Jay Frye has seen this movie already and he doesn't like it. Not one bit. The vice president and general manager of Red Bull Racing, has spent much of his professional career building NASCAR Sprint Cup teams from the ground up. And too often, just as those teams appeared poised to challenge the titans of the sport, injury or illness interfered in the cruelest way, leaving Frye and his minions to regroup, rebuild and refocus.
It happened twice when Frye was running the old MB2 Motorsports squad, once when Ernie Irvan crashed at Michigan International Speedway in 1999, and again when Jerry Nadeau slammed into the pre-SAFER barrier wall of Richmond International Raceway in 2003 while driving for MB2.
Yet nothing Frye had been through prepared him for what happened to Brian Vickers. Vickers is very much the face of Red Bull in NASCAR, the man who in 2009 had given RBR both its first race victory and the team's first berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In early May, Vickers was in Washington, D.C., visiting a friend and planning to go to Walter Reed Army Hospital and the U.S. Capitol the following day. But things went horribly wrong.
“I had chest pains at night and had a hard time breathing,” said Vickers. “I woke up and, being young, I thought I was invincible so I just went back to sleep, brushed it off.” The next day, though, the pain returned, intensified and led to Vickers calling two physicians in the Charlotte area. One of them, veteran NASCAR doctor Dr. Jerry Petty, convinced Vickers to go to the emergency room of Washington Hospital Center, where a C.T. scan revealed he had blood clots in both legs and his lungs.
The blood clots in the lungs, known as pulmonary embolisms, can be fatal if not caught early. The treatment regimen was to immediately begin heavy doses of blood thinners which rule out physical activity because bruising could result in bleeding to death. It was a serious blow to Vickers, a popular and engaging driver on the way up in his career, as well as the team.
“It sucks,” Vickers says. “Racing is what I love to do. I was laying in the hospital and instead of asking, ‘Am I going to live?' I was asking, ‘Can I race this weekend?' This is my life, this is what I fully intend on doing again. Being more focused and driven to do it better than I've ever done it before.”
In an instant, Red Bull lost its star driver and unquestioned team leader. At the same time, the team's other car, the No. 82 Toyota driven by ex-Formula 1 racer Scott Speed had shown improvement in 2010, but not as much as Frye would have liked. Red Bull brought in journeyman Casey Mears in a four-week experiment that included swapping crew chiefs Ryan Pemberton and Jimmy Elledge as well as switching the top five crew members of each team between cars 82 and 83.
The Mears experiment ended disastrously at Michigan, where he wrecked Speed while the two were all alone at the back of the pack.
“There's a reason Brian Vickers has a job driving a racecar and Casey Mears doesn't,” Frye says bluntly. “It just didn't work. We're not saying it was Casey's fault or whatever, but it obviously wasn't working, so we made a change.”
For one race, that change involved a phone call from Red Bull headquarters in Austria to put Mattias Ekstrom – Red Bull's two-time DTM champion – in the No. 83 on a one-race deal to drive the road course at Infineon Raceway. It was an eye-opening experience.
“The driving style in Europe is way different to here,” says Ekstrom. “Here, drivers have a lot more respect for each other. OK, at the end of the races everything gets tough. But here you can do nearly a whole race racing hard and fair. And then after the last pit stop, everything gets a bit harder. But, in DTM, it's hard right from the beginning because the races are shorter.”
Beyond that, Reed Sorenson was brought on board to drive three races for the team. Frye says he's gotten calls from 26 drivers inquiring about driving the No. 83. Very high on the team's list is another promising youngster, Aric Almirola, who has endured wretched luck trying to launch his Cup career but is in the midst of a stellar season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Young, personable and fast, Almirola would be a great fit at Red Bull.
On the other side of the team is the quirky Speed, who is better than he was as a rookie in 2009, but may still lose his seat for next year if he doesn't show considerable improvement in the second half of the season. This, despite his popularity with Red Bull management in Austria. “He's got to go faster,” says Frye. “He's got to pick it up.”
The big unanswered question is Vickers' status for 2010. Rick Hendrick, Vickers' former boss, hooked the ailing driver up with Dr. Steven Limentani, the man who brought Hendrick back from the abyss when cancer nearly killed him in 1997. Limentani is optimistic that a six-month treatment regimen will allow Vickers to come back strong next season.
“Every indication we've had from everybody we've talked to is that he should be good to go,” says Frye of Vickers for 2010.
There's no question, however, that losing their team leader has set the Red Bull team back in a big way this season.
“We've got to get back on track,” Frye observes. “If your ‘A' guy goes down, it's going to affect the organization. If something unfortunate happened to Jimmie [Johnson] or Jeff [Gordon], it's going to affect those teams. Those guys are incredibly gifted and talented. It's the same way for us with Brian. He's an incredibly talented young racecar driver. It's affected the company.”
As for Vickers, he can't wait to return. “I'm going to make the most out of this and it's the cards I've been dealt and I can't change that right now,” he says. “I'm gonna take every opportunity I can to be positive through this, to deal with it, to learn more, to be better when I get back in the racecar.”SWEDE TASTE
Ekstrom stars on NASCAR debut
Once Brian Vickers was sidelined with blood clots, the entire 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season became a lesson in the school of hard knocks for the Red Bull Racing team. First Vickers got sick, then replacement Casey Mears didn't pan out.
One bright spot was the arrival of 31-year-old Swedish racer Mattias Ekstrom, a longtime Red Bull athlete and twice a champion in Germany's DTM touring car series. Brought in to run the No. 83 Toyota on the lefts and rights of Infineon Raceway (BELOW). Ekstrom led seven laps of the race and looked set for a top-five finish until a close encounter with Brad Keselowski.
On lap 92 of the 110-lap race, Keselowski got a little irrationally exuberant and ran Ekstrom off the track in Turn 8, dumping the Swede from 11th to 34th. That he went on to finish 21st was cold comfort.
Echoing a sentiment shared by Cup regulars, Ekstrom showed he's a quick study, something Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards surely appreciate. “I don't really understand the No. 12 [Keselowski],” Ekstrom commented. “He didn't give me any room. Everybody races each other hard but one guy can't keep his emotions under control.”
RBR's vice president and general manager Jay Frye said of Ekstrom: “We weren't sure what was going to happen or how he'd adapt to these cars, but he adapted very quickly.”
As for the rest of the season, it will be virtually race to race as to who goes into the No. 83, with Reed Sorenson and possibly Aric Almirola getting seat time.
“We need to perform and we need to perform at a high level,” says Frye. “What we're doing right now is trying different combinations to perform as well as we can this year and gain momentum for 2011. We're not done."