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. today, 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.
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.
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.
The five-leg course helps accommodate the schedule of two races a day to fit into a TV window. The course goes on a reach, downwind, upwind, downwind and a short reach to the finish.
There will be two races a day today, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and, if needed, Friday, Sept. 13, Sept. 17 and Sept. 19. A single race is set for Sept. 21, if needed.
The series would continue beyond that to accommodate Oracle's need to win 11 races.
After Sunday, the races will be shown on the NBC Sports Network.