Howell on Blackstock and King, 'Racing with Rich Energy: How a Rogue Sponsor Took Formula One for a Ride'
Elizabeth Blackstock, Alanis King. Racing with Rich Energy: How a Rogue Sponsor Took Formula One for a Ride. Jefferson: McFarland, 2022. viii + 284 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-8880-0.
Reviewed by Mark D. Howell (Northwestern Michigan College) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (February, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58523
A Formula for Fraud
Professional sports have been plagued by charlatans throughout history—cheaters, liars, and all manner of characters who have wormed their way into the hallowed halls of athletic achievement. Whether it be for fortune or fame, individuals of ill repute have been known to affiliate themselves with recognized governing bodies across the world of organized competition. From Ty Cobb (baseball) and Sammy Sosa (baseball) to Lance Armstrong (cycling), Rosie Ruiz (marathoning), and Hansie Cronje (cricket), the desire to win sometimes overshadows the need to play by the rules.
In no sport is this kind of questionable behavior seen more often than in motorsports. Racing’s combination of machinery, technology, and human agency makes dishonesty not only tempting but also almost expected if one hopes to achieve the glory of victory. The underlying necessity, in all forms of motorsport, is money. That money typically comes from sponsors who pay teams’ bills and allow racing to exist. Racing lore has no shortage of relevant examples of dishonest sponsors from which to draw. In NASCAR, one of the biggest money manipulators was the late J. D. Stacy, a self-made millionaire from Kentucky who put his coal mining fortune into as many as seven Cup Series teams at one time (all seven teams competed in the 1982 Daytona 500), although the teams soon fell apart as Stacy’s effort drowned in a sea of broken promises and bounced checks.
Yet such is the oddly trusting nature of motorsports: it can take multiple millions of dollars to be competitive, so race teams must align themselves with corporate benefactors. The majority of these sponsors have well-documented histories chronicled via extensive financial records and government paperwork. These corporate sponsors are honest about their resources and what they can provide to a race team.
Then there was Rich Energy. In their well-written and exhaustively researched book, Elizabeth Blackstock and Alanis King tell the story of the curious relationship between Rich Energy, "a premium and innovative British energy drink," and the Haas Formula One (F1) team, "a true American presence" in the competitive global sport (pp. 20, 74). The book documents the evolution of Rich Energy through the enthusiastic marketing efforts of William Storey, whom the authors call a “classic salesperson” (p. 3).
When Blackstock and King, veteran journalists who wrote for Jalopnik, a widely recognized automotive and motorsport news site, published an online article in 2019 about Rich Energy’s F1 involvement, the company’s existence already seemed a mystery. The popularity of Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive series (2019-) prompted a literary agent to approach the authors and suggest a book about the Rich Energy/Haas F1 saga. The result is an entertaining and riveting narrative that is part tabloid, part investigative journalism, and totally fascinating.
Racing with Rich Energy: How a Rogue Sponsor Took Formula One for a Ride is more than just the story of a rogue, outspoken, and nontraditional self-made chief executive officer; it is also the story of F1’s place atop the pinnacle of international motorsports. F1 events attract A-list celebrities and all manner of hangers-on hoping to mix and mingle with the finest drivers of the world’s most sophisticated racing cars. Blackstock and King do an excellent job explaining both the history and the allure of F1, from its often-poor treatment of women and minorities to its open secrets of team favoritism and insider advantage-taking. Despite all that F1 is criticized for by drivers, teams, the media, and the sport’s fan base, the series is a proving ground for wildly expensive, cutting-edge technology.
F1 technology costs tens of millions of dollars each year, so race teams must have sponsors with incredibly deep pockets. As the 2019 racing season began, Haas F1 believed it had such a benefactor. The businessman at the center of the Rich Energy brand was Storey, a British entrepreneur whose nontraditional, renegade appearance matched his nontraditional, renegade manner of running what he touted as a business. As the authors document throughout their book, Storey ruled a kingdom in the clouds; he openly boasted that Rich Energy was a legitimate rival to challenge the market dominance—and F1 success—of Red Bull. While this claim echoed across Storey’s social media feeds, the Haas F1 team backed (supposedly) by Rich Energy suffered an assortment of competitive indignities.
