October 5 marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Dwain Weston. Weston was known in extreme-sports circles as a star BASE jumper; the abbreviation stands for building, antenna, span and earth -- which participants leap from with parachutes.
Last year at this time, Weston was a featured performer in the Royal Gorge Go Fast Games, a display of extreme sports such as big-wall speed climbing and BMX tricks. Having already completed a BASE jump off the 1,100-foot-high Royal Gorge Bridge outside Cañon City, Weston was finishing his day by vaulting out of a plane. Wearing a "wing suit" with fabric that provided an aerodynamic glide, he was traveling at an estimated 100 miles per hour when he miscalculated the winds swirling inside the gorge and slammed into one of the bridge's railings. For thirty-year-old Weston, the spectacle billed as "The World's Most Extreme Event" turned out to be just that.
This weekend, the show goes on. The Royal Gorge Go Fast Games again promise the wonderment of athletes performing on the lip of danger. Despite last year's tragedy, there was little question that Denver-based Go Fast, an energy-drink and apparel company, would host the event once more. "We couldn't not do it because we're afraid," says founder and CEO Troy Widgery.
Fearlessness is part and parcel of Go Fast's formula. Last spring the company sponsored an amateur space shot. It also plasters its name on a man with a jet-pack, a rocket-powered street luger, a record-holding snowmobile jumper and a skydiver who recently set a new standard for bailing out of a plane with the smallest parachute ever used.
For sponsors of extreme sports, the promise of peril -- the fear-factor -- is what pulls young people in. Yet such deals are a delicate balancing act between promoting edgy entertainment and accepting responsibility when things go horribly wrong.
As Weston's death shows, it's not a hypothetical issue. Energy drinks have played a growing role in the promotion of extreme activities. In an effort to distinguish themselves from one another, the most aggressive companies are aligning themselves with ever-more-daring athletes who take bigger and bigger chances.
If anyone understands the siren call of personal peril, it's Widgery. A Denver native, Widgery started racing midget cars at an age when most kids learn to ride a bike, and motorcycles when he was barely out of elementary school. His real love, though, was falling out of planes, a sport he started when his friends were still trying to get their driver's licenses.
"The adrenaline, the intensity, for that thirty or sixty seconds, every second is that same rush, your peak performance," he says. He glimpsed the dark side of his passions in April 1992, when he was performing on a skydiving team and his plane crashed near Los Angeles. Widgery and five others survived, but fifteen skydivers and the pilot died.
When he was 21, he decided to combine his addiction to action with a budding flair for promotion. Widgery, who'd already started several small home-repair companies, founded Sky Systems, which created an elastic band used to pack parachutes, and expanded into skydiving and water-skiing helmets.
Later, Widgery realized it could also be profitable to hawk an idea or feeling -- sales in which actual items were secondary. His first foray into image-driven products was in 1999. With the millennium approaching, Widgery and some buddies trademarked the time "11:59." The company's "Millennium Wear" line eventually tanked. But the idea of shoehorning a tangible product into a vague concept had taken hold.
"Go fast" as a phrase came about when Widgery and a friend were performing together on a skydiving team. Their coach at the time was constantly advising them to "go slow." "If your brain gets ahead of yourself, you're going to make mistakes," Widgery explains. Still, the jumpers were cowboys, so each time the coach cautioned them, Widgery and a friend would look at each other and whisper, "Go fast!"
The saying started appearing on their helmets and punctuating their conversations. They next plastered it on a few shirts, which the skydivers who were in on the joke loved. Other extreme athletes, such as motorcycle racers, began adopting the slogan as well, and in 1996 Widgery started Go Fast Sports Inc. to market clothes with the motto emblazoned on them. As he'd hoped, it came to represent more than just words.
"It's not just a phrase. It's no longer the words Œgo fast' -- it's the lifestyle," Widgery explains. The clothes, then, were more than just outerwear. "The products support the culture."
Of course,T-shirts and jackets can take a lifestyle only so far. A few years later, Widgery started wondering what other products might support a culture represented by a slogan. He found the answer when he started gulping energy drinks.
Those beverages first started showing up in this country about seven years ago, when Austrian-based Red Bull began exporting to the U.S. Packed with exotic-sounding herbs and extracts, and fueled by caffeine, the drink appealed to young adults and teenagers who believed it was healthy -- but who also loved the caffeine afterburner.
Red Bull soared in popularity, with hundreds of knockoffs introduced over the next half-dozen years. Though much of that growth was among young jocks, the drinks also have become popular mixers in bars. Today, says John Craven, editor of BevNet, a web-based newsletter that covers the soft-drink industry, energy drinks earn nearly $400 million in revenue annually.
The trick for newcomers is to stand out in such a crowded market, through unique ingredients or flashy promotions. Widgery says he researched the Go Fast ingredients himself on the Internet, then hired a chemist to blend them.
The drink in the bright-red can made its debut in October 2001. Its introduction represented a curious advertising milestone, flipping the traditional product-to-placement-to-slogan path on its head. It was as if Nike had written the words "Just do it" and then invented sneakers to fit the attitude the words conveyed.
Since then, Go Fast has adopted Red Bull's marketing strategy of aligning itself with edgy sports, from 24-hour bicycle marathoners to BASE jumpers and motocross riders. Widgery says he receives more than a hundred proposals a week asking Go Fast to sponsor events, but only the crme de la crme are accepted: "It has to be cool enough that it fits in with the brand."
Some are less athletic than others; all are designed to attract maximum attention. A year ago this past spring, for example, the company announced its "Go Fast, Come Home Soon" campaign. It promised that for every case of Go Fast purchased on its website, the company would donate another case to U.S. troops.
Revenue figures are a secret, but Widgery claims that Go Fast sales have doubled each year, with the expectation that this year's will be triple those of 2003. He credits his two-word slogan for appealing to people in an authentic way.
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"It's not a manufactured brand," he says. "That's why the big guys can't make it work -- the Cokes and Pepsis. They don't have the story. These big companies, if you take away their cans and their beverage, what do they have? Nothing. If you take away Go Fast, what do we have? We still have the brand, the lifestyle."
Although he insists he won't enter into sponsorship arrangements that are "blatantly irresponsible or blatantly dangerous," Widgery also has trouble identifying where, exactly, to draw the line. "People may think it's crazy," he notes. "But if someone involved in the sport says it's crazy, we wouldn't do it."
What about a daredevil going over Niagara Falls? Widgery is dismissive -- sort of. "We wouldn't sponsor the guy who went over without a barrel," he says, shaking his head. "We wouldn't sponsor that.
"But maybe a guy in a barrel..."