AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, the co-founder of energy drink company Red Bull and founder and owner of the Red Bull Formula One racing team, has died. He was 78.
Officials with the Red Bull racing team at the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, announced Mateschitz’s death Saturday. There was no immediate word where he died, or a cause of death.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of motor sports governing body FIA, said Mateschitz was “a towering figure in motor sport.”
“The thoughts of all the FIA family are with his loved ones at this time and he will be greatly missed.”
Mateschitz gained fame as the public face of Red Bull, an Austrian-Thai conglomerate that says it sold nearly 10 billion cans of its caffeine and taurine-based drink in 172 countries worldwide last year.
Mateschitz not only helped the energy drink become popular around the world, but also built up a sports, media, real estate and gastronomy empire around the brand.
With the growing success of Red Bull, he significantly expanded his investments in sports, specifically motorsports and extreme sports, and Red Bull now operates football clubs, ice hockey teams and F1 racing teams. Red Bull also has contracts with hundreds of athletes in various sports and a deep driver development program to get racers to the top level.
“It’s been hard news for everyone — what he has meant for Red Bull, and of course the sport, and especially for me,” said Max Verstappen, who wrapped up his second consecutive F1 title two weeks ago.
Verstappen on Sunday at Circuit of the Americas will try to tie Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel with an F1-record 13 victories in a season, and he’ll also attempt to clinch the constructors championship for Red Bull.
“What he has done for me, my career so far, and in general my life, it’s really tough, it’s a really tough day,” Verstappen said. “There’s still a race ahead and we’re going to try to make him proud tomorrow.”
Mateschitz and Thai investor Chaleo Yoovidhya founded the company in 1984 after Mateschitz recognized the potential in marketing Krating Daeng – another energy drink created by Chaleo – for a western audience. Red Bull says Mateschitz worked on the formula for three years before the modified drink was launched under its new name in his native Austria in 1987.
Under Mateschitz’ stewardship, Red Bull quickly increased its market share, first in Europe, then in the United States, helped by marketing campaigns promoting the drink’s claimed stimulating properties and extensive sponsorship agreements in motorsports, soccer, extreme sports and the music industry.
The Red Bull Racing team has enjoyed success in Formula 1, winning the constructors’ championship in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, while German driver Vettel won four drivers’ championships in row while signed to the team.
Verstappen started in Red Bull’s driver development program and became the youngest driver in F1 history to start a grand prix when he started with the junior Toro Rosso team at age 17 in 2015. The Dutchman is now the most dominant driver in the sport.
“So many of us have to be so grateful to him for the opportunities he’s provided and the vision he had, the strength of character, and never being afraid to follow dreams, and chase dreams. That’s what he did here in F1, proving that you can make a difference,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told Sky Sports F1.
“We’re just incredibly grateful for him, everything that he’s done, everything that he’s supported us with over the years,” Horner added. “So many drivers, so many team members, so many people in this pit lane owe him so much. He was incredibly proud of the team, incredibly proud of everything we’ve done and have been achieving, and he’s been a passionate supporter and the backbone of everything that we do.”
Red Bull operates soccer teams in top divisions across Austria, Germany, Brazil and the United States. The company started by buying Austrian club SV Austria Salzburg in 2005 and rebranding it in the company colors under the name Red Bull Salzburg.
It repeated the move in Germany, where it bought fifth-tier club SSV Markranstädt in 2009, rebranded it as RasenBallsport Leipzig, and financed its steady progress through the league system till it was promoted to the Bundesliga in 2016. German league regulations prevented the company from naming the team Red Bull Leipzig – its name in German, RasenBallsport, means “grass ball sport Leipzig” but the club just refers to itself as RB Leipzig.
Mateschitz also made headlines for his populist views. He previously criticized German chancellor Angela Merkel for her handling of the refugee crisis over 2015-16. The Austrian Servus TV station, owned by Red Bull Media House GmbH, is known for promoting right-wing provocative views.
Mateschitz bought the Jaguar Racing team from previous owner Ford at the end of 2004 and rebranded it as Red Bull for the 2005 season. Later that year, he then also bought Minardi and renamed it Toro Rosso, astutely using it as a feeder team for Red Bull.