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Caraviello: Red Bull's Frye has navigated uncertain waters before

June 22, 2011, David Caraviello,

It was such a grand adventure, and now it's coming to an end. In its brief time in NASCAR's premier series, Red Bull threw fantastic parties full of stiff drinks and long-legged hostesses, introduced fitted mechanic uniforms complete with piping on the pant legs and epaulets on the shoulders, and tried to bring a new level of style and sophistication to a sport better known for grease under the fingertips. To a degree, it succeeded -- no other team, after all, had DJs scratching records at hospitality events. It could be enough to make you even overlook the performance on the race track, even on a circuit that values performance over everything else.

Now it's ending, the plug pulled by the organization's Austrian owners effective at the end of this season, it all seeming like some toy a European billionaire suddenly grew bored of playing with. Meetings last weekend at Michigan International Speedway laid the groundwork for the news broken by The Associated Press on Monday, that Red Bull was taking its parties and snazzy uniforms and energy-drink profits and leaving NASCAR at the conclusion of this year. Perhaps it'll remain in some more limited capacity, but the company's history makes that seem unlikely. A lot of people bought into Red Bull's nightclub culture and daredevil ethos, and now many of those same people are wondering where they're going to work next year.

On the lookout

Jay Frye is not quite ready to rule out some continued involvement in NASCAR for Red Bull Racing.

* Sheheen: Potential changes for Red Bull's team, personnel

Among them is one of NASCAR's ultimate survivors, a guy who's had the rug pulled out from beneath him a few times before, and yet always managed to remain upright. Jay Frye helped build a little team that could at MB2 Motorsports, nearly won the Daytona 500 with Mark Martin, and transformed Red Bull from a joke into a competitive unit on NASCAR's premier series. Now, if the organization currently known as Red Bull Racing is able to continue on in some fashion under new ownership and a new name, it will be partly because the well-connected and well-liked former tight end at Missouri hoisted it onto his broad shoulders and carried it there.

It's an unenviable task, particularly in this soft sponsorship market, particularly given that the clock is ticking toward the end of the season when everything will change for the organization's 200 employees. Hoping to remake this Red Bull team in such a short amount of time -- five months, really -- is a long shot of a salvage operation, to be certain, like pulling up a ship from the bottom of the ocean. But then again, Frye knows people. He's closed deals. He's built, had things torn down, and built again, and learned plenty of lessons and made plenty of friends along the way.

"You certainly lean on everybody you've dealt with in the past," said Frye, Red Bull's vice president and general manager. "There were a lot of people who were very instrumental in helping at different times over the past 10 years that have been called ... [and] that I look to for advice. They've been very helpful to this point with contacts and different things like that going on, and that's part of the optimism and enthusiasm we have for the whole thing continuing."

Foremost among those friends is Rick Hendrick, with whom Frye has enjoyed a long relationship, one that goes back to Frye's days with Valvoline in the mid-1990s and surely helped smooth the way for future Hendrick Motorsports driver Kasey Kahne to make a one-year pit stop at Red Bull. Right now there's no substance to any speculation that this Red Bull team might eventually morph into some kind of Hendrick satellite operation, particularly given that most of the potential new investors Frye has spoken with are outside of NASCAR. But that doesn't mean he won't call on the most successful car owner of the sport's modern era for advice.

"He's always been someone I've confided in, in numerous different things," Frye said. "He's a great friend. ... I'm very lucky to be able to talk to him about things, to get his opinions and ideas on things. So yes, I obviously do that."

Any words of encouragement are certainly helpful right now to a Red Bull team that's still trying to digest exactly what happened, and why. Red Bull headquarters in Austria has yet to issue any kind of public statement on what Frye called a "change in strategy," one that risks putting 200 people out of work. A e-mailed request for comment may very well be sitting in a deleted items folder somewhere in Fuschl am See. Into that informational void steps speculation that the move is somehow related to Red Bull's thriving Formula One program, an operation with a reported budget north of $150 million per year.

In terms of performance, it's a study in contrasts. Red Bull's NASCAR operation started in 2007, and since then has accumulated exactly one Sprint Cup race victory and one Chase berth, both with Brian Vickers in 2009. The F1 program began in 2005 and endured some comparable growing pains, going without a grand prix victory until 2009. Since then, though, it's been unstoppable. Red Bull went on to win six times in that 2009 campaign, won 10 races and the championship with Sebastian Vettel last year, and has won five of seven events contested so far this season. Granted, there are substantial differences between the two disciplines in terms of technology, field size and depth of competition, but one is clearly winning with regularity and one is not.

Asked if his team suffered by comparison, Frye had only praise for his European counterparts. "The paths of the two companies are kind of similar," he said. "We haven't had the success they've had, but it took them a few years to build up and get to where they're at. We're still encouraged and think we can get -- maybe not to where they're at, because they're winning every week, and our sport is a little different than that -- but we think we can take this team and get to a very competitive level over the next couple of years. To compare the two, and you have to, to some degree, because we're part of the same family, but again the sports are different and teams are different, and we couldn't be prouder of what they've done."

For the NASCAR team, the next 45 days are crucial. By that time, Frye hopes to at least be in substantive discussions with potential new partners, the critical link in keeping this two-car outfit alive under new ownership. Fortunately, negotiating and bringing people together are among Frye's specialties. He was key in bringing Valvoline on board as not just a sponsor but also part-owner of a car at MB2, an overachieving outfit that won a Cup race with Johnny Benson. Later he brought in Mark Martin, a partnership that came a fraction of a second from netting a Daytona 500. In January of 2008 he landed at Red Bull, a team that was so out of its depth it didn't know how to use tire data, guessed at setups, and missed races with jarring regularity. A year later, Vickers was a title contender.

The past year and a half, though, have been a struggle. Vickers missed most of last season with blood clots, and Red Bull-backed former F1 driver Scott Speed couldn't find the performance to match his panache. And yet, those difficulties pale in comparison to one of the most trying memories of Frye's career, which came when real estate developer Bobby Ginn bought the MB2 organization and sold it off to Dale Earnhardt Inc. Afterward, Frye had to read a list of everyone who had been fired. It was a scarring experience, and one that surely motivates him as he works to help his current team find a second chance.

So now we wait to see what the future holds for Red Bull, an outfit that always billed itself as not your typical NASCAR team, but in the end discovered it just was as vulnerable as everybody else. Its saving grace at this point may not be its style or flashiness or daring, but something much more necessary and mundane -- the fact that, at its helm, is someone who has navigated these murky and uncertain waters before.

"Having been through this before, personally, there were some contacts and some people we've dealt with in the past who have been very helpful to this point," Frye said. "There's reason to be optimistic that we can get this thing done."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.