The "rich uncle" is Dietrich Mateschitz, the company's reclusive founder. Mateschitz had been a marketing executive in the 1980s when he discovered a Thai energy drink called Krating Daeng; he secured the distribution rights, tarted it up for Western palates, and proceeded to create – and dominate – the energy-drink market. (Red Bull's 2008 sales topped $4.3 billion.) One way he did that was through savvy, nontraditional marketing, sponsoring athletes like McConkey to push the limits of their sports. The more radical (and dangerous) their exploits, the more media coverage they would draw – and the more exposure Red Bull would get.
"If the whole world thought that we were totally sane and understood the sport we do the way we understand it, then people wouldn't be as interested," McConkey said in a Fox interview weeks before he died. "And I wouldn't get paid to do it. I think it's great that people think we're nuts. It's on TV right now because people think it's nuts."
McConkey worked tirelessly developing new projects for Red Bull, all of his own devising. "Part of our relationship with him was to say, What ideas do you have?" says one Red Bull employee who worked with McConkey. "He would come back with, on paper, the scariest-sounding trips ever. But that was Shane."
The answer from Red Bull was almost always the same: Go for it. Mateschitz is particularly obsessed with flight – he maintains an aviation museum in Austria, not far from Red Bull's headquarters - and McConkey's quest to fly was right up his alley. Just before his death, McConkey had filmed a TV spot in which he performs a spectacular ski-BASE, lands it, and says to the camera, "Welcome to my world. The world of Red Bull."
The spot was shelved after he died ("which sucks, because Shane would be pissed," the Red Bull employee says). A famously closemouthed corporation, Red Bull issued a brief statement on McConkey's death, but said little else until two months later, when the company's head of sports marketing, Chris Mater, told 'Men's Journal,' "He was a member of our very tight family, and we were devastated when we heard about his accident. Working with Shane over the years was truly inspirational. An innovator that always followed his own path no matter what, Shane lived on a different plane, and his enthusiasm for life was incomparable."
But not all of McConkey's sponsors were quite so enthusiastic about his aerial pursuits. "To me, frankly, BASE jumping is just the dumbest, wackiest, most ridiculous thing," says Tim Petrick, VP of global sales for K2 Sports, McConkey's ski sponsor. "I can't find the words to describe how much I think it's really a bad idea. And Shane got zero encouragement from us to do those things."
To be fair, Shane McConkey hardly needed encouragement; Red Bull helped give him a comfortable lifestyle and flew him all over the world, but he would have been jumping off cliffs even if he were still a penniless ski bum delivering pizzas. Which is pretty much how his mother, Glenn McConkey, saw his life playing out after high school, when he was cut from the U.S. Ski Team because he was too small.
"It was catastrophic," his mother remembers. "The biggest thing that ever happened to Shane was getting dumped by the U.S. Ski Team. They motivated him, more than anybody else, to become a well-known skier."
In the short term, McConkey floundered. He dropped out of the University of Colorado at Boulder and jumped to the pro mogul tour – where he was disqualified from a competition at Vail for throwing a backflip. In protest, he rode the lift back up and poached the course naked. When the Vail ski patrol banned him, McConkey moved back to Squaw.