Big Audio Dynamite

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

His Toyota is a cut car, an ugly heap on which every alteration is solely to create a more effective pressure chamber. Back in high school, he had the loudest truck in school. Over the years he kept adding equipment, and today the Borg-like takeover of stereo components is complete. The Toyota is completely stripped, barely driveable. And, as far as he's concerned, it's paid off.

Witherspoon wasn't favored to make it to the last round. But here he is and, suddenly, Witherspoon finds the manufacturing reps a lot more friendly and the competitors a lot more wary. On his tailgate sit four unused amps, a loan from a manufacturer who hopes he will replace his employer's Rockford amps. Even though the reps at the Rockford booth have barely said a word to Witherspoon all weekend, he declines to use the other company's amps. Not so much out of company loyalty, not at this point, but just that the Rockfords are probably better.


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.

Witherspoon hasn't slept for five days and hasn't eaten in the last 24 hours, so there is very little about which he is positive. "You worry about everything," he says, and because he's using only two woofers, he absolutely cannot afford for a single thing to go wrong.

"Are you ready?" asks Alma Gates.

"I'm ready," Witherspoon says. "I'm nervous, but I'm ready."

"You want first place."

"I spent 120 damn hours in that shop. You bet I want first place."

"And then there's some prize money."

Witherspoon looks blank. "Oh . . . really?"

Then, over the PA: "Kyle Witherspoon, we need you in tower 3 immediately."

He stows his tools under a tarp, puts the camper shell over his truck bed and squeezes into the tight cab to steer. Team Gates' Scott Owens grabs some men to help push the truck to the competition towers. (A competitor crashed into a gate on opening day, and increasingly irritated convention center officials have prohibited any driving inside the building. )

Now that the competition is down to the final few, the sound waves inside the main hall have become true North Shore swells. Eliminated competitors are blowing out their systems. The room reeks of fried plastic and burning woofer paper. Teams at the competition towers lose their voices trying to be heard.

Witherspoon's truck halts beside one of the large, drag racing-style light towers that will display the results of his race. To his left are rows of giant trophies, to his right is the quartet of Hooters girls, and in the center are bleachers of fans and a roving announcer.

A regulation SPL microphone is placed inside the cab. To ensure a fair race, each team plays a standardized bass tone-testing CD for its 30-second run.

Witherspoon duct tapes the gear shift hole and tightens a few bolts, "trying to get a 100 percent seal inside the cab."

"Kyle: 17.4!" yells Owens, taking a voltage reading.

Witherspoon nods grimly and slides under the truck to winch a yellow CargoSafe strap tight around the doors.

On the other side of the tower, Witherspoon's opponents are a bit less frantic. Team Auto Sound from Missouri has a good half-dozen members in matching polos prepping a Volkswagen Rabbit slathered in sponsorship decals. The team members will throw themselves onto the vehicle during the race to reduce vibration -- sound is energy, after all, and anything that the woofers vibrate is stealing energy from the noise created inside the cab. In other words, the crew will literally push escaping sound back into the car.

The announcer yells: "Ready . . . set . . . go!"

With his hand-held remote CD player, Kyle "burps" the speakers.

The woofers blur. The car shakes. The Hooters girls still look bored. And the crowd cheers -- they see the numbers before Witherspoon does.

His opponent gets 169.0 decibels.

Witherspoon gets 169.3 -- a two-speaker world record.

"Kyle Witherspoon is the new world champion in the 1-2!" shouts the announcer, and Witherspoon, finally, smiles.

Witherspoon sits against the wall of the convention center, utterly exhausted. A few feet away is his mammoth 7-foot-4-inch trophy, about two feet taller than he is.

The highest score at the show was earned by John Henry and son, setting a new world record (171.4 decibels) for Alma Gates to try to break. Alma will be at the USAC world final this month in Kansas City and, she promises, the Beast will be ready.

Alma Gates is proud of Witherspoon, especially the way he handled some last-minute pressure by his employer.

"[Rockford Fosgate] paid this kid absolutely no attention until he got into the semifinals," she says. "Then they were suddenly offering to help push his car and wanted him to wear the Rockford jacket when he picked up his trophy."

Witherspoon refused, wearing his grease-smeared Team Gates polo instead.

"He's a gutsy little guy," says Alma. "I admire that."

Witherspoon won't say anything negative about his employer; he wants to keep his job (and does). When presented with a microcassette recorder for an interview, he wearily speaks as if he's a star athlete on live TV who just won the big game.

"I want to thank my wife for putting up with all of my crap," he says. "[I haven't been] going home except to take showers. It's tough on her, but she knows how important this is to me."

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