I think you happened to stumble on a difficult start. I agree that a starting point without any races nearby can be painful. It's really hard to balance the enjoyment of exploration (particularly finding something that's been hiding from you but was right there) with the drudgery of cleaning out the fog of war from empty systems.
It's useful to know that gates can only be along the edges of the system. This means you're doing a lot of circles around maps, which unfortunately isn't that exciting either.
Speed-wise, the game now lets you get to 300 speed, which is very fast (perhaps even too fast to keep up during battles), if you have the right components. If larger ships didn't slow you down, you'd have no reason to ever obtain more or stronger thrusters.