Where Second Place Means "Loser"

When a bunch of venture capitalists put on a soapbox derby, get off the road

It's high noon on the crest of Sand Hill Road. Well, actually it's about high 10 a.m. this September Sunday, but it's already 90F or so, thousands of people are milling around, the festivities are an hour behind schedule, and tempers and patience are wearing thin. Ordinarily, this four-lane stretch of Menlo Park (Calif.) highway is best known as the murderer's row of venture capital--the headquarters of such well-known outfits as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Mayfield Fund, and Benchmark Capital.

But today, the road is blocked off and lined with hay bales: It's the third annual Sand Hill Challenge day, a modern soapbox derby in which Silicon Valley's Type A-pluses are trying to pull off the impossible. They're attempting to appear laid-back and good-humored as, ostensibly for charity, they see who can strap a scared, hot, skinny driver to a high-tech-looking thing with four wheels, give it a shove, and cross the finish line before another intense, overly competitive team does the same.

Very weird. But very Silicon Valley. The Sand Hill Challenge was dreamed up by Jamis H. MacNiven, owner of Buck's Restaurant in nearby Woodside A gregarious showman, MacNiven wanted to recreate the nostalgia of soapbox derbies. By alternately pleading with and pitting his VC customers against each other, he got them to agree to enter cars and pay a fee to charity--predominantly Safe Rides, a volunteer program that gives free rides home to teenagers who have been drinking.

A VALLEY MICROCOSM. Competition? Did somebody say competition? The firms went nuts right out of the gate. Sand Hill mavens Mohr, Davidow Ventures won the speed division the first two years running with sleek, highly engineered carbon-fiber-and-titanium marvels crafted by the Valley's top product-design team, IDEO.

It would all be a lot more fun if the philanthropic math added up better: Although it has raised almost half a million dollars in three years, it's no secret the contenders have spent several times that on the vehicles, themselves. Proceeds so far have funded about 800 hours of rides for kids, which is great, except winning cars routinely exceed 1,000 hours each to design and build. "This is a microcosm of the Valley," says David C. Nagel, who heads AT&T Research Lab's Menlo Park office. "It's fun on the surface, but there's a deep streak of competitiveness. It's exactly the way the VCs see things: The first place trophy says `winner' and the second place says `loser."' Literally.

Organizers have been working on smoothing some of those rough edges. Jayne M. Williams, a local real estate agent tapped by MacNiven to run the event while he mingles--this year he showed up on a camel--has tripled the entrance fee to $3,000 and talked major sponsors into donating much more money to the charities. Teams are quietly urged not to spend more on their cars than the amount they donate.

I walk over to the starting line where the "speed" category is just getting under way. "Man, have you seen the Kleiner dudes?" a teenage boy asks his friends as the first of the corporate cars lines up at the start. "They are BIG."

RINGERS ABOUND. That kind of talk has got to warm the hearts of the KP partners. Of course, the kid's not talking about them, he's talking about the ringers they've hired to push their entry car. Ringers are another ritual for this race, and have included former National Football League players and Olympic bobsled team members. After spending an hour or so in the KP tent just perspiring and looking intimidating, the trio came out and stretched in front of a chorus line of onlooker Valley guys visibly sucking in their stomachs and speculating aloud about steroid usage--the male version of the facelift and tummy-tuck surveys we girls conduct. Delicious, really.

Despite that, KP is now three years into a perennial struggle for victory in the speed category, which it clearly wants so much to win but, alas, lost again this year. "That's what makes victory so intensely satisfying," says Nagel, whose AT&T car ended up beating all the VCs. "To have them get those big guys and spend a huge amount of money and get their butts kicked anyway."

The actual race is sort of mesmerizing and a little frightening. The speeds of these delicate vehicles approach 50 mph. There were no major crashes or injuries, although this year's announcer had a macabre sense of humor. "Well, these look a lot like high-tech coffins," she observed brightly as two nervous drivers were packed into their racers.

This year, Mohr Davidow's partners may have come up with the perfect three-peat by simply strolling the sidelines of the speed race with amused, above-it-all airs. They've been telling folks they couldn't bear to see the pain their victories inflicted on rivals like Kleiner Perkins, and so they only entered the "whimsy" division--which they won with a vibrant red dragon car.

Even "whimsy" entrants look for every edge. Tim Draper is with a team from his Redwood City venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. He's scurrying around a, well, incredibly ugly "Trojan Horse" entry. It bears a big sign saying "RULES" with a red slash through it. Draper bounds over, hand out. "I should warn you," he says, as we shake. "I just touched a sheep with this hand." "Where?" I ask, pulling my hand back. "Over there," he gestures, grinning. "Not really what I meant," I mumble, but sure enough, there's a miserable looking little black sheep tied to a fire hydrant behind him.

Draper lays out his tale of woe: Last year, his team almost got thrown out for toting a 10-foot-high ramp to the Hill to give their car a starting boost in the speed race. (An elaborate package of rules forbids motors, demands four wheels, and probably keeps one retainer attorney per firm busy for at least a week looking for loopholes). They finally let them race--the car lost anyway.

BLACK SHEEP. So, this year, chanting the "no rules" mantra, DFJ decided to do "whimsy" with a twist. Draper is using the race to further stick it to his Sand Hill Road competitors by hyping DFJ's new satellite offices around the country. When it's DFJ's turn at the starting line, a ramp comes down and a bunch of little go-carts peel out sporting the names of cities for the new offices, and "black sheep" Draper walks out with his little friend on a leash. "Beware of geeks bearing gifts," his team crows.

Perhaps the spirit of the soapbox derby is a guy thing that is destined to elude me. I found the number of swearing pit crew members still making design changes minutes before the race eerily similar to other examples of inscrutable masculine behavior. Say, for example, my husband's tendency to change the oil in our car half an hour before 10 dinner guests are due to arrive. Our photographer, on the other hand, tried to explain to me how the race brought back rich childhood memories of heisting baby carriage wheels and hammering them to a crate with his buddies. "Look, that one has a real suspension," he says, as some kindred soul looked up from his labors, "Mmm, suspension," I said. "Boy, it's hot."