After nearly 20 years as the most well known energy drink brand in the world, in 2001 Red Bull in the form of its Managing Partner Dietrich Mateschitz decided to extend the company’s empire further by leveraging a new, and highly risky marketing concept. The focus of the new effort was driven by a professional aviation competition based on extreme flying, and as a result, the company reached out to a number of world-class aerobatic pilots including World Aerobatic Champion Peter Besenyei. The particulars of the program centered on a professional closed-course air race series, that could be produced on an annual basis, and located at sites near some of the world’s most beautiful international cities.
Besenyei and his colleagues came up with an innovative circuit design and racing format, then started flying a series of test programs including aircraft type validations, plus developing a range of venue innovations, including what are now referred to as ‘air gates.’ These one-of-a-kind pneumatic vertical structures form the circuit itself, and have become a hallmark of any Red Bull Air Race event. Two years later, the Red Bull Air Race (RBAR) itself was launched as a single event at a site near Zeltweg, Austria in 2003. The event was entirely successful and the performance drew several hundred thousand spectators to the two day show.
By 2005, the RBAR was ready for its next step up, and that year announced the Red Bull World Championship that offered 7 events that attracted 10 pilots to the series. Mike Mangold took that year’s Championship with Chambliss and Besenyei taking second and third respectively, The following year the series expanded again to encompass 8 events and 11 pilots, with Chambliss taking the title. In ’08 the RBAR expanded further to a field of 12, and in ’09 the count grew to a total of 15 pilots. By 2010, when Austrian Hannes Arch won the Championship the field had begun to stabilized at 14.
In 2011, the series realized that it needed an overhaul, both in terms of production management and organizational structure, so Red Bull decided to take a year off, intending to return to 2012 with an entirely revamped approach.
The Red Bull Air Race Experience
From a spectator perspective, the RBAR is unlike any other sporting event as one can see from the accompanying video highlights, as well as being one of the most hair-raising forms of professional racing for the pilots. Regular series competitors come from across the globe, and range from experienced World Champion aerobatic pilots like Hungary’s Besenyei, the US’ Kirby Chambliss or Matt Goulian, along with the UK’s Peter Bonhomme, to former military jocks including Rhodesian Peter Lamb, and Australian Peter Hall.
Overall race venues are typically configured to offer a ‘race box’ of between 3 to 4 miles around, while the course itself is comprised of a series of gates. Competitors run against the clock and are required to fly through these gates at a fixed altitude, while at the same time executing various high-G aerobatic maneuvers, including knife edge, zoom climb, and tight turning flight. The pilot who produces the lowest total time is declared the winner of the session or event.
Events run over four days. and are comprised of two training days, with two training sessions per day. Then a qualifying day is run, followed by a wild card race run on race day, followed by a Top 12 session, and then a Super 8 session. Once these evolutions are complete the final 4 pilots advance to a last and ultimate round, in order to define a winner.
For the last 20 years, Red Bull has delivered thrilling competitions to millions of fans on TV, along with interested spectators at a host of branded events ranging from the Formula One World Championship to NASCAR, numbers of international air shows, specialized events like the Red Bull Flugtag, and lately the Red Bull Air Race series. As a result, the RBAR has evolved from simply being a good marketing idea, to become one of the world’s most exciting global sports experiences and along the way has allowed fans ranging from Dubai, to Budapest, New York, San Diego and Barcelona to experience extreme aviation excellence at its best.