By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
The air inside the Nashville Convention Center is literally trembling.
Sound pressure waves launched by hundreds of bass woofers surge through the room at 1,132 feet per second. The waves combine with each other, bounce off the walls, flutter your clothing and quake through your body. The ambient noise inside the main hall is nearly 130 decibels, the threshold of pain.
Along the back wall, nearly 200 cars crammed with car audio equipment are about to compete in a stereo-vs.-stereo competition called dB (decibel) Drag Racing. Teams from around the county have spent months building their stereos until they are several times louder than a commercial airliner's jet engine.
When it's time to race, a microphone is placed inside the windshield. Doors are bolted or strapped shut to prevent sound pressure from escaping. An announcer says "Go," and the stereo is blasted by remote control for a cheering crowd.
Nobody is allowed inside a car when it's in competition; the sound waves are deafening and potentially lethal. Windshields blow out, batteries explode -- it's part of the fun.
Hundreds of dB Drag events take place every year, but this is the world finals, the event at which every competitor's amplifiers and ambitions are cranked to 11. Here, high-end car audio manufacturers pimp products and scout for new talent. Over there, Hooters girls mesmerize bassheads. In the staging area, obsessive stereo enthusiasts fistfight over proper design rules. And everywhere, everybody is practically screaming -- because that's the only way to be heard over all the ever-present bass.
And in this world, where bass is boss, the reigning boss of all bass is a 65-year-old Ahwatukee woman.
Alma Gates stands proudly by her baby, her Ford Bronco, showing it off to fans who know her name but call her "Ma." She and her son Patrick form the nucleus of Team Gates, the most famous competition team in car audio.
"Our Bronco defies most people's imagination," says 23-year-old Patrick. "If you're not into car audio, you don't understand it. We're building the loudest nonexplosive object on Earth here. The threshold of pain is about 132 decibels. A gunshot is about 145. The threshold of pressure is about 161. Above that, you start seeing bodily damage. We're the first ones to ever really [break 170 decibels]. Short of putting a rat in there and closing the door, we're not really sure what it can do."
The Bronco's laptop-calibrated stereo includes 26 batteries powering 48 amplifiers and an equal number of woofers. The truck weighs 16,000 pounds and is packing about $200,000 worth of equipment. To lock in sound pressure waves, every nonessential part of the vehicle has been stripped out, every crevice filled with high-density foam. The windshield is three inches thick, and the airtight doors are closed by 600-pound pistons. The stereo has 48,000 watts of power, the same as a fair-size radio station, all pounded into the passenger cab of a reinforced Ford truck.
This is the third generation of the Team Gates Bronco. Their earlier, quieter versions set car audio records in 1996 and '97 and made the names Alma and Patrick Gates known to just about every hard-core basshead in the world. Then they were defeated in 1998.
The dB Drag World Finals in Nashville marks their return to competition to regain their championship title.
"I'm not nervous," says Alma.
"We're either going to win, lose or screw up," figures Patrick.
When a speaker woofer fluxes, it creates a wave that expands outward like a rock thrown in a pond. The human ear interprets this wave as sound, but recognizes frequencies only between 20 and 20,000 hertz. At the low end of the human range, the threshold is fortuitously set so you do not hear certain environmental noises (such as your heartbeat) all the time.
If you take dozens of high-powered woofers, make them flux in perfect synchronicity, then trap their sound inside a confined space, the pressure wave can become a tsunami.
"A lot of people don't realize the amount of pressure that builds up," says Team Gates lead designer Scott Owens. "The doors alone are taking a couple thousand pounds of pressure. It's tough to make [the truck] strong enough to handle it."
Team Gates calls the truck "The Beast." It is a monster truck in the literal sense, and far more complex than simply a bunch of speakers and woofers shoved into a truck bed. Constructing a vehicle for SPL (sound pressure level) competition requires an obsessive exactness, thousands of dollars and countless hours of devotion.
The key is maximization. The designer must pull the maximum amount of current from the batteries, which in turn must produce the maximum amount of power from the amps, which must push the loudest possible sound from the woofers, which must be arranged in a manner that maximizes their collective force.
And all of this must be done without blowing up anything, which happens all the time. Batteries explode, amps short out, speakers burst. (And in the case of the Team Gates Bronco, particular caution must be observed when testing a system in which a single bass line from "Ice Ice Baby" could defibrillate your heart and liquefy your bowels.)
Once the sound system is optimized, the vehicle is rebuilt to contain as much of the noise as possible, while still remaining driveable. Competitors throw out padding and extraneous features, such as glove compartments and cup holders and seats. Every component is weighted and reinforced and bolted down.
