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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.

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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph

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