Cult of the Can: Red Bull Fine-Tunes the Science of Hype
The high-noon sun was a charm, and everybody stared into it, searching for a human form.
Jon DeVore stood over air on the skid of a helicopter, altitude five grand. A mile below, South Florida lay flat, like a slide-mounted specimen. A moment before release. His white knuckles, gripping a metal bar, held his destiny and then — after five-four-three-two-one with Clint Clawson, his jump partner — let it go.
The freefall takes about ten seconds, and the only stomach-butterflies part is the first irreversible instant, accelerating from zero. By the end of those ten seconds, DeVore and Clawson were falling at 219 miles per hour. The downtown buildings were still far away, between the glimmering ocean and the dense-black Everglades, but they were pulling up fast.
DeVore reached behind him, retrieved his pilot chute, and chucked it back into the wind. In an instant, everything stopped: The buildings stopped coming, a force jerked his neck, and the straps on his body harness pulled him back like a 328-mph elevator slamming to a halt.
Red Bull — the silver can, the promise — appeared in DeVore's life when he was a pioneering young jumper at a drop zone in Arizona. He met some of the company's employees: about a dozen Austrian guys wandering America, selling a caffeinated elixir with the taste of alien candy and the color of dehydrated piss. Two years later, in 1999, DeVore was branded. The company took his private thrill and groomed it into something marketable.
Covered in Red Bull logos, DeVore floated half a mile above Earth. There was a target down there, just off the snaking river inlet, where people gathered as hundreds of specks. Now the buildings were more real, and the big, blue tower by the river, shaped like a butterfly, presented its rooftop cooling units and came up to meet him, then pulled on past, near as a train you'd run to catch.
They were close. A tug on the left brake handle swung DeVore in line with Las Olas Boulevard. A quick shift to the front flaps, both at a time, put him into a dive over the Huizenga Plaza fountain, and he could already envision his footsteps on the grass. Pull the back lines — ten feet now, eight, five — to flare out, down to walking speed, feet outstretched, and he was among the people on the ground, his nylon train deflating behind him, and everybody cheered. He turned to watch Clawson sweep between the trees and run up to him. They met in a high-five — after countless completions and a decade of falling together — and the party was on. Effervescent, the crowd moved toward the stage, then to the river.
The people had come to see a boat race. For the 20 teams involved, this was the prescription: Draw up plans for a boat built from stuff you bought or gathered. Drive hundreds of miles to join a shock of sweating humans in Fort Lauderdale one Saturday afternoon in April. Drink a ton of caffeine and sugar, and throw your contraption into a body of water that runs deeper than any human history down here. Reshape that water for a day into an amphitheater of absurdity and failure that would make a Roman proud.
Red Bull USA won't say who had the idea for the inaugural "Red Bull Candola" race — perhaps someone in a conference room in Santa Monica or Atlanta. But by then, much of America had seen Red Bull events before and was in on the joke. The boats would sink, people would swim and splash and get rescued, and it would be a blast. Ever ride your bike into the pool? Yeah, that.
Rather than peddling a vision of something unattainable (friends you'll never have, boobs you'll never touch, athletes swaddled in limousines and cable packages), the company gains your allegiance by showing up in your life at opportune moments and watching, like an approving older brother, while you do ridiculous things. Red Bull, your wingman, your "wings."
With all the underenergized individuals seeking entertainment across our country, there's amazing untapped marketing potential for something exciting and in-the-flesh. But why can't this happen all the time? Why do we need some northern European taurine racket to tell us it's OK to have fun in our own backyard?
Beats us, say the Austrians. But they're happy, because we're drinking it up.
Pablo Muñoz stood on the bank of the New River and observed the tidal current. It was Friday afternoon, the day before the race.
"We shouldn't build it over there," he said to three contractors from Southern Cross Boat Works who were working with him to build a temporary dock for temporary boats. "That's the thing for the city. Water comes out all the time." Minutes earlier, a valve somewhere had opened and a smooth-sided slosh of storm-water runoff had erupted into the calm. Remnants of froth crept toward the opposite bank.
"We have 16 sheets of plywood," he told the men, tapping something into his phone as he walked away. "Put plywood on the gaps and carpet the whole thing. And hey, put some advertising for our company. Not too big."
