Steve David, a former bar owner who just became the director of one of the world’s most closely watched transportation companies. And not just any bar. Thomas Foolery was dubbed by the Washington City Paper “the wackiest bar in Washington.” It sold Ring Pops, kept a Bedazzler on the premises and gave 10% off to anyone who dressed up as Carlton from the TV show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
So it’s perhaps fitting that Davis is now the president of Boring Co., Elon Musk’s wackiest transportation startup. Boring Co., despite its audacious goal of remaking urban transit, also created a media sensation last year by selling flamethrowers and building an actual watchtower as part of an elaborate Monty Python joke.
Now, Davis and Boring Co. have more serious plans. On Friday, he’ll be on site to mark the official start of tunnel-drilling underneath the Las Vegas Convention Center. It’s the first big test of whether the whimsical Boring Co. can actually complete a large-scale commercial undertaking.
Boring Co.’s $48.7 million subterranean transit system in Las Vegas is its only major project so far, outside of a nearly mile-long test tunnel in Hawthorne, California. Pit construction and other preliminary work on the project began two months ago. If all goes according to plan, in January 2021, Las Vegas convention goers will be able to board Teslas running along a throughway buried underground, and be hurtled halfway along the sprawling complex in just 1 minute.
So far, despite Boring Co.’s high profile, Davis has largely stayed out of the spotlight. Through a spokesman, he declined multiple interview requests for this article. But he’s a key force within the company. “He has the ability to inspire people,” said Mike Wongkaew, who was a Boring Co. engineer until late last year. “He also rolls up his sleeves and helps out.” Last year, as the company raced to finish its Hawthorne test tunnel, Wongkaew said Davis was among those helping carry supplies like plywood frames deep into the tunnel.
Colleagues describe him as a sharp engineer who provides both broad leadership and tackles detailed engineering questions. “He’s a technical guy,” said Juan Reyes, former acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, now a partner at law firm Seyfarth Shaw. “They really count on him to resolve issues.”
Davis started working with Elon Musk in 2003 as one of the first hires at Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. With his twin master’s degrees in particle physics and aerospace engineering, Davis developed a reputation at SpaceX for relentlessness. “He’s been working 16 hours a day every day for years,” one SpaceX engineer told Bloomberg journalist Ashlee Vance in his book, Elon Musk. “He gets more done than 11 people working together.”
He’s also performed feats of engineering. At one point, Musk assigned Davis the near-impossible task of making a part that cost $120,000 with a budget of $5,000. Davis toiled for months and eventually came up with a way to craft the part for $3,900, Vance writes. When Davis sent Musk a lengthy message with the good news, outlining the process and savings, Musk sent a one-word email back: “Ok.” Davis now jokes about the incident, but it reveals a hard-headedness from Musk, a famously tough boss, as well as Davis’s ability to handle it. Davis is one of Musk’s longer-serving executives.
At SpaceX, Davis spent a few years working in different locations, including Omelek Island in the Marshall Islands, where the company once had launch facilities, as well as its Southern California headquarters. Then, a little over a decade ago, he moved to Washington to open the company’s D.C. office.
This burst of entrepreneurship unfolded as Davis, still at SpaceX, got to work on yet another degree: a Ph.D. program in economics at George Mason University, where he wrote his 2010 dissertation on U.S. currency debasement. In the preface he noted he one day hoped to open a restaurant called “Little Yohai,” perhaps finding inspiration in Morrie Robert Yohai, inventor of the Cheez Doodle.
Instead, he settled for opening a bar, Thomas Foolery, which became one of the first restaurants in Washington to accept Bitcoin. The bar was stuffed with “gimmick upon gimmick,” wrote the Washington Post, including “angry hour” discounts for patrons who shouted their drink orders. It also served comfort food like grilled cheese sandwiches, cookies with ice cream and spiked versions of milkshakes. “Basically, it takes you back to being a kid, but with alcohol,” one reviewer wrote on Yelp.
Today, Davis is no longer a restaurateur. Thomas Foolery closed in 2015, and he sold Mr. Yogato last year for $1, after holding a contest to select the new owner. Now, Davis seems to have found a creative outlet on a much larger scale.