How Larry Ellison and a Car Mechanic Teamed Up to Win Sailing's Greatest Race, The America's Cup, Twice
With exclusive access to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison over more than a year, Julian tells the dramatic true story of a decade-long quest to win the America's Cup, the oldest trophy in international sports and sailing's greatest prize. She tells of the colorful history of the America's Cup, the behind-the-scenes technology and material science race, and the human story of the builders, engineers, and sailors who make it happen.
There is insider sailing gossip, yacht club drama, a spotlight on the athletes who perform under pressure and those who cave, and the high-stakes international showdowns on the water featuring the superstars of the sport. There is the building by Ellison and his Oracle Racing team of the largest wingsail ever created, a wing too tall to fit under the Golden Gate Bridge, big enough to span a football field, and as fragile as an egg.
Julian also brings to life the story of an everyday hero, a car mechanic named Norbert Bajurin who is commodore of a blue-collar boating club and who dreams big and forges an unlikely partnership with Ellison. Bajurin finds his life changed in ways he never imagined. There are rewards that come with the unexpected partnership and friendship with the high-flying billionaire - and there is a price to pay.
The Billionaire and The Mechanic is for sailors and non-sailors, for anyone interested in what it means to chase a dream. And the story provides a more textured portrait of Ellison than anything that has been written before.
Author and New Yorker media critic"From the opening scene in this book – and scene is the appropriate word for its cinematic beginning – the reader is swept along on heart-thumping rides on swift, dueling sailboats, past an assemblage of characters worthy of Dreiser, past the shoals of deceit worthy of Dickens, and coming to rest on the formidable character of billionaire Larry Ellison, who has the will-to-win of his best friend, Steve Jobs, and of a mechanic, who made winning possible. Julian Guthrie writes so vividly that the reader is held spellbound, from page one to the end."
Kirkus Reviews"Victory came in 2010 when USA-17, Ellison's state-of-the-art, carbon-fiber composite boat regained the cup after failures in 2003 and 2007. San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Guthrie’s (The Grace of Everyday Saints: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith, 2011) splendid elaboration of the victory also encompasses the history of the race and the competitors and their boats from its beginnings in the mid-19th century. She marks off clearly which parts of the team's success were due to luck, which to money, and which to skill and superior technology, and she ably captures the parallel competition between men and their boats and the power of nature working through ocean and weather. Guthrie presents the successive challenges Ellison had to overcome as he developed the skills, the team and the technology that could tame the waves and human competition. Part of her story involves the organization of a kind of insurrection in the elite world of yacht clubs. Working with radiator mechanic Norbert Bajurin, commodore of San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club, Ellison took on both privilege and inherited wealth, as represented by Ernesto Bertarelli and his Swiss Team Alinghi, which had won in 2007. Their 2010 rematch brought together some of the same leading competitors from Ellison's first attempt in New Zealand in 2003. Guthrie crisply sketches the complex process that was required for Ellison to establish his own position in the top ranks of yachting and organize the winning team in 2010.
A thriller of a tale and a worthy scene-setter for this summer's trophy defense in San Francisco Bay."
Senior writer, Sports Illustrated"Surely the most comprehensive book ever written about an America's Cup challenge,The Billionaire and The Mechanic will be must reading for any yacht-racing aficionado."
Senior editor, O Magazine
Author, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean"Julian Guthrie's riveting book takes readers deep into uncharted realms, from the extremes of the ocean to the sublime connection between two singular men. The Billionaire and The Mechanic is a wondrously detailed story, beautifully told, by a writer who understands both the intricacies of human nature and the immensity of the natural world."
Author, The Fear Project, and Saltwater Buddha"The Billionaire and The Mechanic is pumping with adrenaline and yet full of subtle, surprising details about both sailing and one of the most mysterious, controversial characters on earth. This book is tirelessly reported and Guthrie has a rare writing gift to tie it all together into a work or literary journalism that reads like a thriller."
Author, An Absorbing Interest: The America's Cup - A History 1851-2003"This is one helluva great read. Larry and Norbert - beautiful dreamers both, men with faith in their ability to convert them to reality. This book is fascinating; it informs, educates and entertains about the longest continuously contested trophy in all sports. This is a must read for lovers of sport, and particularly for sailors."
G. Bruce Knecht
Author, The Proving Ground: The Inside Story of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race"Larry Ellison's America’s Cup victory was as improbable as it was inevitable. The same is true of his alliance with radiator repairman Norbert Bajurin. In this absorbing page-turner, Julian Guthrie tells us how they came together to make history."
