But just because Conner is not a billionaire doesn't mean he's particularly reasonable. Preparing for a quarterfinals repechage duel with higher-seeded OneWorld two weeks ago (O.K., repechage means second chance, as some defeated boats get another shot to vie for a spot in the finals), he paused for an interview in the sponsor tent, alongside the sponsor yacht, next door to the Team Dennis Conner gift shop, which was beside a little museum of his water-colors and a collection of historical scale-model America's Cup boats (which were charming, ropes and planks everywhere). The overwhelming impression was, this is what Brian Wilson would be like if he owned a 12-meter racing yacht.
Conner may be the shrewdest sailor to ever put zinc oxide on his nose, and he clearly knows how to raise money (although he is not particularly discerning; his main sponsor is Computer Associates, which is being investigated by the SEC for alleged financial malfeasance). Still, his joy in this ultimately hopeless competition is unsettling.
"I have everything I need," says Conner, bulkier than in his heyday and no longer a helmsman or even a crew member. "I've got two nice boats, and what a story, when one of them was on the bottom of the ocean four months ago. It's just a thrill to be here, son of a fisherman, competing against four of the world's richest men. What a story! What an event!"
He is keen about the history of the Auld Mug and is untroubled by the billionaires who would buy it out from under him. Whether it's the Prada team drastically cutting its boat in two for mid-challenge alterations, or Alinghi stealing away New Zealand skipper Russell Coutts for a reported $5 million, it's all the same to him. "It was always about wealth, from the beginning, going to Europe to flex American muscle. Sir Thomas Lipton spent $50 million on revenge [in numerous Cup tries in the early 1900s]. And lost!" He lets that sink in, then slaps his bare knee. "And if you win, you get nothing!"
The idea delights him. "I gotta be moving," he says and jumps up, to schmooze a donor, to consult the weather, to devise a tactic for his helmsman. "I was on the cover of TIME," he reminds you, and away he sails, a beached boy now.
The America's Cup is unrivaled in its attractiveness to crackpots, the richer the better, of course. Sir Frank Packer, the media mogul who bankrolled Australia's doomed challenge 40 years ago, was once asked for the motivating themes in his campaign. "Alcohol and delusions of grandeur," he said. As this group does not seem to be a particularly hard-drinking bunch (a few of the billionaires—including Bertarelli and, when his skipper allows him, Ellison—have remained fit enough to take their places among the crew on their boats), it is left to delusions to explain participation.
Bruno Troubl�, a Louis Vuitton spokesperson, who skippered for Baron Bich in 1980 and has been around America's Cup sailing for a quarter-century, thinks it's all about a last stab at immortality. "If Larry Ellison wins," he says, "he will be part of history, like Vanderbilt. He will escape from the years on earth. [There are] not too many means to do that."
If immortality is at stake, no reason to go after it halfheartedly. But for Ellison, a lifelong sailor, the event is also a platform for his grandiose and combative personality. He first sparred with Prada, which had accused Oracle of spying on its boatyard from behind mirrored windows. ( Oracle folks said the sun was in their eyes.) When Prada went to court—a no-no in America's Cup rules, lest the event forever be decided by litigation (though it often is anyway)—Ellison requested a forfeit.
That was just a warmup. Ellison seems to particularly relish the presence of OneWorld, which he has somehow cast as a business rival—for the moment replacing his obsession with world's richest man Bill Gates—as well as a yachting opponent. Always the provocateur, he's tweaked the team for its environmental theme ("You'd think if they want to help the oceans, they'd spend $85 million on the oceans, instead of a boat," he told The New York Times earlier in the season) and its Microsoft technology (its e-mail is "riddled with viruses").
This is somewhat bewildering, as OneWorld has a very distant relationship with Microsoft. "Well, not one at all," says OneWorld spokesman Bob Ratliffe, who maintains the official attitude of puzzlement. (Unofficially, the attitude is something else.) "I mean, Paul [ Allen] has been gone from Microsoft for 20 years."