The New River was named for shifting banks that evaded early cartographers with each revision. Now the banks are fixed, reinforced with concrete and steel. The river's course is guarded by a smug armada of white fiberglass, neatly moored. The formula of luxury, of acceptable fun, that plies the river and its tributary canals through "the Venice of America" is as staid as a folded mainsail, with its attendant rituals, both high and low: champagne or Bud, sundress or sunburn, silver or platinum.
This weekend, that would change. By early afternoon on Friday, teams of three were beginning to arrive with homemade boats, which they set up at marked-off spaces on the lawn in Huizenga Plaza. They drank free Red Bull from coolers and finished putting together their crafts. Most of the contestants were male, in their 20s, and they came from as near as Fort Lauderdale and Miami and as far away as Georgia. Iowa State's Red Bull events team, which travels the country participating in such things, had canceled its trip due to budget issues.
Near the band shell, Adam Errington, a 20-year-old professional Red Bull wakeboarder from Orlando and 2007 Rookie of the Year, was talking shop with two 20-something "Red Bull Wings Team" girls in matching tank tops who stood over a can-shaped cooler.
"We're going to send out some girls to Red Bull bars tonight," said one of the girls. "We have a list of all the places in town that serve it." Her modified Red Bull Mini Cooper with refrigerated compartments and a giant replica can on the roof was parked nearby, ready to impress.
They told Errington to keep an eye out for their friend. "She has really thick, dark hair. She'll be over at YOLO. That's right by your hotel."
"Cool," he said.
There's not much to do in Warner Robins, Georgia, except play Xbox with your childhood friends, earn a wage at one of the local fast-casual restaurants, or wander around Walmart at night. The routines of mundane commerce are hard to escape. The town surrounds Robins Air Force Base, near a Y of highways that lead east to Savannah or south to Valdosta and Florida's Turnpike.
J.R. Peeples, Winston Massey, and Adam Goolsby took the southward path early Friday morning. They crammed into J.R.'s white Lexus ES 300, singing and dozing with a can of Pringles and the makings of a crude vessel. They stopped near the college in Valdosta to pick up Kyle Pearce, who would row for the three-man team. Adam had given his place on the team to Kyle after a dispute with Winston over how to build the boat, but he was coming along to watch. Adam and Winston had been friends since they were small, and it was the kind of friendship that's prone to blow up and recover just as fast.
Winston, a tan-skinned 26-year-old with dark, buzzed hair and a quiet demeanor, had drawn up plans for the boat with a ballpoint pen and submitted them to Red Bull headquarters a month before. Winston had lived in Warner Robins all his life, but he dreamed of leaving.
He studied aeronautics in college and earned his pilot's license. He wanted to become a captain for a commercial airline. He loved flying, looking down at the crawling on-ramps and vacuous cul-de-sacs that had formed his world, heading to places he'd never seen.
In the trunk of the Lexus was an inflatable camping mattress and a mess of color-coded PVC pipes and joints that would fit together like a covered wagon to ford the river. A tarp, duct tape, and several bags of red balloons to decorate the outside of the boat rounded out the provisions.
It was late afternoon when they arrived in Fort Lauderdale and saw the first Red Bull Candola banners hanging along the roadway; they parked by the Las Olas River House (the blue condo tower in the heart of the city) and signed their waivers at a card table near the girls and the coolers. It was still hot on the lawn, even after the sun sank behind the City Park garage, and the boys began to wonder where they'd go to drink later. The pieces of pipe were tedious to put together, and they needed more balloons. Also, paddles. And an air pump. "We'll have to go to Walmart," said J.R.
Excitement led Adam and J.R. to take a baptismal swim in the river. Just after night fell, J.R., a compact 27-year-old about to graduate with a communications degree from Macon State; and Adam, a tall, kind-eyed 26-year-old who still had the buzzcut from his Air Force days at Fort Walton Beach, walked barefoot across the grass trailing a net full of inflated red balloons.
Things were dark and quiet at the river; Pablo's temporary dock bobbed, and diners laughed across the water at the Downtowner Saloon. Cars made a hhuuuhhh sound as they passed over the Andrews Avenue drawbridge's metal grate. J.R. and Adam walked along the Riverwalk until they found a ladder under the bridge.
The floating net of balloons started emitting a chorus of pops as soon as J.R. climbed on top of it; it was wedged against the sharp barnacles on the river wall. Adam jumped in and rolled ungracefully onboard.
