Searching for speed in Silicon Valley

The glory days of geek drag racing may be over, but hotshot hackers are still revving their engines.

Published January 26, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

If you have never experienced the rush of accelerating to 110 mph in a Mazda RX-7, here is a quick primer: First, you are walloped by a hollow sensation in the bottom of your belly. The shock of acceleration presses you back into the curve of the leather bucket seat, your head tilted back against the headrest. You feel compelled to grab the handle of the door, hoping for some solid reassurance that the pavement has not just become liquid beneath your wheels. You can't decide whether to hold your breath or laugh in giddy exhilaration.

And then, just a few seconds later, it's over as fast as it began. Kind of like the rise and fall of the dot-com economy: Blink, and it's done, but you know something really exciting just happened.

But the driver of the RX-7, co-founder Cody Oliver, doesn't really speed. Nor does his partner, Gnutella coder Gene Kan, who is driving the modified BMW 540i behind us. While Oliver and Kan will gun their engines for a few seconds on this deserted strip of highway in San Jose, neither will break the speed limit for any concentrated period of time. Too many risks -- both bodily and legal.

The two programmers don't, however, have any compunction about breaking the law when it comes to drag racing. For the past two years, they have been spending their spare cash souping up their numerous cars, and their Friday nights skulking around the back streets of Milpitas, looking for illicit street races. In deserted suburbs of San Jose, on darkened streets peppered with office parks for high-tech firms such as Cisco, Paradigm and Creative Labs, hundreds of fast-car aficionados meet every week to gun their engines and flash their mods. Kan, Oliver and other high-profile Silicon Valley programmers, like Napster's Shawn Fanning and Winamp's Justin Frankel, can often be found here.

After all, what else do you do with all that newfound cash but buy a fast car; and if you are going to own a fast car, where else would you want to show it off but in front of other guys with fast cars?

So, tonight, we are looking for a race. I have been warned ahead of time that things just aren't the way they used to be -- even drag racing, it seems, is suffering from the malaise that has struck Silicon Valley like a pernicious winter flu. But here in Milpitas, the villain isn't a stampede of jaundiced investors fleeing from NASDAQ. It's that more familiar foe of young men out on the town -- the police.

The police are cracking down on street racing, shutting down the favored hangouts and racetracks and judiciously handing out tickets to anyone who has a dubiously "modded" (or modified) car. But even though it's midnight in January and freezing cold, moods in the Bay Area are grim and FuckedCompany is crammed day after day with tales of start-ups gone sour, these two are still optimistic about encountering some speed. There's nothing like accelerating to 115 mph in 13 seconds flat to get that adrenaline pumping and hearts beating again. It's almost as good as conquering the universe with a can't-miss start-up.

Twenty-four-year-old CEO Kan is not someone you would imagine as a drag-racing fanatic. He is quiet and reserved, subdued except for those moments when he's talking passionately about the things he loves best -- peer-to-peer file-trading technology and automobiles. And while Oliver is looser and more loquacious, a fan of techno music and warehouse parties, he still looks more like a lanky 22-year-old programmer than a speed demon.

Despite their appearances, staffers are fond of fast cars. They're particularly fond of RX-7s. Never mind the car's cheap $15,000 base price; the RX-7, which Mazda stopped manufacturing in 1995, is one fast sports car, easily topping 110 mph. It looks, as one RX-7 fan puts it, like a "Miata on steroids."

There are only 14,000 or so RX-7s in existence in the United States, and they are quite popular with fans of racing. Of those, various members of the staff own approximately half a dozen -- Kan can't remember exactly how many have drifted through his company's parking lot.

The headquarters is housed in a former shipping warehouse in Millbrae, a peninsula town south of San Francisco, across from a Marriott hotel and a stone's throw from the murky waters of the San Francisco Bay. The enormous office is painted a gooey shade of lavender blue and spotted with the de rigueur techie decorations (ads for the TV show "Futurama," demotivational posters, etc.). In the back of the front office are a series of cavernous concrete rooms filled with refurbished industrial lasers (a hobby of Oliver's) and a clutch of mothballed cars: three vintage BMWs in various states of disassembly around a car lift and a rusting, vintage Cadillac parked in the corner.