Sailing commentator, America's Cup Hall of Fame"The America's Cup has a long history of unlikely partners teaming up to win the oldest trophy in sports. Examples include, financier JP Morgan and skipper Charlie Barr in 1899 and 1901. Another successful partnership was Charles Paine and Edward Burgess who successfully defended three times (1885, 1886 and 1887). The team of Larry Ellison and Norbert Bajurin continues this theme. The Billionaire and the Mechanic is a compelling story that serves as another example of what can be achieved when dreams are lofty and every detail is completed with precision."
Wall Street Journal
The Race Behind the Races
San Francisco Chronicle
The Billionaire and the Mechanic
Men's Journal Magazine, June issue
Larry Ellison's Obsession
Wall Street Journal Blogs
Documentary on America’s Cup is an Ellison Family Affair
San Francisco Business Times
Larry Ellison's private America's Cup party
A sailing billionaire’s perk: getting yelled at by the best
How did you land on this story of Larry Ellison and the car mechanic, Norbert Bajurin (pronounced “Byron”) teaming up to go after sailing’s biggest prize, the America’s Cup?
The idea goes back more than a decade, to when I first learned from Larry – whom I had interviewed for another story – that he had formed an America’s Cup syndicate, that he’d had a falling out with the elite St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, and that he was considering partnering with a relatively unknown blue-collar boating club at the end of an unpaved road along the city’s waterfront. When he told me the commodore of the boating club was also a radiator repair man, I really fell for the story.
What held your attention so many years later?
I did a piece for San Francisco Magazine on Larry and Norbert, and I also did some stories for the San Francisco Chronicle. This was in 2002 and 2003, when Oracle Racing was trying to win the 31st America’s Cup. I followed their impressive wins (making it to the Louis Vuitton Cup finals), and their painful losses. I never stopped being interested in the story, though I have to admit that the attraction for me was more the human drama than the sailing or the races. I loved this idea that Larry wasn’t about to give up. I had gotten to know Norbert and thought he was just an amazing human being. For me, the story was always about the price you pay for going after your dreams.
Are you a sailor?
I’ve been sailing (including out with Oracle Racing’s superstar Jimmy Spithill, the youngest skipper to ever win the America’s Cup on the superfast new catamarans) but I’m not a sailor. This may sound strange, but I think it’s actually an advantage as a writer that I’m not a sailor. One of the problems with sailing in terms of attracting a mass audience is that the sport (or hobby) comes across as either elitist or inaccessible. And when a sailing writer writes about sailing, it is for people who already sail. The non sailor, who doesn’t have the maneuvers or the lexicon of the sport, tunes out. This is a book for the general audience (as well as sailors). I wanted this to be a great narrative yarn, a sports drama (complete with athletes who perform under pressure and those who cave), and an intimate profile of two very different guys – Larry Ellison and Norbert Bajurin. On the other hand, being a non-sailor meant that I faced an incredibly steep learning curve to understand the races. I had to do a huge amount of reporting and interviewing to understand the language, the equipment, the rules, the dos and don’ts. There were a million parts to this story. For starters: the sailing and high-adrenaline races and competitors; the unbelievable technology behind the boats and the material science race, right down to who secures the highest grade carbon fiber on the market and how you employ the very latest in telemetry and velocity prediction programs; the lives of the sailors; and the history of the Cup and why it has been so important for so long.
What did you learn about the America’s Cup?
Everything! Well, I tried to learn everything. I only had a year to report and write this, so it was a challenge to put it mildly. I did a lot of interviews. I read a lot of books. Fortunately, I had Larry, along with Russell Coutts (the most successful skipper in America’s Cup history) and Jimmy Spithill as advisers. I am now completely in love with this race. I find the sailors to be wonderful and down to earth, though as intense as a team of Navy SEALS. I find the engineers and builders to be brilliant, obsessive, and perfectionists. The sport is visually stunning, with breathtaking backdrops and cutting-edge boats. I also love it that for the first time in 160-plus years, the America’s Cup is going to be accessible to all. You can stand along the San Francisco shoreline, or walk out to the Golden Gate Bridge, or go to any number of vantage points along the waterfront and see it all up close. I also have to say I like the danger part of the sport – something new, as the boats have gotten crazy fast. It’s like watching football: you both hope for and dread a pileup.
What’s the elevator pitch on this book?
It’s an inspiring true story about two men who dream big and go after the oldest trophy in international sports. What happens when they lose? And what happens when they win?
How did you get Larry Ellison, one of the world’s wealthiest and most successful men, who stopped talking to the press at any length about seven years ago, to agree to this book?
I was beyond persistent. I had interviewed Larry years ago and I think he was happy with the stories. Around 2001, he mentioned to me that he was forming a syndicate to try to win the America’s Cup. But still, getting him to sign on to this book was my own Everest. It took months. In the end, he signed on because he trusted me as a journalist, and he loves the story.
What is Larry Ellison like?