Blackstock and King provide readers with a behind-the-scenes look into the trials and tribulations of Haas F1, currently the only American team competing in F1. Their book puts the audience amid the anticipation surrounding the 2019 F1 season, one year after Haas “completed its best season since entering the [F1] series in 2016, finishing fifth of 10 in the constructor standings” (p. 73). After a glitzy public debut of their Rich Energy sponsorship, the team hoped to achieve even greater success.
But this success, like concrete evidence of Storey’s energy drink, never truly materialized. While Blackstock and King detail the apparently fictional legacy of Rich Energy, they also introduce their audience to the tensions that emerged as the Haas F1 team struggled to find its technological and competitive footing. Regular viewers of the Drive to Survive Netflix series will likely be familiar with the Haas team’s experiences during the 2019 F1 season. Financial uncertainty was only one of the woes that Haas F1 faced that year. Blackstock and King take us behind the pit wall, through the paddock area, and inside the team’s shop, where their Ferrari-powered cars were engineered, prepared, and (all too often) repaired. Team drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean wrestled with poor qualifying efforts and equally trying race performances. Guenther Steiner, Haas F1’s team principal/manager, faced off against his drivers, the media, and anyone who would listen to his profanity-laden rants about the sorry state of the Haas operation. Throughout Racing with Rich Energy, we see the extreme pressure leveled on Haas F1 through its invisible financial ties to Storey. The authors also take us deep within an assortment of court proceedings during which the legitimacy of the bombastic Storey and the tangible existence of his supposedly globally beloved, yet nearly impossible to purchase, Rich Energy beverage were challenged.
What makes Racing with Rich Energy so interesting is its attention to transparency. As experienced automotive journalists, Blackstock and King clearly explain and justify their every investigative move. Their documentation is impressive. Given that much of their supporting evidence was drawn from social media, their inclusion of both detailed attributive tags and in-text notation provides the audience with a precise trail of concrete supporting evidence. Some readers might find the extensive documentation cumbersome, but the level of detailed transparency exhibited throughout the pages of Racing with Rich Energy is essential thanks to the mysterious nature of the Storey/Rich Energy F1 saga. Blackstock and King spent more than two years chasing corporate smoke; every post, tweet, refused email request, and missed appointment led to more questions, suspicions, and frustrations. About the only insights they could trust came from anonymous interviews with Haas F1 employees and discussions the authors had with fellow motorsports journalists familiar with the Rich Energy controversy. Racing with Rich Energy puts Blackstock and King in line to become the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of F1.
Blackstock and King take their audience to a world where technology, hard work, and money are necessary for success. While this world is exciting, exotic, and filled with beautiful people, it is also a world populated by corporate criminals, liars, cheats, and all manner of charlatans looking to become part of the F1 lifestyle. Racing with a legitimate sponsor dedicated to winning championships, like Red Bull, makes this world go around. Trying to race with a sponsor whose financial documents, production records, and commercial availability are impossible to ascertain, on the other hand, shows the unsavory depths of what this world can become. As long as motorsports attract ne'er-do-wells, there will be a need for books like Racing with Rich Energy.
. Alanis King and Elizabeth Blackstock, "What You Find When You Look Into Rich Energy, the Mystery Sponsor of America’s F1 Team," Jalopnik, April 10, 2019, https://jalopnik.com/what-you-find-when-you-look-into-rich-energy-the-myste-1833303620.
Citation: Mark D. Howell. Review of Blackstock, Elizabeth; King, Alanis, Racing with Rich Energy: How a Rogue Sponsor Took Formula One for a Ride. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58523This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.