August 18, 2006 If you haven’t heard about the Red Bull Air Race World Series before this article, we suspect it’s something you’ll hear a lot more about now it’s on the radar. It all started when a fellow by the name of Dietrich Mateschitz started selling Red Bull energy drink in Austria in 1987. In 1992, he expanded beyond Austria and thanks to a marketing campaign based around over-the-top, extreme living, Red Bull has become one of the best known brands in the world in a very short space of time.
As the world’s best known and top selling energy drink, synonymous with staying up all night, partying and extreme sports, Red Bull sponsors and aligns its brand values with a raft of sports that include ice climbing, BASE jumping, adventure racing, cliff diving, aerobatic flying, BMX, skateboarding, street luge, and now air racing. The idea for the Red Bull Air Race was conceived in 2001 and came from the Red Bull sports ideas think-tank which has been responsible for creating a wide range of innovative sports events across the world.
Red Bull then approached twice World Aerobatic champion Peter Besenyei who refined the concept over two years before the first Red Bull Air Race in Zeltweg, Austria in 2003.
The aim was to develop a brand new aviation race that challenged the ability of the world’s best pilots. Red Bull wanted to create a race in the sky, but not one that was simply about speed, but also precision and skill. The answer was to build a specially designed obstacle course which the pilots would negotiate at high speeds.
The idea involved making flying more interesting and accessible for the public and they developed air-filled columns for markers using a special material and putting together the rules for this new sport. The objective of the competition is to navigate a challenging obstacle course in the sky in the fastest possible time. Pilots fly individually against the clock and have to complete tight turns through a slalom course consisting of specially designed 20m high pylons, known as ‘air gates’.
In 2004 three races (UK, Hungary and Reno, USA) were held and the series became the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. The second race in Hungary in 2004 confirmed the drawing power of the sport and was staged in front of nearly one million people lining the banks of the River Danube in Budapest and the sport suddenly had some serious momentum.
In 2005, the series grew to seven events across the world and for 2006 was extended to nine – Abu Dhabi, Barcelona, Berlin, St. Petersberg, Instanbul, Budapest, Longleat (UK), San Francisco, and Perth - major cities with rivers, central locations, free entrance, massive crowds.
The Air Race is not just about speed but also precision. The slightest mistake can result in penalty points. Flying low to the ground at speeds that can reach over 400kph, while negotiating the air gates, requires immense skill that only a certain number of pilots in the world possess. That is why the pilots are hand selected based upon their expertise and experience. These pilots are at the top of their game. They have to be – the Air Race exerts huge demands on their flying abilities and they have to withstand forces of up to 10G.
What makes the ‘Air Race’ so exciting and interesting for spectators is the proximity of the contest to the crowds. Low level flying on a relatively compact course means that people can really experience all the action close-up.
At the time of publication of this article, Budapest is gearing up for the sixth leg of the Red Bull Air Race World Series. A fortnight ago, 1.5 million spectators crowded the banks of the Golden Horn estuary in Istanbul, Turkey and the images accompanying the article are from Instanbul. Crowds watched in awe as the pilots raced through the high speed course, negotiating a series of 'air gates' just metres above the water. Taking place for the first time in Istanbul, chicanes were a brand new feature of this race track, with pilots having to weave through the single pylons as well as fly between the parallel gates.
The Budapest Air Race control tower is being erected and the hangars for the planes have been built – check out the front page of the air-race web site for a time-compressed video of assembly of this massive air-race pits.
Helen Keller said it best – “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”
For Dietrich Mateschitz, those words seem especially true as the sentiment has seen him take a product from conception to global recognition inside two decades, hatching and pulling off some of the most audacious plans we’ve seen, such as his night club on wheels, his Star Wars promotion, and buying not one, but TWO Formula One teams.
After racing on the River Danube in Budapest, Hungary next weekend, the series moves on to Longleat in the U.K., San Francisco and finishes in Perth, Australia on November 19.