Forget about Branson and Trump. Meet Rocky Aoki, the most badass entrepreneur in US history!
Growing up in Tokyo, Rocky's wrestling talent earned him a spot in Japan's 1960 Olympic team and a college scholarship in Massachusetts. He won three consecutive AAU titles and was inducted into America's National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Aoki opened the first Benihana in 1964 with $10,000 he made selling ice cream from a Mr. Softee truck in Harlem. By 1975, he'd opened 25 restaurants.
Before he launched Genesis, the porn magazine, he opened the exclusive Club Genesis, a six-story complex – housing a game room, a fine French restaurant and a disco – for the rich and famous. He lost two million dollars on the club, which he opened in 1972 and closed a year later. "I found that high-society people are the cheapest people in the world," Rocky told his biographer about the venture.
Aoki participated almost annually in the famous Cannoball Run road race. In 1985, when the 31-state cross-country contest was legally sanctioned and renamed "One Lap Around America", Aoki drove a 1959 Rolls-Royce that he'd souped up with two telephones, two stereos, a TV, bathroom facilities, a microwave oven and two tuxedoed chauffeurs.
Simultaniously to learning Backgammon, winning a world title only four years after starting to play, he started the Benihana Offshore Grand Prix which he himself won in 1979.
In late 1979, during a training run to prepare for the next Benihana Grand Prix, Rocky caught air going 80mph in the San Francisco Bay, destroying his speedboat and damn near himself. He touched down under the Golden Gate Bridge with a broken arm, a shattered leg, a torn aorta, and his liver split in two.
Rocky awoke from a hospital bed in San Francisco to find his then-wife, Chizuru Aoki, and his mistress, Pamela Hillberger, standing over him (their first time meeting). In a New York Magazine interview, he recalled,"I'm completely naked, tube in my Penis. I see my wife standing over me, on the one side. On the other side, I see my girlfriend… I say 'ohhh… shiiiiit!'." Chizuru divorced him soon after.
He returned to offshore powerboat racing three years after his nearly fatal accident, winning the 1982 Benihana Grand Prix once again!
Oh yeah and he also held a 34-year record for the longest balloon flight. In 1981, Aoki and three other man made a 5,208 mile balloon ride across the Pacific. They set sail from Nagashima, Japan and crash-landed 84.5 hours later in the mountains of Northern California during a driving rainstorm. Aoki was knocked unconscious in the landing and was later quoted: "If you are afraid to die, you are probably afraid to live."
Read more about Rocky Aoki and fellow offshore racing characters in Véhicule 2020.