As I waited for Wallace Santos to meet me from his Kenilworth, New Jersey office to Newark for an interview (and a tour of his MAINGEAR gaming computer compound) I texted him to ask what type of car I should be looking for. Santos replied with a photo of his most recently acquired vehicle, a fire engine red pickup truck with the company’s logo painted on in black.
“Can’t drive around in a bimmer with all these crazy potholes,” he added. Usually Wallace pushes an M3 Competition Edition BMW during his errands but because of the barrage of snow storms that hammered the east coast, the roads are littered with craters that only a maniac would drive a luxury car on. I shot Wallace back a digitized chuckle with the hashtag “#ballerproblems”.
Ironically, Santos is strikingly humble for a guy who started out building video gaming PCs for friends and is now rubbing cufflinks with the likes of Microsoft, NVIDIA, not to mention being a current member on the advisory board for Intel. MAINGEAR has built machines for high end corporations, politicians, celebrities and royal family members, one of which (he couldn’t name due to a confidentiality clause) requested a top-of-the-line gaming rig dipped in gold.
“To get a computer dipped in 24 Karat gold is very expensive,” Wallace shared. “You’re talking about twelve grand and that’s just the chassis [computer case]. The guy didn’t care how much it cost so I had to figure it out. Since I come from the car world, I knew a place that could make it happen.”
Assembling a computer isn’t as difficult as you’d think; almost anyone can do it. As long as the parts are compatible and nothing breaks in the process, a decent machine can be put together with just a couple of bucks and a few Google searches and some spare time. But what MAINGEAR does is different, and maybe borders on the obsessive.
“My goal was always to get to a point where we wouldn’t just assemble a machine,” Santos explained. “We would engineer a new PC and launch it.” That big launch happened in 2009 with the company’s “Shift” computer line. The release inspired Santos and his crew to go as far with future designs as to get their own parts manufactured – like computer cases, audio chips, cooling technologies and even a liquid metal solution to keep CPUs from frying.
“I was sitting down with Chris [Morley], our Chief Technology Operator, trying to figure out what’s the best thermal interface material to use,” Wallace said. “We tried ceramic based stuff – the artic silver thermal paste that’s out there – and we’ve literally tried butter and mayonnaise to see what would happen. At some point we started talking about the Terminator 2 movie and wondered if liquid metal actually existed. We called up a few companies and the next thing you know, we had a working sample.”
While unafraid to draw from pop culture influences, MAINGEAR’s most prominent inspiration comes from the car industry. As a street drag racer during his mid-to-late teens, Santos has been obsessed with cars. At sixteen, he left New Jersey to get his driver’s license early. By age 18, Santos was one of the most infamous racers in the northern New Jersey area and had taught himself how to shove a 400-horse power engine into an Acura.
Though Santos is no longer burning rubber in the streets, he’s taken that same passion and applied it to computers. Upon entering the MAINGEAR compound, the most noticeable thing is the ratio of actual “office” to what looks like an auto body shop. Guys are pacing around with tools, there’s computer parts stacked all over the place and in an annexed building, expert auto painter Ray McKee puts the finish on a PC.
“We use the same color codes and names that are used for the cars,” Santos said. “From Ferrari’s rosso red and Porsche’s speed yellow to BMW’s alpine white, not only do we color match, but we use the same Glasurit brand paint used on cars.”
Like many operations that have seen long-term success, MAINGEAR’s came mostly through word of mouth. Those in the know recognize the company for its fanatical approach to building and optimizing machines. So much that when producers of CBS’ Big Bang Theory asked NVIDIA for a PC to add to the mountain of geek toys in the background, they called up the MAINGEAR gang.
Business is great, but Wallace is still going through his share of growing pains. One of which is dealing with the horrors of mass market retail. MAINGEAR is now being carried by the Microsoft store which is a blessing and a curse.
“There’s a scam where people can buy a computer, rip the guts out and then send it back for a refund,” Santos explained. “That really damages a business like mine. We’ve lost a lot of money because of that.”
Still, Santos continues to allow what he picked up from his automotive love affair drive his alternate passion. “Because I love cars so much, I’ve been able to bring that over into the computer business,” he says. “Putting big radiators into cars is like putting big coolers into computers. I get so much inspiration from both except now, the car world is my hobby.”