Sometimes in sports, the unexpected happens. Three weeks ago, Brian Vickers was hospitalized after a trip to Washington, D.C. for what at the time was a mysterious condition. Forced to sit out that weekend’s race in Dover, speculation ran rampant as to what was keeping him out of the car.
Those questions were answered in Charlotte, when Vickers and Red Bull Racing Vice President and General Manager Jay Frye met with the media prior to the All-Star weekend. What doctors had discovered following a series of medical tests was that Vickers had blood clots in both legs and his lung. Audible gasps were heard in the room as the young man admitted he’d be out far longer than expected.
“The announcement that I have to make right now is that… due to what’s happened and due to the blood thinners, that I’m on that I will be out of the car for a minimum of six months, for the rest of the year,” Vickers said. “If something changes and I can get in sooner, then great. Right now, it’s going to be the remainder of the season. As you can imagine, that is killing me. No pun intended.”
As you could imagine, this news was not only a setback to Vickers, but also to the entire Red Bull organization. With its number one driver forced to sit out the remainder of the 2010 season, Casey Mears was brought in to serve as his replacement. That leaves them facing a hurtle that would set the best of teams back; but that’s not Red Bull Racing’s attitude. Instead, their leadership remains confident they can get through this situation and emerge even stronger.
“It changes things, obviously, a lot,” Frye told Frontstretch. “Your guy is out and he’s out for the season; but again, in other sports this happens often too. Your quarterback goes down, your best pitcher, whatever. We’re kind of in that situation. The team will go on. Brian still needs to do what he needs to do to get better.”
“What it allows us to do is experiment with things a little differently than we would have going forward,” Frye added. “When you go day-to-day out here and you’re always in a point battle, you can’t really experiment. So now, it gives us a little latitude to do things differently than what we may have done before.”
During the past two weeks in Charlotte, the main focus was getting Mears accustomed to the organization and comfortable in the car. Typically one of the strongest tracks for Vickers and the No. 83 team, crew chief Ryan Pemberton and Mears worked throughout the weekend at Charlotte trying to find a happy medium for him behind the wheel. They never did, with Mears running 29th in the race to drop the No. 83 well over 200 points outside the Chase.
“Yeah, we have to regroup as a team – I wouldn’t say it’s regroup – there’s definitely a learning curve and some things we need to sort through to get better,” Pemberton said. “The drivers are a huge part of the team, and you’ve got to cater and build the car around them and their driving styles.”
Pemberton went on to admit there was “an awful lot” the team had to learn moving forward, but remained positive as he looked down the road towards the remainder of the year.
“We just lost our all-star center, all-star quarterback, however you want to look at it,” Pemberton said. “We have a lot of work to do. We’ve got a great team here with the Red Bull bunch and we’ve got a lot of support, a lot of people working hard.
In his first outing with the team, Mears finished 22nd, three laps down at Dover. This past weekend at Charlotte, the team never seemed to figure out the right set up for the car that worked to Mears’s liking and the results showed. Despite a 13th-place qualifying run, the No. 83 that still carries Vickers’s name above the door dropped through the field quickly. At the end of the day the team finished 29th, one spot ahead of teammate Scott Speed, both cars multiple laps down.
In only his second full year at the Cup level, Speed now finds himself as the lead driver at Red Bull Racing. Since making the move from open-wheel, Speed has struggled, as most open-wheel converts have, finding his footing in NASCAR. Now thrust into the lead role will the team, Speed has the opportunity to grow with the organization and learn from a new teammate that brings experience from programs such as Hendrick, Ganassi and Childress.
In his driver diary for Frontstretch, Speed said he felt the team was handling the situation as best they could, but admitted the loss of Vickers was a setback that will be felt for the immediate future.
“The good thing is that Brian is going to try to help out in a different regard as much as possible,” said Speed. “It obviously won’t be the same without having him in the car and giving input directly. That being said, looking at the positive side, maybe Casey can bring something new to the table, information he’s learned from different teams he’s worked with. That can add some value, but certainly the immediate effects are not positive.”
“Brian was obviously the veteran guy on the team and now Scott is,” Frye explained. “It’s an opportunity for him to – it shouldn’t affect how he performed before or how he is now. Now he’s the lead guy on the team and the lead Red Bull guy. We expect different things from him now, between now and the end of the year. We’re certain he can do that and step up to the plate.”
Helping Speed in his transition into the Cup ranks over the last season and a half has been crew chief Jimmy Elledge. Over the years, Elledge has worked with drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Sr., Kenny Wallace, Bobby Hamilton, AJ Allmendinger and had a two-year stint with Mears.
When asked if he felt Speed was ready to be thrust in the role of veteran driver on the team, Elledge hesitated in his response, remaining realistic.
“I don’t know if you are ever ready for that role,” Elledge admitted. “You either inherit it or you step up to it. Right now we’ve inherited it, but I wouldn’t say we were necessarily at the right experience level yet to say we are that right at the moment. Until the other team gets a little bit more established with Casey – Casey has a lot of experience to offer, but until they get blended together and he understands the cars and the team, we’ll probably get back to the way we were with that team. It should work out with time, but I wouldn’t definitely say the No. 82 is the car to lead Red Bull to where we are going.”
Following this weekend’s results, the experimenting Frye eluded to began at Red Bull Racing. On Tuesday, it was announced Elledge and Pemberton would swap teams, with Elledge reuniting with Mears on the No. 83 car. Since the two worked together while racing for Chip Ganassi, the thought is Elledge would have an easier time working with his former driver as he tries to continue the team’s progress toward 2011.
“The whole thing now is the team having good momentum going into 2011,” Frye said this weekend in Charlotte. “We’re not discounting 2010, we still expect to compete at a high level and think we can, but again this allows us to do something different. Again, with having a guy like Casey who has no preconceived notion, because he’s new to our team, we try to throw some things at him and he can evaluate them.”
This team definitely has a daunting task as they move forward in the 2010 season. Months of planning and preparation with Vickers in mind as the lead driver for the team had to be scrapped essentially overnight. Right now, the focus at the Red Bull Racing shop is keeping the teams competitive on a week-to-week basis, learning as much as they can for the 2011 season and doing whatever it takes to ensure Vickers is able to climb back behind the wheel of a competitive ride once he is able.