Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Larry Factor

In an quiet moment at the BMW Oracle base, navigator Peter Isler was sitting with longtime friend and fellow soldier of the America's Cup, Malin Burnham, telling him that the very rich software guy who owns the team had been a critical factor in building team spirit. He said of Larry Ellison, "We were all on the edge of burnout after two years of speed testing. Then Larry dumped the office and moved to Valencia and brought this incredible, infectious energy, and pretty soon we were all fired up to go yacht racing."

You know this Gilles Martin-Raget picture was taken not in the last few days, and Isler was speaking of events in the now long ago, before the round robin racing. But it is an interesting take on someone better known for his jets and his business practices and his very big yachts.

I would figure there is some version of the Larry factor in play as BMW Oracle prepares for Race 4 of the semis, down 1-2 to Italy's Luna Rossa. There's pressure. But the fact is that all the top sailors have been hardened in the same crucible. They don't crack easily. Not Luna Rossa helmsman James Spithill, when he lost a squeaker in Race 2. Not Chris Dickson, who's been at this game for 20 years, since 1987, when he had a boat that was fast enough to win the Cup but not fast enough to earn the right to challenge.

Speaking of Ellison's big boats, here's USA-98 and Mr. Big, Rising Sun. Big is big.

Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle

Back to business:

It's possible that we are looking at the two fastest ACC boats in the world in the Luna Rossa-Oracle matchup, but that's just tossing out a "possible." You never count out Team New Zealand unless they put themselves out. And in all the workup regattas, the fastest was the defender, Alinghi, so it's also possible that what we're watching here is a bunch of lambs competing for a pen in the slaughterhouse.

Possible, even plausible, is the thought that if we see continued racing in 10-12 knots, smooth water, the Luna Rossa-BMW Oracle matchup will be decided on the starting line, where Spithill, a 27-year-old Aussie, has been living up to his boy-wonder reputation. What was that purple line I tossed off the other day? "Wielding Luna Rossa like a master dueler with a magic blade." Hoo boy. But it's true enough.

Race 4: All of us who have lost someone to breast cancer owe a shoutout to Donald Wilson, the Chicago businessman who made an online bid of $102,000 for a Race 4 ride as 18th man on BMW Oracle—the money goes to Susan B. Komen for the Cure. Worth knowing: There's a longterm relationship here. BMW's Ultimate Drive Supporting Susan G. Komen for the Cure is a grassroots nationwide fundraising effort in the USA that has raised more than $10 million to date. If USA-98 gets to the Cup, Wilson gets to ride again. You know where his heart is.

Competing Visions

My first America's Cup was in 1980, a New York Yacht Club affair. Buttoned down. Breton red. After the Royal Perth Yacht Club got away with the Cup in 1983, they displayed a penchant for holding ceremonial matters on the grounds of the club. The same proved true when the Cup went to San Diego and then to Auckland. Not so, here. La Société nautique de Genève has lake waters capable of supporting America's Cup racing, but not the sailing conditions to make it right and (I suspect) no place to build a Cup City to match what has been done in Valencia.

I'm not alone, however, in thinking that the America's Cup future could look very different. The defender's refusal to commit to defending again in Valencia, if they are successful here, suggests to me that this is Valencia's one shot unless Desafío Español catches fire and shocks us all.

Alinghi boss Ernesto Bertarelli invited Larry Ellison to become the challenger of record, and together they developed the "Acts," the pre-event regattas that toured Europe with great success and which produced the bonus points, going into the Louis Vuitton Cup regatta, that put Team New Zealand on top and allowed them to choose the Spanish boat as an opponent for this semifinal round. The Spanish say they will defend in Valencia if they win the Cup. The Kiwis have been silent, presumably because they would come under great pressure from the home front to defend in a traditional, long event in Auckland, while simultaneously coming under pressure from fellow competitors and sponsors to play it looser than that. It's one thing to do relationship marketing in the close quarters of Europe (the BMW Oracle people say they expect to host more than 15,000 VIP guests, with more than 750,000 passing through the public area), but it's another thing to do it in the antipodes.

