Oracle Team USA wins two races to tie America's Cup, 8-8

It was barely a week ago that Oracle Team USA, the defending champion in the America's Cup, looked all but finished.

The American boat trailed Emirates Team New Zealand by eight races to one on the scoreboard, just one defeat short of losing the Cup.

"It's a funny thing, but you need to face the barrel of the gun to come together as a team," Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said. "You can either get wobbly in the knees or you can look straight down the barrel and smile."

Spithill was smiling Tuesday after his crew won twice to even the score at 8-8 and force a winner-take-all finale Wednesday afternoon.

With one more victory, Oracle can complete the greatest comeback in the famed regatta's 162-year history.

With one more loss, Emirates will suffer a total collapse.

"I think you've got to give credit where credit's due," Emirates skipper Dean Barker said. "These guys have sailed incredibly well to get themselves back into the event."

The 34th edition of the America's Cup began with controversy as Oracle team owner Larry Ellison — the technology billionaire — chose to defend his title on San Francisco Bay with a new type of boat.

The sleek, massive AC72 catamarans sail much faster than traditional mono-hulled yachts, and there was talk about the Cup resembling NASCAR on water. The boats proved to be dangerous.

During training runs last spring, a Swedish entrant capsized, killing one of its crew members.

The grumbling among traditionalists grew louder when Oracle was found to have added improper ballast to a smaller version of the AC72 during a preliminary series of regattas dating back to 2012. The American team was penalized two races before the start of the Cup.

That deficit seemed incidental when the finals began.

Emirates sprinted to an 8-1 lead, looking like the faster boat, especially upwind. The Americans did not help themselves any, making too many mistakes as they pressed to stay close.

Then Oracle's shore crew made technical adjustments — no one is saying just what — to increase speed. On the brink of elimination, the Americans started winning.

"What really gives us confidence is that we've really improved the boat," Spithill said. "The boat is going fantastic."

Tuesday offered stunning proof of how the tables have turned over the last week.

The first race was over before it began. The two boats bumped as they headed for the starting line, jockeying for position as if they were, indeed, NASCAR racers. Officials assessed Emirates a double penalty.

"An absolute shocker," Barker said. "We just got ourselves in a really bad spot."

The Kiwis had to pause, creating a deficit they could never make up. Oracle won by 27 seconds in a victory that would have secured the Cup had the Americans not incurred that two-race penalty.

A half-hour later, in the second race, Barker positioned his boat for an early lead but it wasn't enough.

Though conditions seemed to favor Emirates with a steady wind and smooth waters, Oracle stormed back to take the lead and crossed the finish line 54 seconds ahead.

"It was phenomenal," Barker said. "They showed something that was … really quite amazing."

Now, the rivals will meet in a finale scheduled for 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, weather permitting.

Asked about his crew's attitude facing a winner-take-all race, Spithill said: "There's this huge wave of momentum we've been riding the past few days. It just builds and builds."

It was enough to make the Oracle skipper smile.

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

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