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, said Saturday that Mateschitz had died.
There was no immediate word where he died, or a cause of death.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner paid tribute to Mateschitz shortly before its drivers Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez got in their cars for qualifying at the U.S. race.
“He is the reason that we are here. It was his passion for Formula One and his vision. He was always enthusiastic, encouraging and supportive on the good days and the bad days,” Horner said. “I feel privileged to have known him. For the whole team now, despite the shock, we’re going to do exactly what he would have wanted, which is to go there with his cars and do the very best that we can, and try to close this constructor’s championship (title) down.”
Red Bull driver Verstappen has already secured the drivers’ title for a second straight season.
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. Red Bull now operates football clubs, ice hockey teams and F1 racing teams, and has contracts with hundreds of athletes in various sports.
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 Sebastian Vettel won four drivers’ championships in row while signed to the team.
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 the team as a feed team for Red Bull.
“It’s important that we recognize everything that he’s contributed to the sport,” Horner said. “Not just this sport, but it goes way, way beyond that.”