Ellison is on record that he wants to put the challenger trials on a circuit, a predictable sequence of events leading up to a final defense of the Cup. This is a vision of mobile teams, each with a base somewhere but operating on the road out of tents and containers, venue to venue. Among those heartily endorsing: Stephane Kandler, head of the French Areva challenge.

Among those apparently opposed is the defender, Bertarelli, who hasn't gone public, but apparently would prefer to mix modes again, while finding yet another host city. The closest he's come to going on the record is for his skipper, Brad Butterworth, to say, "We believe that assigning more points to the Acts, to make them more meaningful, would be good for the game."

Among those clearly opposed is Patrizio Bertelli, the man who built Prada into a powerful brand and who also is head of the Luna Rossa challenge.

When you ask Bertarelli about the Cup, he speaks of its "transformative power." That is, like the Olympics, the America's Cup transforms the host city by becoming part of it for a time, by inspiring public projects and bringing in money. That didn't play in San Diego, but in Australia, the once run-down town of Fremantle was transformed and invigorated, and it never looked back. Valencia is too big to be touched throughout, but what was once an industrial port now has something new and beautiful. The talk is, if the America's Cup leaves, they'll try to run a Formula One race right there in the Darsena, with a bridge to complete the circuit.

Any way you look at it, the America's Cup is more than a boat race.

What, a free day?

This being a no-race day, I see no point going to the port to confirm that most or all of the teams are sending out one boat for continued development. Nor do I see a point in checking with the teams regarding "the mood of the camp." They wouldn't tell me anything not intended for public consumption. The Isler quote at the top of this story was interesting to me because it came from a private, unguarded moment, enough so that I asked for permission before I used it.

No, I hopped the bike and wandered with the aim of eventually ending up on the Gran Via Marquez del Turia, a wide, tree-line boulevard where the Valencianos like to display sculpture--in the islands in the center--on a scale that, most places in the USA, wouldn't get moved around. The first show I saw here, two years ago, I assumed was permanent. Boy, was I wrong. Right now, until July 15, Arts in the Street, Arte en la Calle, is showing Manolo Valdés, a local who likes to work in simplified, stylized, female forms. This lineup invites you to stop and ponder . . .

But I bet Valdez would more enjoy this moment of life imitating art. One more picture, just hold your arm a little higher . . .

The show runs four blocks. Crossing the streets between them, I find that cars honor my presence in the pedestrian walk, but scooters do not. If I die here, squashed like a bug, it will probably be under the wheels of a Vespa . . .

Gran Via Marquez del Tura is one of those mixed-use streets that Europeans take for granted and Americans are trying to reinvent. You have apartments above and shops at street level. In the space of one block you can buy Prada shoes and a Gucci bag and celebrate a great day of shopping with your favorite meal at Pizza Hut. (Sigh.) No matter where you go. Then again, I once toured the villages of Tuscany with a seven-year-old, and I would have killed to see a Pizza Hut sign. Looking up four stories, I was intrigued by what appears to be a mondo-modern penthouse tucked away up there . . .

With a hat like this, a lady could own Paris . . .

Time to move on. Thanks, Manolo, and Arte en la Calle . . .

On my way to an internet connection I stumbled across the Mercado Colon. Valencia is known for tile and mosaic work, and there's some of both in this picture. There was an art class sketching it at the time . . .

And they don't even put out signs to draw you into the grand courtyard at the university, nor do they hang a sign to identify this as art. But I think it is. One carefully assembled pile of stones between each column pair, the full length of one wall, 12 in all. Hey, I'm no critic . . .

Now before this turns into the slide show from hell (I hope before) I'm going to call it done and make the transition from Word doc to up-on-the-net. Gotta go to the port soon for a small affair organized by our own Mr. Louis Vuitton, Bruno Trouble, at the Foredeck Club, for the Society of International Scribes. SINS. We meet formally at each America's Cup and have been known to convene at other times (quorum of two) in airports or wherever. I could tell you more, but then I'd have to kill you—Kimball