Not what you expect. His most annoying habit is that he’s often very late. He turned my life upside down for over a year, rescheduling interviews an hour or two before they were supposed to take place, after I’d rearranged my work, my child care, and so on. But he made up for it once we were finally sitting down and talking. He’s brilliant, colorful, and so darn funny (wickedly so at times). I learned so much about him, and feel that he’s one of the most misunderstood public figures out there. He’s very different from how the public perceives him, which is almost a caricature at this point. He is not the swashbuckling, take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-costs guy that people think. Of course, I wouldn’t want to be his adversary in business or sports. His competitive nature is intense and it’s not dimming a bit. I discovered his strengths and weaknesses, and understand why his successes are never enough; why there is always that next challenge and next challenge. It’s a sickness, in a way, but it’s also his greatest strength. In our interviews, which lasted for hours at a sitting – with both of us amped up on too much green tea – Larry talked with me about an amazing array of subjects, from his candid take on his business peers and what he sees as a collective lack of wisdom among venture capitalists in the Silicon Valley. He shared wonderful and never discussed publicly stories about his best friend Steve Jobs and their walks together and talks. He told me his views on art and music, literature and history’s greats, why he’s good at love and bad at marriage, and how he views such things as spirituality and legacy. I have enough material for a second book.
You tell an amazing story about this car mechanic Norbert Bajurin. What do you think the reader will take from him?
I love Norbert’s story, and the dramatic tale of his family coming to America after escaping the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito in what was then Yugoslavia (and is now Croatia). Norbert’s father, Jozo (pronounced “Yozo”) Bajurin, an interesting and complex character, has quite a back story: He risks being thrown in prison when he flees Hodilje, a small village along the Dalmatian Coast, in the dark of night. He and four friends swim to a nearby island and escape in a fishing boat. They make news for their daring escape from communism when they are picked up by Italian police off the coast of Italy. Jozo finds his way to New York with his wife and toddler son Norbert, travels to San Francisco, and finds work digging ditches by day and making pizza at night. Through hard work, Jozo and his wife begin to turn the American dream into a reality. I especially admire how Norbert found a way to carve out his own American dream. Norbert is the great, everyday guy you root for. He’s modest and he’s heroic. He simply refused to listen when everyone around him was telling him his dream was crazy and that he was nuts. I believe that if it weren’t for Norbert, the America’s Cup would not be coming to San Francisco.
What is the relationship like between Larry and Norbert?
They respect one another greatly. Norbert feels that Larry saved the little Golden Gate Yacht Club, which was about to go bankrupt. Norbert is inspired by Larry. The guy came from nothing and created one of the world’s most successful companies. He just really admires the man. As for Larry, I think that Norbert grounds him. Norbert reminds Larry of the hard-working, good-guy shop owners he saw when he was growing up in the South Side of Chicago. Larry has a lot of respect for people who work hard and make their dreams happen. He also likes it that Norbert is who he is; there’s nothing artificial about him.
Besides Larry and Norbert, who are some of the book’s great characters?
I love that question. There are the superstar sailors, including Chris Dickson, Russell Coutts, Jimmy Spithill, Brad Butterworth, Paul Cayard and John Kostecki, among others. There’s Larry’s rival, Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, who does some surprising things. There are the builders and engineers, notably Mark “Tugsy” Turner, a taciturn Kiwi who dropped out of school in New Zealand to learn the craft of boat building and now heads up Larry’s yacht operations, and there are team’s brilliant engineers, including a young Frenchman named Joseph Ozanne, who designed the biggest wing ever built for land or sea. The Golden Gate Yacht Club and the St. Francis also are good characters. And I think of the boats as starring characters, especially the beast of a boat, USA-17, that was built for the 33rd America’s Cup. That boat was a predator, a Michael Jordan on the water. It’s a $40 million boat sailed in two races. That boat is an exciting part of this story. Oh and there are fun scenes with the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi.
How do you go from your first book, The Grace of Everyday Saints: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith, to The Billionaire and The Mechanic?
I’m a journalist. I love a good story. Having said that, I also like a story about a good fight, about being challenged by something bigger than yourself and slightly out of reach. For the parishioners of St. Brigid (the subject of my first book), their battle was to save their historic church. They waged a crusade that has lasted for nearly 20 years now. I wrote about these incredible people who worked together to make something seemingly impossible happen. In the same way, The Billionaire and The Mechanic is about reaching for that gold ring and fighting for something you love. It’s out of reach and out of reach, and then you get it and it’s not what you expected. I adore my characters (I say “characters” but they are real people). In both books, they are an inspirational group.
I hear the book has been optioned for film. Who plays Larry and who plays Norbert?
Robert Downey Jr. should play Larry. Owen Wilson has the looks (perfect crooked nose) to play Norbert. Russell Crowe would be great as Russell Coutts and Daniel Craig could play Oracle’s skipper Jimmy Spithill.