Whether crushing speed records, nailing ocean races, or pioneering new technology, Stan Honey knows his position precisely. (Parts of this interview appear in our May 2011 issue.)
Looking back at your sailing career, is there any one campaign or event that really stands out?
I’ve been really lucky in having all these opportunities. And I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to change the opportunities. Some guys—well, you really get well paid to do a Volvo—and some guys, because they’re so well compensated, it’s hard to resist. And that’s why you see these professional Volvo sailors who go from Volvo to Volvo to Volvo, because the pay is great and they’re really good at it. I was really lucky that I got asked by a really good crew to do my first Volvo. I’d had opportunities before, and I had to turn them down because I’d just started a company or just raised a round of venture capital and I couldn’t take off— it wouldn’t have been responsible. But when Moose (ABN AMRO skipper Mike Sanderson) asked me, I figured I was too old, so I was surprised and pleased to get asked. And it came at a good time for me in my career. And then I had the great luck that it was a terrific crew and a well-designed boat and we won the thing.
And then personally I was able to check that box and move on to other projects. So I sailed professionally part time up to 2004, and then in 2004 I started sailing professionally full time, but I wasn’t really forced financially to take the first job that was offered, and that’s really the difficulty a lot of the professional sailors have. If you don’t take a job, the worst thing that could happen is you don’t do the event. So guys are forced to take an early offer. But because I spent most of my sailing career with a normal job, I could kind of pick the offers I got. So I got some really good opportunities on Sayonara, Pyewacket, PlayStation, Speedboat, and so on. I’ve been able to do a wide variety of different things. And I think part of that is because early on I didn’t have to take the first offer.
Okay, that addresses the sailing career. What about your “normal” one?
I grew up in Southern California, and went to Yale, then afterwards I got a job at Stanford’s engineering research institute (SRI) in Menlo Park. They put me through graduate school, so I got my masters. I’d started sailing professionally basically since college…part-time projects. One of those early campaigns was navigating Nolan Bushnell’s boat, Charlie, in the Transpac. So I built an instrument system that would capture the polars and do routing and so forth. We won the Transpac, and I got to know Nolan well. He was the guy who started Atari and invented Pong and so forth.
Nolan was interested in consumer electronics, and we got to talking. One of the ideas that I ran past Nolan was a pre-GPS vehicle navigation system. So he provided the seed money, and we started Etack, which is the vehicle navigation company. The way that worked is we measured the headings and distances traveled, so you basically dead reckon the cars, but you take the measured path the vehicle has driven and cross correlate that to the digital road maps we created. We developed the first topographically structured accurate digital map database for the US and Europe, licensed that to UPS and FedEx. So that all worked, and we got a bunch of patents, and Rupert Murdoch bought it for a number of insightful reasons, particularly the map database.
Anyway, when Rupert bought Etack, I became a CEO of an operating division of News Corp—a little tiny one—but nevertheless at all the management conferences I’d give my presentation to the chief executives of the other divisions, the guys who were running Fox and Harper Collins and TV Guide. I was the only engineer that many of them knew, so I started to spend half my time getting dragged into meetings with guys like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison and getting asked questions like, “What is encryption?” and “What is digital?” and “What is the Internet?”
At News Corp I got involved in several projects, and I got to know David Hill, who was starting Fox Sports. He asked me to meet him about once a week and brief him on technologies that could affect sports broadcasts. That’s where the hockey puck idea came up. In one of those luncheons, I was briefing him on the fact that you could put in fake billboards. Nobody had done it yet, but it was possible to do. He didn’t want to do that but he said, my god, if you can put stuff into the video that corresponds to things in the real world, let’s do stuff that’s useful. Fox had just acquired the rights to the 1996 NHL All-Star game, which was a couple of years away.
So David asked me, “Can you track and highlight a puck?” And I said, “Oh yeah, we tracked and highlighted much harder things at SRI, but you can’t afford it. It costs too much.”
He said, “How much?”
I took a day or so and figured it out and sent him an email saying it would take two years and cost 2 million bucks to build that system. And not 15 minutes later I get a call from Rupert Murdoch, and he says, “I understand it would take two years and cost 2 million bucks to track and highlight a hockey puck.”
I said that was correct, and he said, “Do it.”
So I got the same bunch of guys from SRI that started Etack, and we built this system to track and highlight the puck, and it ended up costing 2.2 million and taking exactly 2 years and was introduced at the 1996 All-Star game. It was great for the ratings, though it wasn’t very popular among hockey fans.
So we had sort of stumbled on to this ability to measure things that were difficult to see at sporting events and make them easy to see. And in the process of building the puck system, we were coming up with countless ideas for football and baseball and motor sports. We were all eager to get into that. But News Corp was in a difficult time for the financing. So I did a great deal with Murdoch, he was really supportive, and in 1998 I left News Corp to start Sportsvision. And that’s where we introduced the virtual strike zone and yellow first-down marker.
That changed the way people watch football.
Unlike the puck, that one was uniformly popular. That was really fun to do that one.