Back to back, the friends lolled and paddled across the river, leaving a trail of balloons in their wake. Two children on the bridge's pedestrian ramp cheered and waved at the two swimmers splashing in the dark. Tourists stopped to smile and shake their heads. When they reached the dock on the other side, J.R. and Adam heaved themselves out of the water, then pulled out what was left of their balloons and came back over the bridge.
They dried off, encrusted with the stick of sweat and brine. With no Walmart nearby, they headed to Target, where they wandered the empty aisles and J.R. addressed the red-shirted employees as "sir" and "ma'am."
When they returned an hour later, their friends were still in the park putting the boat together. Driving back along Las Olas Boulevard, J.R. marveled at the lights and people streaming past his windshield. Warner Robins didn't even have a T.G.I. Friday's, and it certainly didn't have these warm spaces of modern elegance, adorned with girls who could be in commercials, tightly wrapped and covered in sequins, just passing on by.
The teams were up early the next morning, still nursing hangovers and a sleep deficit. The Georgia boys had been up late, building and partying, then rehearsing a skit on the beach until 5 a.m. (each team would be expected to put on a two-minute skit before the race). A crew from WPLG-TV (Channel 10) arrived at Huizenga Plaza early on Saturday for a live broadcast, and race day commenced. The guys, who named their team "99 RED BULLoons" in a vague homage to the '80s song by Nena, arrived around 8 o'clock and sized up their competition.
They met Adam Haas and Ameer Malik, two friends from Miami who stood by a long, narrow wooden boat tiled with flattened-out Red Bull cans. "Maybe they'll give us extra points," remarked Ameer. They had a small boom box playing upbeat music, and they handed out cards to early visitors instructing them to vote for their team by text message in the People's Choice contest. They were already incredibly high-strung.
"We've had a few Red Bulls," said Adam. "Red Bull 37," laughed Ameer. "Hey, want to come see my dinghy?" said Adam, to anyone who might hear. "Hey, come check it out! Come look at my 12-foot dinghy! Vote for team 18! Club 18 right here!" Ameer, who had designed and built the boat with his grandfather, squirted a water gun.
When they got tired of shouting, Adam and Ameer went over to flirt with the only all-female team, a group of girls from Palm Beach Atlantic University. Amanda Rypkema, their team leader, explained the premise: "It's like, we just escaped from Gilligan's Island, you know?" Their boat was a piece of wood straddling three inflatable rings, painted brown and decked in leaves and hay. It did not look dependable.
In the adjacent space, the attitude was more serious. Three shirtless young men with minimal body fat posed around a sleek vessel made of duct tape stretched around bent steel tubing. Sam Risberg, Hayden Pollack, and Jordan Berke were engineering students at Florida State University in Tallahassee, and they all had the born-again appearance of incurable nerds who decided to start getting laid.
Hayden, short with rough hair, came forward with an energetic gleam in his eye. "I ran computer models for the whole thing and located the center of gravity," he explained. "I didn't factor in the tensile strength of the duct tape; that's one thing I didn't do..." He trailed off. "But this boat can hold 970 pounds without sinking!"
Brian Cattelle, sober for nearly a year, stood dressed like an alien by his carved-out styrofoam longboat, painted silver. His fidgety teammate, Tim Myers, was filming a public-access television segment for teens: "We didn't need to drink or use drugs. We had a heck of a good time. Don't do drugs, buy some Styrofoam, make a boat!" Their boat included an ad for SoBe Sober, a Miami nonprofit that discourages teen drinking; and another for Red Bull.
The brand was everywhere. The brand sat atop all other brands, daring them to appear. No outside food or drink was allowed. Freelance photographers hired by Red Bull took pictures with a mandate that every shot must include the logo (two bulls crashing heads atop an ever-shining sun). Water bottles bobbed up from coolers with a sticky ring where the label had been torn away. No other brands would compete in this contest.
It was time to start. The national anthem crackled over the speakers, and everyone looked up into the sun.
Once the event was under way, the teams posed by their boats for evaluation by "celebrity judges": Errington, fellow wakeboarder J.D. Robb, and Miami radio personality Ninalicia Osorio from Y100. A sweating MC circulated and joked crudely with the contestants, and the People's Choice text messages flooded in. Then it was time for the "showmanship" competition.
Onstage, the teams performed their skits, many of which involved men stripping to their underwear and making thrusting motions. The judges joked, or actually they were probably serious, about giving more points to the skits that included copious use of the Red Bull trademark.