Out in the back parking lot are three RX-7s, one of which is up on blocks, a Mazda Miata and two more BMWs -- plus an enormous 7-ton safari cargo truck that Oliver picked up "just for fun." Oliver and Kan are also eager to show me photographs of a truck they won on eBay: a 17-ton, eight-wheeled monstrosity they bought from a Belgian gentleman. The only problem is getting it from Belgium to here; the two have been waiting anxiously for almost a year for the customs issues to be worked out. "When we get it, we'll have to bring it down to the races," jokes Kan.

The races are what brought many of the founding members of Gonesilent together. Oliver and Kan met while racing RX-7s two years ago, and developed a quick friendship; staffers Aaron Faupell and Mike Stocklin also met in the back streets of San Jose. "If it weren't for the racing, Gene and I would never have met; Aaron and I would never have met," says Oliver. "Gonesilent owes its existence to racing. That's why we have a car lift, not a pool table. Plus, we run the company, so we can, and we always wanted a car lift."

Kan and Oliver and their other partner, Yaroslav Faybishenko, are Silicon Valley wunderkinds who have been featured on the covers of business magazines. Gonesilent's name refers to the company's "stealth mode" development of peer-to-peer search engine products, though listening to Kan and Oliver talk, the emphasis on stealth is not quite life-or-death.

They call their first product "Infrasearch" -- a supercharged search engine that will use peer-to-peer technology to search for data not just on the network but also on your hard drive and in other kinds of databases. Although beta versions have been released online, the main product is scheduled to launch in March.

In these days of dot-com doom and gloom,'s founders are lucky. Their combination of zippy technology, a hot buzzword and impressively credentialed youthful programmers (Kan is the de facto spokesman for Gnutella; Oliver was one of the original programmers of Winamp, along with MP3 hero Frankel) helped the team draw $5 million from investors like Netscape founder Marc Andreessen and Excite founder Joe Krause last spring, even as the NASDAQ meltdown was bringing valley funding for Internet start-ups to a grinding halt.

So Kan, ensconced in his world of high-profile supporters and pre-launch hustling, can be breezy about the downturn that's killing off so many fledgling dot-coms like flies electrocuted by a bug zapper. "It doesn't really affect us directly," says Kan as he steers his BMW down U.S. 101. "It's just that it's not as nice of a climate as it was. But I don't think there's a real bearing on us."

"The money is there and the money is headed in the valley's direction, but I know that venture capitalists have changed their investing habits," he continues confidently. "They are a lot more cautious, and I think they are a lot less ready to invest now that they know the public markets aren't going to offer them liquidity just for ideas. You have to have proven companies -- it's back to the days when companies have to do real things to make it in the public markets."

Perhaps because Gonesilent hasn't yet proved anything except that it can generate a whole lot of buzz, the only funding the company has now comes from angel investors, many of whom also hail from the world of search engines. And $5 million doesn't go very far in a start-up.

But that's something to worry about next year. Right now, the main challenge isn't funding -- it's finding a race.

Our first stop in San Jose is at an In-N-Out Burger somewhere off U.S. Highway 237. We have landed in the middle of a commercial zone of office parks and minimalls, a ghost town at this time of night. But the parking lot of the In-N-Out is full of flashy cars: Ferarris, Supras, BMWs, RX-7s and a variety of Japanese cars that have been modified until they are virtually unrecognizable. The drive-through line would look like the inventory from a Beverly Hills luxury dealership were it not for the fact that the cars have been lowered until they kiss the ground, and that hip-hop bass booms from behind tinted windows. The gaudy cars present an oddly incongruous contrast with the seedy fast-food joint serving up french fries in a generic neon strip mall.

We park the RX-7 and BMW and get out and lean against them, smoking cigarettes and watching for some action. The idea, I'm told, is to wait for a group of drivers to decide to race and then follow them to the secret racetrack -- usually a long and straight strip of road, discreetly off the beaten track. But tonight, no one seems to be going anywhere; the flashy cars sit silently while their owners munch burgers inside, and the parking lot is quiet.

I soon understand why: A plainclothes police officer with a badge peeking out from his windbreaker ambles over to us after just a few minutes. "Are you planning on going inside?" he asks, casually but meaningfully. We get the hint and leave.

