NASCAR on water: The billionaire fight for the America’s Cup
All summer, it had been whispered around the piers: “The Kiwis are better.” In the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup, New Zealand’s 45-footers ripped to a one-two finish, beating the world’s top young sailors, many of them seasoned Olympians. The U.S. boats, in particular, were left sucking the Kiwi wake.
Now the real America’s Cup was about to dawn, and the Americans were in trouble. The Cup was theirs to lose. A loss suddenly seemed likely. They’d watched New Zealand destroy a decent Italian crew in the semifinals. The Kiwis were a flawless machine. Their boat was a monster.
For years Larry Ellison had strutted across the sport like a randy rooster tech lord, pasting the sport with his Oracle brand. The 72-foot catamaran that Ellison, as the title holder, had chosen for the America’s Cup, with its giant 130-foot carbon-fiber wing sail and its insane ability to fly both hulls above the water, was the definition of show-offy. San Francisco worships wealth, but disdains conspicous displays. The town likened the boat to a giant phallic symbol running around the Bay. Columnists decided that the America’s Cup was a “bust,” a “fiasco,” a mindless display of power and rich-guy technology. In a town that loves its home teams, no one really wanted Oracle to win.
Schadenfreude swelled the week leading up to the race. Oracle got caught cheating. Earlier in the year, one of their 45-foot training boats had broken apart and washed up ashore. In the wreckage, investigators found that someone had added weight to some forward posts during some preliminary races. In the America’s Cup, all boats have to be built to the exact same specifications. All differences are illegal, and these were big differences. Oracle got fined $250,000, milk money for Ellison. But more importantly, they lost their lead wing-sail trimmer for the entire regatta, and a grinder for four races. Also, they got docked two points, meaning they’d have to win 11 races in the Cup series, as opposed to New Zealand’s nine.
The race day dawned cloudless, more like Southern than Northern California. On the water, the temperature registered 62 degrees, with the wind a pleasant 18 knots. It was a perfect day for sailing.
The guns went off.
New Zealand seized a small lead. Oracle was a little slow getting to the start. But it was close. The boats crossed each other tightly several times, seeking to gain starboard advantage. They whistled into our purview, sleekly skimming over the water. For all the scandal and the wealth-bashing, at the end of the day, sailing had finally happened, and it was lovely to watch.
A cheer went up. Oracle had seized control of the race in the second turn, with skipper Jimmy Spithill engineering a bold crossing maneuver. The Oracle fans -- and there were some, despite it all -- started to feel hopeful. Maybe all the doubters had been wrong.