Big Audio Dynamite

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

And that settles it.

The posse gets moving to find Harris.

"If we're going to do this, we gotta all stick together," Henry says, and several men agree.

Alma and Patrick Gates, a mother-son team, building the world's loudest car stereo.
Paolo Vescia
Alma and Patrick Gates, a mother-son team, building the world's loudest car stereo.

The group moves purposefully through the staging area, lacking only torches and pitchforks. When they spot Harris, he's in the competition area and looks busy.

The group pauses, suddenly a bit unsure.

"Hey, is that the sound of balls shrinking?" some wag yells.

The men get moving again.


Wayne Harris looks like a man who used to have a mullet. He is the president of dB Drag Racing and a consummate boomer.

"I'm a boomer, I'm a basshead, always have been, always will be," he says.

Harris discovered car audio in the mid-'80s in Texas. The reason for his initial attraction is the same cited by many competitors, and it's as simple an explanation for car audio passion as you're likely to find.

"I wanted to go cruising for girls," he says, "and I couldn't afford a Ferrari. So I did what I was good at: electronics."

When asked to elaborate on how that follows, exactly, he patiently explains: "Guys want to be noticed at that age, and I've found if you're the center of attention, the girls of that age want to be the center of attention, too, and they'll come to you."

Which sounds all too Darwinian: bass mating calls of the American teenager.

"We'll do an experiment," he offers. "We got the Hooters girls; I'll put on a cut of bass music and they will start dancing."

I decline, not wanting to put the Hooters girls through some sort of B.F. Skinner boom-box lab test.

Harris won the debut car audio national championships in '84, and his competition circuit success landed him a job at Rockford Fosgate. He also was involved in the IASCA competitions but thought they were dull and too focused on sound quality.

Harris thought he knew what the car audio crowd really wanted -- thumpin' bass contests like the local Sound Offs he loved in Texas. Except these Sound Offs would have lighted towers, excited announcers, cute models throwing promotional tee shirts and ridiculously massive 7-foot-4-inch first-place trophies.

And, of course, he was right.

In 1994, he introduced the dB Drag Racing concept at IASCA shows. In 1997, Harris split from IASCA and started his own dB Drag competition organization, and has thrown about 50 percent more shows every year since. Harris says there are 15,000 car audio competitors in the country, and those at the dB Drag finals are the most devoted.

"It's a very fanatical type of competition. Most of these kids spend everything they have on their stereo, stay up all night, drive straight through, and it could take a week to get here. They're under extremely high tension."

And once they arrive, they really don't want to lose -- especially to a puffy-ass van. Which brings us back to the posse of disgruntled competitors and the subject of fights in general.

"In any sport that's competitive, you're going to see tempers flare," Harris says. "I was just watching ESPN, and everybody's out there fighting on the diamond, and we don't have anything like that. We have issues, but certainly not as bad as other sports."

Which is perfectly true. But somehow, a slugfest on a nationally televised pro-sports game doesn't seem as hilarious as fighting over car stereo installations.

When the Extreme class competitors find Harris, they quickly surround him and assault him with arguments about why the van should be disqualified.

"There are a lot of people here with a lot of heart who have been doing this over 10 years and have tried to keep their vehicle as close to stock as possible," says Arthur Turgeon, a competitor from New Hampshire.

Harris stands stiffly, looking them each in the eye. These are his most valuable competitors, the ones the crowd wants to see, and the ones the manufacturers want to sponsor.

"I'm telling you right now," Harris says, "I'm not going to respond to any kind of extortion just because your definition of a stock vehicle is different from theirs."

Then come the threats. If Harris doesn't disqualify the van, they will walk out and boycott dB Drag.

"That doesn't work on me," Harris says, stone-faced. "This insults me."

But, eventually, it does work. The dB Drag committee reclassifies the van as an exhibition vehicle, noting it did not have enough competition points to qualify.

When told, Team XS-SPL leader Ranai Foster and crew member Henry Caldwell are righteously furious.

"We worked 18 hours a day for the past four weeks to get this done," Foster says. "They don't like to get beat by girls, that's for sure."

Foster and Caldwell confront the other Extreme Class competitors, and yet another vicious circle forms in the staging area.

The van's specs were preapproved by e-mail! they argue. The team drove all the way from California! This is not right! Everybody acted like their best friend until the van kicked ass in the prelims!

Caldwell faces off with the elder John Henry. They are both red-faced and exhausted-looking.

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