Big Audio Dynamite

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

The crowd cheers, and the girls glare at the announcer.

"The girls have so much power," the announcer marvels, and makes a fist to show us how much power they have, "they just take it for granted."

As the announcer creepily harasses the girls, Alma Gates walks back into the staging area. The reaction to Alma is extraordinary. Guys who look like they are maybe 19 or 20 greet her with awe and respect. They ask her to sign their shirts, some even wearing clothing she signed at previous shows.

Local boomer Kyle Witherspoon (left) prepares his truck for competition.
Susan Adcock
Local boomer Kyle Witherspoon (left) prepares his truck for competition.

One young fan has her sign his shirt as his girlfriend looks on.

"I'll never wash it again!" he threatens, while his girlfriend tells Alma: "He shows me all these [car audio] magazines and he says, 'See this woman? I've met this woman.'"

Most of her fans' vehicles are called "cut cars," which Patrick later explains means the owners "cut the shit outta them" to prepare them for competition. Unlike the sleek Bronco, these are rusty steel cans that have been stripped out, patched with Bondo putty, filled with homemade foam and covered in Frankensteinian bolts. Labors of after-school love.

Alma stops in front of a man who looks a bit out of place in the staging area, with his glasses and ironed shirt. Alma introduces him as Tom Morgan, a representative of one of her sponsors, WestCo Batteries.

After Alma walks away, Morgan looks around at all the woofer worship and lowers his voice.

"It's a really stupid show," he says. "It's completely idiotic. This is all marketing-driven. Whoever wins here you'll see in all the car audio magazines."

Finding this surprisingly candid, I pull out my pad and write it down.

Morgan stops.

"Uh, who do you write for?" he asks.

I tell him, and Morgan immediately finds something across the room very interesting and leaves.

Morgan is mostly right, though.

The first national SPL competition was in 1984 when a Rockford Fosgate representative came up with the ingenious idea of having contests to create a competition market for the company's products. Several manufacturers banded together and created a contest-sponsor committee called the International Auto Sound Challenge Association (IASCA).

After many years of manufacturer infighting over contest rules, there are now three organizations regulating the growing competition scene: IASCA, the United States Autosound Competition (USAC) and the sponsor of this show -- dB Drag Racing.

The competitors often compete more for the attention of manufacturers than the crowd. Many would gladly ingest a woofer to get a sponsor, and once sponsored they are expected to be loyal (and competition-winning) promoters. Winners hope to get hired by a high-profile manufacturer or open their own shop after establishing a reputation on the circuit.

On the other hand, winning a first-place prize or a sponsorship for free equipment doesn't come close to covering an installer's investment. A trophy is usually just a bragging right for doing something they love.

When you ask these competitors why they engage in this pursuit, for instance, they can't really tell you. They might say they like the bass sound (Yes, but why do you like the bass sound?), or say loudness competition is so much better than the sound quality competition (Yes, but why car audio at all?), but they cannot provide an insightful answer.

Car audio is simply their selected passion, as impossible to clearly explain as a passion for pro football or collecting 1930s mannequins. It's something to take seriously, even when it's ridiculous.

The inventor of dB Drag Racing, Phoenix resident Wayne Harris, has some thoughts on car audio passion.

But right now, there's an angry posse gathering to give Harris some trouble.

About a dozen men huddle in the staging area. They are competitors in the Extreme 9+ Woofers class, the category with the loudest and most elaborate installs, and they're ragingly upset about one of the vehicles they're racing against.

The offending entry is a large white van visible from across the room. The van, from Team XS-SPL out of California, looks as if owner Ranai Foster shoved an ACME air hose up the tailpipe and inflated it to cartoon proportions. Its extended puffy top allows room for extra stereo components.

When competitors first saw the van, they just rolled their eyes. Then it registered the highest score during the preliminary trials.

"This is bullshit," says one competitor.

"She pulled the same thing last year," says another.

"Every year it's getting worse and worse."

"If I did something like that to my vehicle, I'd be embarrassed."

"If you did it, you'd be DQ'd."

One of the men is John Henry, a competitor from Omaha who owns an install shop. Lanky and tall, he leans over his young son, John Henry Jr. During the prelims, Henry and son's truck came in second.

Henry's truck, some say, is also a bit suspect (the issue: controversial woofer placement). But for now, everybody agrees the biggest offender is the van, and they deliberate whether to gang up on event producer Wayne Harris to pressure him into disqualifying Team XS-SPL.

"What do you think, Alma?" somebody asks.

Alma Gates is passing by. She stops and shrugs. "I think that vehicle is illegal as all heck."

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