J.R. and Adam stood near their boat, watching the duct-tape engineers gyrate in robot costumes, when disaster struck. They turned around and saw someone moving inside the fragile dome of their boat. At first, they thought it was Winston, making last-minute repairs. Then a drunk stranger in a white tank top stuck his head out of an opening to pose for a photo. He stumbled, back and to the side, and brought the whole thing down in a heap. The tourist extracted himself, nice and sweaty.
"You're going to go down the river in this?" he slurred in a European accent.
"We were," said J.R.
The boat was destroyed. The dome of pipes and tarp, which was supposed to resemble a horizontal Red Bull can, was reduced to a crumpled mess dotted with deflated balloons. Only the air mattress was left.
Crowds gathered on the banks, and Red Bull employees dressed in gondolier attire (striped shirts, flat hats) struggled to keep things moving smoothly. Teams were performing skits, then dragging their boats to the dock and attempting to launch two at a time.
The "Hawaiian Tango Boys," a group of men from Fort Lauderdale, did a hula in grass skirts in front of the crowds and judges, but when they got to the water, their boat was stuck in line, and they had to wait. Some spectators were running back and forth from the stage to the river, and others didn't seem to care what was going on. The sun was hot. The show came to a halt when the bridge opened for a passing yacht. "If we can just get a good rhythm going," one worker said to another through the walkie-talkie on his shoulder. Eventually somebody decided to change the routine: They would finish all the remaining skits, then launch.
Vessels filled the water: Jet Skis for videography, a boat-salvage tug, a police boat, several smaller craft. Finally, amid the smell of barbecued meat and suntan lotion, J.R., Kyle, and Winston toted a lone air mattress, stripped of its boat-like components, to the water's edge. Forlornly, it agreed to float. It was a humble solution even in this festival of half-assedness.
The MC who was narrating the launches laughed at them. "I'll bet anyone $20 that that thing is going to sink," he said.
"Hey, I have $20," said Errington, who was sitting on the dock with the other judges. The bet was on.
The truth is in the crash.
The Gilligan's Island girls floated for ten seconds; then their raft listed and heaved underneath them, and they splashed into the water. "Let's swim it!" shouted Amanda, and they did.
Adam, Ameer, and their teammate, Andre Rodrigues, capsized completely and needed to be rescued by a roving towboat. One unfortunate box-shaped boat shed materials almost immediately after entering the water.
Near the halfway mark of the third-of-a-mile course, a boat built by members of Coast Guard Sector Miami began to take on water and sink. Their boat was made of cardboard covered in biodegradable paint. A Barbie doll fixed to the bow was their siren; U.S. and Coast Guard flags fluttered at the back. As it sank, the guardsmen jumped out of the cardboard cutter and swam in long sidestrokes toward the finish. Sean McNamara, the team leader, swam beside the other two. He held the American flag and the Barbie doll, salvaged from the boat. He swam with one hand, holding the flag over his head, refusing to let it touch the water.
J.R., Kyle, and Winston finished the course in just under ten minutes without falling off the mattress. Afterward, they stood dripping wet and posed together for a cameraman.
The ten heats of the race were nearly over. People strolled down the Riverwalk en masse, back to the park where they'd find out who won for fastest time, best skit, and People's Choice. Adam, who had been walking along the bank taking pictures of his friends on the mattress, joined them. The atmosphere was more mellow now. People were getting tired.
The "Techno Vikings," a team from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, won the race in a dark-brown homemade longboat. They paddled it dressed in heavy faux-fur costumes sewed by a team member's girlfriend's grandmother. "Carpe D'Alien," the team of recovering alcoholics in silver alien regalia, took second place as well as the People's Choice award. The winning teams received trophies made of Red Bull cans and gift certificates to local restaurants.
In a few hours, the river would return to its normal state, plied by pleasure craft carrying a privileged few. Falling into it would be a bad thing again.
Jon DeVore and Clint Clawson were finishing lunch on Las Olas. The next day, the skydivers would fly to their next drop site and do it all over again: releasing, falling, swooping, high-five.
J.R., Adam, Kyle, and Winston would have breakfast at Hooters, then pile back into the Lexus for a nine-hour drive back to the shadowed, carpeted corners of the hometown they'd always known, to do their own things for a while and to sleep.
But first: It was Saturday night in Fort Lauderdale. Tonight, they would take all they could from the city streets before collapsing in a beachside motel room where the air was warm and full of salt. Tonight, they would drink.
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