The police began coming down hard on racing at the end of last summer. The In-N-Out Burger was once a launching pad where hundreds of drivers loitered while arranging their races, but the police are now systematically preventing anyone from hanging out in parking lots for any length of time. It wasn't always this way: For many years Milpitas boasted a legal drag-racing track. But that was shut down three years ago; since then the streets of San Jose have been hosting a game of cat and mouse, except that the mice drive faster cars. One by one, the police target the choicest tracks, busting races by blockading the streets and trying to corner drivers before they accelerate off into the night.

"They are obligated to try to stop it, to do something about it," agrees Oliver, amiably. There have been a number of casualties from drag racing over the years, after all. "But God, there used to be a track here you could go to on Friday and Saturday nights, and then somebody moved in next to it and complained about the noise and now it's gone away, even though it's been there for a long time." He pauses. "I think they are grading it down, and it's going to be offices now."

Our next stop, a Chevron station a few blocks away, is more active. There's no chance of actually getting gas at this station: Every square inch of pavement is occupied by some kind of tricked-out car, the pumps blocked by idling Supras and parked Lexuses. (The owners have apparently given up on the notion of selling gas, and console themselves by selling snacks from the all-night minimart.) The drivers -- Filipino men with spiky gelled hair and baggy jeans, beefy white guys in flannel shirts and baseball hats, tough Japanese boys accompanied by their dainty girlfriends in stiletto heels and wide-cuffed blue jeans -- mill about, staring through windows at dashboards and swapping indecipherable tips. The scene is part bad boy gangsta, part all-American drag race and part sheer testosterone; a hodgepodge of souped-up classic American cars, European luxury coupes and cheaper modified Japanese imports -- plus one misplaced-looking modified Volkswagen Beetle.

"It's boys and their toys," says Kan, and the drivers gun their engines obligingly. The noise of dozens of souped-up motors revving up simultaneously is deafening.

It's difficult to tell who these men are, especially from my intimidated vantage point at the sidelines of the gas station. Although I'm assured by Kan and Oliver that lots of system administrators, I.T. professionals, programmers and even a few CEOs participate in the scene, few of them seem to be here tonight (based only on stereotypical outward appearances). But my hosts also explain that a lot of the geeks who used to come -- like a Cambridge chip developer with a Ferrari and Winamp programmer Frankel with his RX-7 -- are no longer making appearances. In fact, Oliver's RX-7 originally belonged to Napster founder Fanning, who sold the car to Oliver on eBay last year and hasn't been out racing in months.

The glory days, Kan and Oliver sigh, are over. And whether this is because the police have put a halt to all the fun or because the declining economy (and the resulting depleted bank accounts) has taken its toll is unclear. Surely the police didn't decide to step up their activity because they saw a window of psychological vulnerability when NASDAQ tech stocks started to hit the skids.

Despite the enthusiasm of the dozens of street racers who have shown up tonight, they aren't starting any races at the Chevron either. But we haven't given up yet. We jump back into the cars and begin cruising, visiting popular racing spots just in case something is going on. There are tire tracks and thick black skid marks, ghostly relics of past races, but no cars. We hop on and off freeways, careen down hushed dark streets and pass gas station after deserted gas station -- places that were also once launchpads for races. But while we spy lots of souped-up cars doing the same thing we're doing, everyone appears to be just as aimless as we are. In fact, every car on these roads seems to be a racer trying to score some action but not finding any.

Since we can't find a race, we goof off. On a deserted strip of freeway, Kan and Oliver taunt each other, accelerating rapidly in a mock race just to show me "what the car can do." It's over before it has started, giving me a taste of the speed that used to be a regular part of their Friday nights but not whetting their appetites. After two hours of fruitless searching, it's finally time to give up and go home. But it's too early for a good drive back, says Oliver, consulting his watch -- later in the morning, say 3 or 4 a.m., they might race back toward San Francisco. Since it's only 1 a.m. that's too risky, so we plod back up 101 at a modest 75 mph.

When Kan drops me off at my own pathetic little sedan -- a '95 Saturn that obstinately complains if I try to push it past 80 mph -- he apologizes profusely for the failed search. "Even when we came out three weeks ago, there were so many more cars," he says. But he's optimistic that the racing will pick up again, enough that he can take me out for another try.

In the world of geeks, optimism is invincible, no matter what Wall Street analysts are saying. After all, just a few weeks ago Kan sold off some lagging dot-com stock so that he could outfit his BMW with a zippy new supercharger. "It's just a different kind of geekdom," he says, smiling, as he accelerates away.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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