When you get past the noise and the smell, the unbearable heat, the G-force, the surprising physical exertion and, always, the constant threat of injury or death - auto racing, like much else, comes down to math. There is an optimal path around a racetrack, a geometric arc of least resistance. It is the driver's job to find this sweet spot of physics and stick to it, lap after lap, as consistently as a microprocessor crunching through an algorithm.
For tech people - who are accustomed to finding and manipulating hidden math - hitting the arc can be a moment of particular pleasure. "When you're really in the zone in a racecar, it's almost meditative," said Jeff Huber, who has been driving racecars for more than a decade. "You're working on this pursuit of perfection, of getting the braking point just right, the braking pressure just right, finding the limit of adhesion when you're going around the corner. There's this balance that you're feeling and managing all the time, of just barely being in control, right at that perfect limit."
Huber is an engineer and executive at Google. He once led the company's mapping division, and he now works on secret projects at Google X, the company's far-out research lab. He is also among a novel posse in the Silicon Valley, a small but growing group of guys from across the industry who get together on weekends to drive really fast around a track.
Over the last year or so, racing seems to have become the Valley's "it" hobby. There are informal groups of drivers at Apple, Facebook and Google who get together to rent out local tracks. As a reporter who covers the industry, I've received three separate invitations from sources in the past few months. "By the way, are you into cars?" they'll say. "Ever gone out on a track?"
There is sometimes a clubby surreptitiousness to the request, most likely because auto racing carries signifiers that hit on Silicon Valley's most tender worries about itself. Racing is a rich person's pastime in a region where the denizens are increasingly criticized for, and embarrassed of, their ballooning wealth. It is an activity dominated by men in a culture that is legendarily inaccessible to women. And though on Friday, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers prevailed in a gender discrimination case brought against it by Ellen Pao, the unsavory details that emerged in the case underscored gender disparities in the tech business.
The maleness of the sport may be of particular concern as it becomes a more popular pastime that, like golf, has the convenient auxiliary benefit of lubricating the gears of business. Enthusiasts say that taking a potential employee, customer, investor or founder of a hot startup out to a day at the track makes for a connection that exerts a hold even when you're off the track. It's a connection that, for now, not many women are making.
Jeff Bonforte, Yahoo's senior vice president for communications products, saw the potential for racing's utility in business a few years ago, when he was the chief executive of Xobni, a startup that made corporate email services. Bonforte races his car, a Porsche Cayman R, at the track several times a year. After renting out a local track for the day, Bonforte once invited a product manager from Sprint, the chief executive of a major electronics company and "a really influential entrepreneur" to come racing with him. A few hours on the track turned that electronics company CEO into "my buddy," he said.
Bonforte also hit it off that day with the executive from Sprint, Fared Adib. The relationship eventually blossomed into a deal between Sprint and Xobni that continued after Yahoo purchased Bonforte's company. Today, thanks to that initial spark on the racetrack, Yahoo is developing some of the core software in several models of Sprint's smartphones.
The connection built on a racetrack proves lasting, Bonforte said, "because you just bond instantly with everyone else who's doing it. Whoever you're with at the moment, your brain is so happy that it washes over you, and the happiness lends itself to anyone else who is with you."
One morning in late January, Bonforte, a handful of professional racecar drivers and about a dozen members of a pit crew were crowded into a tiny tent just off the pit lane of the Daytona International Speedway. It was the day before the starting flag for the Rolex 24, an endurance race that begins the International Motor Sports Association's racing season. Sports-car racing - as opposed to the Indianapolis 500 or NASCAR racing - is generally the domain of upper-crust European carmakers like Porsche, BMW, Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin.
Bonforte was on hand to cheer on the Racer's Group-Aston Martin Racing, a franchise in which he and several other tech luminaries have made investments. TRG-AMR is run by Kevin Buckler, a fast-talking former professional driver who that morning sat in a set of bleachers in the pit. Buckler's team fields drivers in more than a dozen races a year, and he calls strategy in each of them. But racing is only half of his business. He also owns a winery in Petaluma, north of San Francisco, and he has sought out connections with the tech industry in order to turn racing into the new great nexus for business networking, or what Buckler calls "relationship marketing."
"These Silicon Valley companies tell me that they've got skyboxes at the Raiders, the Giants, the 49ers for their clients, but they can't fill them," Buckler explained when he wasn't barking calls over a headset to his drivers. "We let you invite your customers to Laguna Seca Raceway for a morning, where they'll get professional instruction driving Aston Martin racecars, and then we wrap up with a nice dinner or wine tasting," he said. "Well, they're full, everyone wants to go."
Buckler says he holds several such driving events every year for tech companies hoping to attract customers and employees, banks and venture capital firms looking for wealthy clients, and entrepreneurs hoping to make new contacts. He also hosts many more events at which people don't drive fast cars but instead sit on the sidelines and watch professionals do it. A few of Buckler's corporate sponsors told me that networking through racing had resulted in many deals.
