’t even think about it. They could have told me, ‘We’re going to pay you to go race in Europe, and then we own 80 percent of your all-time winnings from motor racing,’ and I would have been, ‘Cool, where do I sign?’”

Someone had thrown Speed a lifeline. You think he wasn’t going to take it?

Photo credit: Mark Thompson
Photo credit: R&T

The Red Bull circus arrived at Circuit Paul Ricard in southern France three weeks after Indy. The drivers had already gone through several group activities back in the States, so the atmosphere among them was reasonably easygoing. Until they met Marko. A Le Mans winner whose career had ended when a rock pierced his visor during the 1972 French Grand Prix, Marko was known for being notoriously demanding and ill-tempered. His forbidding presence was a tangible reminder that this was a win-or-go-home cage match among 13 supremely combative athletes fueled by an abundant supply of ego, ambition, testosterone, adrenaline, and Red Bull.

An analytical guy, Nelson made a conscious decision to keep to himself. “I didn’t socialize with anybody,” he says. “For me, this was it. There was nobody who was going to pay for my racing in the future, so I took it very seriously. I would either talk with Danny or Helmut Marko. I didn’t have anything to do with anyone else. I only wanted to know what the judges were looking for and to adjust my performance if necessary.”

According to the advance publicity, the test was supposed to be conducted in Formula 3 machines, proper wings-and-slicks race cars generating serious downforce. But when the drivers arrived at the track, they confronted a fleet of relatively crude tube-frame open-wheelers designed for schools, not racing. The bodies were stickered up in spiffy Red Bull graphics for the occasion, but that couldn’t hide the fact that they were junk. “The cars were not up to the task,” Sullivan says. “They could barely keep the damn things running.”

Gearboxes broke. Brakes failed. Throttles stuck. Engines grenaded. “The French mechanics were like, ‘You’re pushing the gas too hard.’ What?” Abbate says.

Some cars oversteered. Some understeered. Others lacked midrange grunt or shifted clunkily, making it hard to evaluate relative pace on the racetrack. “You know how at an indoor kart track, there’s one fast kart, one slow kart, and everything else is in between?” Moran says. “It was very much like that. So it was the luck of the draw if you got a good car. They weren’t prepared to put controls in to actually evaluate driving talent. At the time, I was joking around, calling it a goat rodeo.”

Circuit Paul Ricard, however, was magnificent. The course had recently undergone extensive renovations that replaced traditional gravel traps with the paved and painted runoff areas that are now de rigueur in F1. Other memorable features included a gleaming race-control tower, cameras at every corner, and a luxury hotel serving haute cuisine. To young men accustomed to low-rent kart tracks and dusty bullrings on the fringes of small-town America, Paul Ricard pulled them deeper into what was feeling more and more like the land of make-believe.

Photo credit: Red Bull
Photo credit: R&T

Pace was everything. Engineering feedback, suspension tuning, media savvy—none of that stuff mattered. So drivers did whatever it took to lay down competitive lap times. Despite warnings, some of them upshifted without lifting. Others straight-lined chicanes and ignored apex cones. Cameras mounted at each corner showed transgressions on closed-circuit TVs, but enforcement was sketchy, and the temptation to cheat was hard to resist.

It was impossible to say who was quickest, because there were so many factors to consider when evaluating lap times—the car, the tires, the time of day, the corner cutting. But everybody agrees that Speed was on fire at Paul Ricard. He unofficially posted the fastest time during a brief familiarization run the first day, which immediately put him on Marko’s radar, and he crushed it in each subsequent session. “He came out of the box much quicker than everybody else,” Jannace says. “It was shocking how he stood out against the others.”

Some couldn’t keep up. Reid didn’t have the road-racing skills necessary to make the grade. Abbate, the karting sensation, struggled with Track Day 101 concepts such as weight transfer. Others raised their game as the pressure mounted. “Honestly, I didn’t worry about anything until the second day,” Maiman says. “Then, I was like, Holy crap! I actually may be able to pull this off. I’d better step up and really do this right.”

Each driver believed he deserved to make the first cut. But the selection process was so opaque, drivers were mystified by the choices. “It was literally absurd,” Moran says, not angrily but as if he’s stating an incontrovertible fact. Tempers flared when the field shrank to half a dozen drivers—Abbate, Edwards, Long, Maiman, Nelson, and Speed. Several of the also-rans angrily demanded immediate flights home. “There were a couple of sore losers,” Jannace says. “I think the pressure got to them.”

The final cut to four drivers would be made after several sessions in pristine, race-prepped Formula 3 Dallaras. These were the most sophisticated cars most of them had ever driven. Abbate, with zero time in aero machinery, wasn’t able to unlock the cornering speed offered by the extra downforce. Speed, Edwards, and Nelson established themselves as the front-runners. The final slot came down to a choice between Long and Maiman.

Based on form, Long seemed like a lock. He was fast, experienced, handsome, articulate, engaging. “I was pretty confident when we got in the Formula 3 cars—maybe a little overconfident,” he says. “There needed to be no question in anybody’s mind, and I really didn’t bring that, curb cutting, flat shifting, leaving every hundredth of a second out there. I don’t think I had the bit far enough in my teeth.”

Maiman snagged the last spot. “I know I was midpack,” he says. “The way it was explained to me, when they made their final picks, they had their most experienced guy, which was Edwards. Then they had the guy who had some experience overseas, which was Nelson. Then there was Scott, who was the youngest. Then there was me, which was probably just a roll of the dice.”

