Big Audio Dynamite

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

"You're an asshole!"

"C'mon, right now!"

Both men lunge, and their pit crews grab their arms, holding them back.

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.

"You're the biggest cheater of them all!" yells Caldwell.

"Nobody's callin' my son a cheater!" yells Henry.

And they lunge again.

Alma Gates sits in the convention center's bar, several floors up from the thumping chaos of the competition hall. The bar is dark, and Alma can see the nighttime Nashville skyline through a picture window.

She drinks her white wine. Team Gates had hit "play" on the CD podium, but only half the Bronco's speakers were functioning. Some sort of wiring problem, easily fixable, just not easily fixable right then. The half-power test impressively cracked the Bronco's truck bed, knocked over some nearby trophies and blew out a taillight, but it wasn't enough.

Alma made the executive decision to pull the Bronco from competition.

"We had 30 minutes left [before their preliminarily trial slot], and we had to make a choice," she says. "There's a lot of people out there who would love to see us fail, and I would rather not compete at all than go in there half-assed. I want to be the best. We've always been the best."

Maintaining the reputations of her sponsors, she admits, was also a consideration.

"She doesn't like to go to battle unless she's 100 percent ready," Harris says later. "I think if you're going to compete, sometimes you have to lose. And I think that maybe that could create some problems with some of the other competitors who were looking forward to competing with her."

In other words, the other teams really wanted to defeat Alma Gates, the woman who gets all the press and sponsor attention, and now they feel like Charlie Brown after Lucy yanks away the football.

Alma explains that she has big plans for her truck and won't let it embarrass her. She wants to get out of the competition circuit, get appearance deals at corporate promotional events.

But what she would really love, she says, is for the Beast to "help mankind."

You see, explains Alma, every year, millions of dollars' worth of crops are destroyed by bugs in containment silos. So last summer, a company in Florida -- Analytical Research Systems Laboratory -- asked her to bring the Bronco to their labs. The scientists put plastic bags of bugs in the Bronco, blasted them with bass for 30 seconds at various frequencies, then ran tests to see whether the sound pressure killed or sterilized them. The hard-shell insects survived; the soft-tissue insects imploded.

The president of Analytical Research, Ara Manukian, says one shouldn't expect boomer cars cruising through cornfields anytime soon, but the tests did provide valuable information about the effects of sound pressure on pests.

Alma thinks this research is wonderful. Her truck, her Beast, is being used for a higher purpose.

Which finally gets to the real reasons she is doing all this.

Let's be clear: Alma Gates just turned 65, and she's traveling the country with a steroidal Bronco and a bunch of twentysomething bassheads. The whole story about how she wanted to improve her relationship with her son is all fine and good. It makes great press and sounds about right. But that was years ago. Her relationship with Patrick today is so solid they finish each other's sentences. Why is she really doing this; why is this her passion?

"It's difficult to answer what I get out of it, why I do it. . . . I do it because I want to," she says.

"I've always been a loner. Nobody at home knows what I do. My neighbors don't even know what I do. Most people who are 65 years old wouldn't do this, they wouldn't understand it. Most people my age are not interested in car audio. Most people my age are into playing golf, but it is not my thing."

She looks down at her glass of wine, rotates the glass.

"When you stop thinking, and stop doing, and stop being motivated, you might as well sit down and die. Doing this, I get to work with a group of wonderful young people.

"This keeps me young."

She says that last sentence quietly, a verbal sound wave with only a little bit of pressure, but plenty of meaning.

When asked if this is the case, Patrick says, "It's been a major shift in her personality over the past few years. She's healthier and happier. She does not look 65 right now -- but when she was 50, she looked 65."

So there is, at least, one good reason for worshiping car audio. And though she may be out of the competition for this round, Alma can still live vicariously through one of her friends: Her ace in the hole who has no sponsors, no teammates and the ugliest truck at the show.

Kyle Witherspoon scrambles over the jumbled wood-and-wire mess sitting in his truck bed. He has a voltage meter in his hands, and he tests every wire he can find. He tinkers here and there, trying to squeeze every last bit of current out of the system. He has maybe two minutes before his truck is due for the final dB Drag Racing run in his competition class.

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