SAN FRANCISCO — There's nothing like the first leg of the first race of the America's Cup, when teams get an idea of whose boat is fastest and who might have missed badly after spending $100 million or more.
And there's never been an America's Cup like this. It's being sailed on breathtaking San Francisco Bay in foiling 72-foot catamarans that can hit 50 mph. Defending champion Oracle Team USA is starting with a two-point deficit after getting punished in the biggest cheating scandal in the regatta's 162-year history.
It's an American tycoon, software billionaire Larry Ellison, against the gutty Kiwis of Emirates Team New Zealand, who carry the hopes of their small, sailing-mad island nation and a desire to sweep the Auld Mug back to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
The short-course, inshore racing is both fan- and TV-friendly. Race 1 is scheduled to start at 1:15 p.m. PDT Saturday, with Race 2 to follow an hour later. Two races are scheduled for Sunday, with all four weekend races being shown live on NBC.
For the Kiwis, it's still best-of-17, meaning they need to win nine races to win the Cup. With its penalty, Oracle Team USA must win 11 races to keep the trophy.
Here are five things to watch in the 34th America's Cup:
SAN FRANCISCO: Tony Bennett sang about leaving his heart here, and skipper Jimmy Spithill and the boys from Oracle Team USA want to keep the America's Cup in the City by the Bay. While past America's Cups have been contested miles out at sea, this one will be sailed in one of the world's greatest natural amphitheaters, with a steady wind and sometimes tricky tide. Fans can watch from the shore or high-rise buildings. After starting parallel to the Golden Gate Bridge, the boats sail a short reach across the wind and then speed downwind past Alcatraz Island. The five-leg course ends just off Piers 27-29, home to America's Cup Park. TV shots will feature the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges, the Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid.
LARRY ELLISON: The co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corp. is an avid sailor who's spent an estimated $500 million during the last 10 years in pursuing, winning and now defending the silver trophy. Then again, his estimated net worth of $43 billion makes him one of the world's wealthiest individuals. People either love or hate Ellison, and there's been plenty of grumbling that his grand vision for a regatta with a dozen or more challengers fizzled, in part because of the economy and the expensive, dangerous boats. Ellison hasn't been seen publically and has been kept away from the press, except for one network TV interview. His presence is still felt, though. Two of his super yachts (i.e., super big and super expensive), the 288-foot Musashi and the 184-foot Asahi are moored at America's Cup Park. Also on techie-billionaire row are Athena, owned by Jim Clark (Netscape, Silicon Graphics) and Senses, owned by Ellison's rival, Larry Page of Google. Senses — moored between Ellison's yachts — stands out because of the red helicopter on the helipad on the stern.
THE SCANDAL: Oracle Team USA was caught illegally modifying 45-foot catamarans that were used in the warmup regattas called the America's Cup World Series. An international jury issued the harshest penalties in the 162-year history of the America's Cup. Besides docking Oracle two points, wing trimmer Dirk de Ridder was booted from the regatta, along with two shore crew members. Grinder Matt Mitchell was banned from the first four races and the syndicate was fined $250,000. Although Spithill and syndicate CEO Russell Coutts were never implicated, the jury said it "seems inconceivable that boat riggers initiated these changes without the knowledge of managers, or the direction of sailors, if not skippers." Spithill has been almost defiant, saying Oracle is a clear underdog. He also called on locals to support the crew. "We want to keep the Cup here. These guys don't," he said at a news conference, referring to ETNZ skipper Dean Barker and trimmer Glenn Ashby. "We're counting on San Franciscans to come out and support us."
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