“A. J. Allmendinger is a very good friend of mine,” Speed says. “We’ve gotten out of the same car or go-kart a dozen times probably in our lives, and we’re always the same speed. It’s hundredths—a hundredth here or a hundredth there. The only time I see a difference is like the Lewis Hamiltons or the Fernando Alonsos. There’s a handful of them worldwide who are super, super elite. It’s easy to make an average driver look good, because the cars matter so much that it’s hard for a really good driver to stand out. Rocky Moran Jr. is the name I remember from that Red Bull deal. I didn’t even know who he was, and he was fast. And Phil not getting selected was a real bummer, because he was one of the four best, and everybody knows it.”

Could the shootout have been conducted better? No question. Should the selections have been different? Who knows. “Only a few of us got that opportunity, and not everybody made it,” Reid says. “But, hey, that’s how life works. This program truly gave us a shot.”

Photo credit: Red Bull
Photo credit: R&T

Marko is a maximalist. He hoped that the program would produce not only an American F1 driver but an F1 race winner. To him, the search was a failure. “We gave them the chance, and we gave them the tools,” he says. “But in the end, they didn’t work out.” Which seems a bit hard. But then Marko is a hard man.

Red Bull placed and funded the four winners of the driver search in four European series. Speed, suffering from ulcerative colitis, endured a miserable season in British Formula 3 before rebounding to win a pair of Formula Renault titles the next year and finish third in the GP2 championship in 2005. When Mateschitz bought the Minardi F1 team and rechristened it Scuderia Toro Rosso, Speed was installed as one of the two drivers. In 2006, he became the first—and remains the only—American to complete a full season in Formula 1 since Eddie Cheever in 1989. Speed was replaced by Vettel halfway through the 2007 season.

The other members of Red Bull’s Fab Four produced mixed results. After a discouraging season in the World Series by Nissan, Edwards spent nearly a decade as a factory driver for General Motors in American sports-car racing, winning a GT championship in 2008. Maiman struggled through several crashes in Formula Renault 2000 and returned home before the year was over. Today he’s a busy driver coach who still races occasionally. Nelson was promoted directly to European Formula 3000—a huge step up for someone so new to the sport. Despite two podium finishes, he was cut loose by Red Bull after the final race of the season. “That was the last time I sat in a race car,” he says. “I never looked back.”

Five other members of the Class of 2002 no longer race professionally. Abbate couldn’t make the jump from karts to cars. He’s now a state trooper for the Nevada Highway Patrol. Wilson won three races in Indy Lights but wasn’t able to advance into Indy cars. Moran returned to Atlantics but, like Wilson, didn’t graduate to Indy cars. He currently works as a commercial-real-estate broker. Reid transitioned from dirt to pavement and spent several years in NASCAR until becoming a Realtor. Poirier raced briefly, then worked as a race-car mechanic and fabricator before becoming a shop foreman at General Dynamics.

Giebler bailed on car racing after crashing at Indy. Looking back, he says he should have quit running open-wheel and focused on sports cars. That’s what Hand did, earning factory rides first with BMW and now with Ford, scoring an overall win at Daytona and class wins at Le Mans and Sebring. Sellers, too, has carved out a niche for himself in GT racing, currently driving in IMSA and the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy Series. But Long was, arguably, the biggest winner of the driver search.

After Long was eliminated, he and Giebler, his longtime karting buddy, caught a ride to Monaco and went out drinking with Nico Rosberg and his cousin. The next morning, Long woke up—with a wicked hangover—to find a phone message from Sullivan. “Hey,” Sullivan told him, “those guys who were standing in the corner, the ones I didn’t tell anybody who they were? They were Porsche’s development guys, and they want to talk to you.” Long agonized over abandoning his Formula 1 aspirations, but he signed with Porsche, and he’s enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the company as a factory driver and brand ambassador.

Marko still runs Red Bull’s driver-development program and has his own inscrutable criteria for picking winners. From personal experience, he knows how unpredictable racing can be, and maybe that makes him more willing to ignore conventional wisdom. “Marko seems to be of the Darwinian school, where you put a bunch of pit bulls in a cage with one bowl of food, and then you see who comes out on top,” Nelson says. “I think it’s fair to say that Red Bull destroyed more careers than it created. For every Sebastian Vettel, there are a couple dozen guys who got chewed up and spit out by that Red Bull machine.”

The roster of former Red Bull drivers is filled with names remembered only by obsessive race fans. (Teemu Nyman, anybody?) But it also includes Vettel, with his four consecutive world championships, and superstar-in-the-making Max Verstappen. No doubt, Marko’s calculation has been that one transcendent, generational talent is worth the careers of dozens of A-listers and journeymen. Does that make him evil or an evil genius?

Red Bull tried to eliminate the injustice that’s written into racing’s genetic code. And for a few glorious, dismal, exhilarating, and frustrating days in southern France in 2002, 13 young Americans came within touching distance of the ultimate racing prize—a paid drive in Formula 1. It’s more than any of them would have had otherwise, but most of them went home empty-handed, falling into lives that aren’t so different from the ones they would have led if they’d never been chosen for the driver search. In the end, both Red Bull and the competitors who slid behind the wheel of those shoddy cars came up against a hard truth: that racing is exclusive by nature, and exclusivity is cruel.

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