Kyle Smith, a wealth management adviser at the firm Masters Private Client Group, once set up an event with Buckler at Sebring International Raceway, in central Florida. She was hoping to impress several current and potential clients, and she says it worked. "Our guests were made to feel part of the team," Smith told me in an email, describing how they all donned racing fire suits and stood in the pits while Buckler held a strategy session with his team. After the event, one of the firm's clients signed over about $30 million for Masters PCG to manage. Another event yielded a $10 million client, Smith said.
The networking opportunities were on full display at Daytona. Alongside a row of mechanic's bays in which rocket-shaped racecars sat in various sad states of disassembly, Buckler's people had set up a few cocktail tables and a wine-and-cheese spread. Representatives from the team's sponsors - among them an industrial lighting company and a firm that makes online software - were mingling with their guests and customers.
It's not likely that much business gets done at the track. That was more probable on a yacht where the VIPs would later convene for dinner. At the track, noise levels can reach a stomach-churning 100 decibels. Bowls of earplugs are on offer everywhere you look. Among the concessions in the pit that morning was a large bottle of Advil, half empty.
Sociologists have recently begun to chart a diminution of American car culture. People in the United States are driving less than they used to, the rate of car ownership per household is declining, and young people are not as interested as they once were in getting driver's licenses. There are many explanations, including the last recession, but one theory involves the rise of digital technology. A 2012 study by the United States Public Interest Research Group found a sharp decrease in the number of miles driven by people under 34; one of its key explanations was the fact that driving isn't very conducive to goofing off on your phone. The tech industry now seems bent on attacking the car industry head-on, with Google, Uber, Tesla and reportedly even Apple each working on projects that could radically change the structure of the business.
There are some Silicon Valley executives known for their expensive tastes in vehicles. Jonathan Ive, Apple's design chief, for example, is chauffeured to work in a Bentley Mulsanne, a car that sells for more than $300,000. But aside from their disproportionate number of $90,000 Tesla Model S cars, which are one of the few socially acceptable displays of wealth in the industry, the parking lots of Silicon Valley's tech giants are generally indistinguishable from the parking lots of most blue-state office parks. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, drives a Volkswagen GTI. It's not unusual to hear techies profess their disinterest in cars.
"I moved to Manhattan so I wouldn't have to drive, and when I moved to California, I held out against driving to work as long as I could," said Joshua Schachter, an entrepreneur who once sold a company to Yahoo, has worked at Google and is now an angel investor. But Schachter races in a Mazda Miata tuned for the track. He recently received a certification that will allow him to participate in higher-end competitions. He also sometimes drives around in a McLaren that cost him several hundred thousand dollars. His newfound interest in cars and racing, he said, was in some ways connected to his interest in tech.
"It's a fiddly technological skill that you can always improve on," he said. "The same kind of guy who might be upgrading the video card on their computer for better performance might also be upgrading their car." There's also the visceral thrill. "When you make software, it's an unreal product," he said. "Building something physical is attractive in different ways."
Then there's the fact that cars are becoming much more like computers. Racecars now carry something like an automotive Fitbit, sophisticated sensors that precisely measure just about everything that's happening on the track, from G-force to where drivers are braking and accelerating. All this data can be tracked and analyzed, turning racing into a sport of empiricism as much as of instinct.
"The car gives very good feedback," Schachter said. "When you're doing better there's a clear, easy number that shows you."
At some point during every conversation I had with a tech guy who is interested in racing, there would come an awkward moment in which he would ask me not to paint him as an extravagant, sexist cretin. Schachter told me, "Try to tone down the rich guy hobby thing."
Bonforte said that many of his friends preferred to stay silent about racing because "the things that make us smell like the 1 percent, we're very nervous about." He added that while he has invited several women to come to the track, none had accepted his offer. The rise of a new boys' club in Silicon Valley - one that was apparently leading to new deals and other business prizes - was "a totally valid concern," he said, though he did not have any obvious ideas for addressing it. Buckler, meanwhile, believes that there's nothing about racing that should put women off. He has hired a woman, Christina Nielsen, for his professional team, and he argued that as the sport grew in popularity, more women would become interested.
On price, the racers gingerly pointed out that while driving sports cars can be expensive, it's less extravagant than many assume.
"I don't want to be cavalier about the cost," said Bonforte, whose Porsche Cayman carries a sales price of more than $50,000. "There are some people who really get into this and spend a fair amount of money. But I started doing this when I had little money. And honestly, if I were into golf, I would spend five times more."
Schachter pointed out that the most popular car for racing enthusiasts is a Mazda Miata, older models of which sell for less than $5,000. Renting a car for a day on the track costs a few hundred.
Stan Chudnovsky, the head of product management on Facebook's messaging app, pointed to another way that racing could be cheap: Renting a fast car for a day on the racetrack can sate one's desire to buy one for the garage. "You don't want to be the guy who actually buys a Ferrari, and then everyone is looking at you like, 'I can't believe you did that,' " Chudnovsky said. "At the same time, you don't want to not know what it is to drive one. It gives you the ability to experience the best that cars can offer without actually owning all those cars."
In other words, racing is like Uber, but for rich guys.
© 2015, The New York Times News Service