Big Audio Dynamite

Alma Gates' car stereo can kill you, set world records and possibly save mankind

Team Gates completely redesigned the truck to meet the new criteria. And in 1997, they won again, setting yet another world record, and silencing most of their critics.

Last year, Alma rented a Phoenix warehouse and assembled a team to construct the world's loudest car stereo. The goal is to boom an unheard-of 175 decibels at the Nashville finals.

Wayne Harris (far left) and competitor Ranai Foster (far right) debate the legality of her install.
Susan Adcock
Wayne Harris (far left) and competitor Ranai Foster (far right) debate the legality of her install.
Team Gates mounts the Beast to watch the competition at the dB Drag World Finals.
Susan Adcock
Team Gates mounts the Beast to watch the competition at the dB Drag World Finals.

Alma rounded up sponsors such as WestCo Batteries and Kicker. "I more or less do all the PR work," she says. "I hug babies and shake hands and pay the bills."

Patrick, recently graduated from DeVry Technical Institute and starting his MBA at Arizona State this fall, is Team Gates' director of operations. The rest of the team is filled out by professional car audio installers enjoying an opportunity to push their occupation's outer limits.

As is appropriate for comeback performances, Team Gates has elected to bring along a prodigal sidekick to the finals.

Kyle Witherspoon is a married 23-year-old boomer from Phoenix entering his battered Toyota 4x4 truck in the Extreme 1-2 Woofer Class (where competitors use only one or two woofers to create the maximum possible sound pressure). Witherspoon has competed for three years, but this will be his first dB Drag final.

"I just want to get recognized for what I can do, and maybe make it to the top three," he says. "So far, my wife has been 100 percent supportive, but eventually it does get old for her with all the money I sink into that truck. She always says, 'Is this the last time?'"

Witherspoon works tech support for Rockford Fosgate, the premier high-end car audio component manufacturer in the Valley (slogan: "Car Audio For Fanatics"). Rockford Fosgate refused to front his expenses to go to the finals, instead sponsoring another competitor. So Alma is playing fairy godmother, letting Witherspoon use her warehouse, paying for his flight to Nashville and transporting his Toyota in the Team Gates semi-truck.

"Kyle has this burning desire to win," says Alma. "And I think he deserves a chance."

The second book in Douglas Adams' satirical Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series describes a rock band called Disaster Area.

The band, Adams writes, is "generally held to be not only the loudest rock band in the Galaxy, but in fact the loudest noise of any kind at all. Regular concert goers judge that the best sound balance is usually to be heard from within large concrete bunkers some thirty-seven miles from the stage, while the musicians themselves play their instruments by remote control from within a heavily insulated spaceship which stays in orbit around the planet."

dB Drag Racing is a slightly more down-to-earth version of Adams' sci-fi rock concert. Participants and audience members are sound-shielded -- in this case by the reinforced vehicles themselves -- from the very performance they are producing/observing.

Still, at the Nashville Convention Center, with nearly 200 teams testing their systems, manufacturers displaying their latest speakers and elaborate exhibition cars showing off their complicated installs, the main hall itself has become one huge sound-pressure chamber. Some visitors wear earplugs, but most do not -- either because they love the cars that go boom, or because they wouldn't be caught dead with neon-colored foam in their ears.

Patrick Gates wears earplugs and is not a bit embarrassed about it. It is the first of the two-day world finals, and Gates has "tailgate duty," promoting the Bronco and the team's sponsors to interested passers-by. Tailgate duty on your awesomely outfitted truck is also one way to meet car audio groupies.

Predictably, women are a minority at the show. Many are blond (lots of dark roots), wearing jeans, and resemble Jennifer Jason Leigh, circa 1987. Some are girlfriends only here after a bit of protest, but for others . . . well, male competitors insist the others are here for something else.

These girls, with only one thing on their minds, will cautiously approach the Bronco.

They will firmly plug their ears and lean back into the cab. Trusting Patrick to be gentle, they allow him to give them a light blast, maybe 145 decibels. The sound waves make their hair shoot straight up, as if receiving an electric shock, a parody of orgasmic surprise.

"Car audio is rock 'n' roll for guys who can't sing," declares Patrick.

Patrick is chivalrous, however; his Bronco is designed solely to score with decibel meters. Other SPL enthusiasts set their systems to a specific frequency that is rumored to produce a spontaneous female orgasm -- trying to turn their woofers into sonic vibrators, and their cars into literal sex machines. There are Tempe boomers whose stoplight pickup line is: "Hey! Want an orgasm?"

The women receiving the most attention on the convention center floor do not seem the least bit interested in car audio, orgasmatronic or not. In the main dB Drag Racing competition area, a four-pack of glitter-abusing Hooters girls stand before bleachers of SPL fans. The girls look bored and occasionally throw tee shirts at people.

"Want the Hooters girls to do some dancing?" the announcer asks the crowd. "C'mon, are you guys sitting next to your girlfriend or something? Let's hear it!"

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