The Associated Press
story that Red Bull had informed NASCAR officials that they were pulling out of the sport
at the end of 2011 seems to have been all-but-confirmed by a statement from the Austrian energy drink giant which said that they were "currently seeking outside investors as we evaluate next steps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series."
Red Bull officials reportedly told team employees that NASCAR no longer hits the company's target market sufficiently to justify the level of investment required in running the team.
In the fall-out since the announcement, Red Bull's management style has been blamed for the disappointing performance of the team - with the company seeking to manage its NASCAR activities remotely from Europe with insufficient understanding of the details and culture of American stock car competition.
But the Red Bull Racing team itself does not accept that this is the end of the road for the operation, and various speculative suggestions flying around on Tuesday included a scenario that would put IndyCar star Danica Patrick at the centre of a rescued and revived RBR.
Team manager and vice president Jay Frye confidently asserted that "We have every expectation to be a two-car team next year," saying that that he is busy lining up investors. Not one to think small, he went on: "One of the values of this team is we have room to expand. We could be a four-car team.
"We have talked to some people who have great enthusiasm about what we're doing," Frye said during a conference call on Tuesday. "We believe we can put something together rather quickly in 30 to 45 days. But the process has just started ... We had a lot of inquiries yesterday [after the news broke.]"
Frye said he learned a few weeks ago that Red Bull might pull out of the sport, but added that "The good news is we have time to react." He pointed out that the news did not necessarily mean that Red Bull was entirely abandoning the sport and that the company could remain as part owner or sponsor of the team. "But we're still unclear about what will happen or in what capacity that might be," he admitted.
The problem Frye faces is where the investment that the team needs to carry on can possibly come from, in a difficult economic climate that has led to many of the far more established and successful teams having to scale back operations in recent months. Former Sprint Cup team owner Ray Evernham had been mentioned among those possibly looking into buying a portion of the team, but an Evernham spokesperson denied he had any interest in returning to team management.
But another possibility that was being raised in some quarters was that one of the biggest commercial sponsors of US motorsports that might be tempted to raise its involvement and step into the breach - in the form of GoDaddy.com, the internet hosting company that is a major personal sponsor of Danica Patrick.
As well as Patrick, GoDaddy.com was the title sponsor of last weekend's Milwaukee 225 IndyCar race and the car sponsor of Patrick's Andretti Autosport team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay. In NASCAR, the company currently backs Mark Martin in the Hendrick Motorsports #5.
Martin is due to leave Hendrick at the end of this season and go part-time, and rumours on Monday suggested that a restructured Red Bull team had already been talking with the veteran driver about a possible 2012 contract. Frye described Martin as "a great friend, a great race car driver and a great competitor" but said Martin has not yet been involved in talks.
With GoDaddy.com's CEO Bob Parsons already pushing for Danica to make a full-time switch to NASCAR in 2012, with a full season in Nationwide backed up by a number of Cup races as well, the big issue has been what team she would move into at Cup level.
Her Nationwide team - Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports - does not have a Cup presence and Earnhardt himself races for Hendrick Motorsports in the championship, but Hendrick is already committed to the maximum number of cars allowed in 2012 after Kasey Kahne takes over Martin's #5, and consequently has no room to take Patrick on board.
But if GoDaddy.com were to buy into (or take over) Red Bull Racing, then they could field at least one car in 2012 that could be shared by both Patrick and Martin, fulfilling both drivers' part-time Cup aspirations and providing a potent sponsorship presence for GoDaddy.com at the same time while Danica carries on with a full season in Nationwide with JR.
The team could step up to two-car operations in 2013 if Patrick moved to Cup full-time, with Red Bull-sponsored Cole Whitt potentially taking over from her at JR Motorsports and sharing the part-time ride in the second Cup car with Martin, the theory goes.
The theory goes on to suggest that the GoDaddy.com Cup team would form a technical alliance with Hendrick, in much the way that Tony Stewart's team Stewart-Haas has done in order to be a viable, competitive outfit from the start. Stewart's operation was mooted as another possible Cup home for Danica if she makes the switch away from IndyCar at the end of the current season, although Stewart denies he has had any discussions with Patrick about such a possibility even though he would like his team to expand beyond its current two-car line-up with himself and Ryan Newman.
Patrick herself remains adamant that no decisions about 2012 or any possible permanent move to NASCAR have been reached, despite Parsons' public urging for her to do so. However, being effectively handed her own NASCAR Cup team on a platter may very well be exactly the sort of opening that no driver in their right mind could possibly turn down.