It is tricky to find the right categorical noun to describe all . . . this. SPL competition is not lucrative enough to be called an occupation. It is too time-consuming and competitive to be called a hobby. Yet it's too engineering-based to be called a sport.
Call it a pursuit.
This pursuit primarily attracts 16- to 26-year-old male bass junkies -- "boomers," as they call themselves. The other species of car audio enthusiasts -- those obsessed with obtaining ideal sound quality (SQ) rather than big burly bass -- are called "tweakers." Tweakers tend to be older audiophiles who experience orgasmic rapture when, say, an Abbey Road CD plays with such acoustical perfection that John Lennon seems to sing from their Lexus passenger seat.
Testosteronic boomers, meanwhile, are simply content to use their Honda CRX to set off nearby car alarms, get girls and generally piss off everybody within 500 feet.
Yes, they are annoying. And yes, they are fully aware they are annoying. Even Patrick Gates -- smart, well-spoken, friendly -- admits he occasionally drives into a parking garage and, when nobody is looking, lets off a sonic boom that triggers every alarm in the structure.
Many assume the drivers in tinted and thumping cars are gangbangers, a popular misconception that boomers find amusing. Nor are boomers necessarily lowriders. SPL culture is predominantly Southern/Midwestern whites; lowrider culture is traditionally Hispanic; and both groups are mostly working-class kids.
"[Gangbangers are] the smallest portion of the industry as you can imagine," Patrick Gates says. "Most of these kids who really do this stuff, they don't do drugs, they don't screw off -- they don't have the time. They're spending all their time working on their damn car."
The one fact that inspires fascination among boomers, tweakers and lowriders is that the leader of the world's most successful boomer competition team is a charming grandmother and former schoolteacher who just happens to have an affinity for big woofers.
Alma Gates has lived in the Valley nearly all her life. She went to ASU in the 1960s, and used to teach school in the Roosevelt district. When asked what she taught, she gives an annoyed look and says, "I taught kids."
There is a story behind her interest in car audio, and it's a good one. Alma and Patrick have told the story many times and unconsciously fall into a sort of verbal tag team.
"I'm 42 years older than this kid," Alma says. "I knew I had to find some way to keep the lines of communication open. So I was a soccer mom, I was a band mom, but those things really didn't interest him. Then he started reading these car audio magazines when he was 14 years old."
"Friends started coming over to my house, and they all had cars, so we started working [on car stereos]," Patrick says. "We'd get out of school at 3 o'clock, have our Mountain Dew and McDonald's in the garage, and build stuff."
"They were there every day after school and during the evenings --"
"-- and at 4 o'clock in the morning. We were having a blast. We got to the point where we were contracting ourselves out at school [to install car audio systems]."
In 1995, Patrick went to a car audio competition in Dallas to meet his big audio hero, then the current SPL world recordholder. When approached, the competitor told him something along the lines of, "I don't have time for you, kid."
"Patrick came back devastated because he didn't want to see the stupid car, he just wanted to meet that man," Alma says. "I was very angry. My overprotective nature kicked in, and I said, 'We're going to take your Bronco and beat that guy's record.' I had no idea what we were getting into."
Alma sold a valuable tract of land owned by her husband, a retired Valley farmer. She contracted a local stereo shop and spent $80,000 turning the Bronco into a world-class thumping machine.
In 1996, Team Gates took their beefed-up Bronco to a dB Drag Racing competition and set a world record -- 164.9 decibels.
The previous record was 161, and because every few decibels represent a doubling of perceived loudness, their record was considered an enormous achievement.
"I didn't know what we did when we did it," Alma says. "I didn't know what it meant. And [news of the record] went all over the world."
Longtime SPL competitors, many sponsored by major audio component manufacturers with reputations to uphold, had a collective fit. They accused Team Gates of having an "extreme" and "illegal" installation job -- nobody uses 46 speakers! They said her design parameters were excessive, that she was cheating.
The next year, the official competition rules were revised.
"Every one of the rules that were changed affected the Bronco -- every one," says Alma. "I think the manufacturers thought we'd go away if they changed the rules."
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.
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!"
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"You're an asshole!"
"C'mon, right now!"
Both men lunge, and their pit crews grab their arms, holding them back.
"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.
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.
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."
I ask why he does it, why car audio is such a passion that he's willing to put himself on the outs with both his wife and employer. And Witherspoon, of course, says something wholly unsatisfying about how SPL is better than SQ.
He answers the last question -- "What are you going to do next?" rather quickly and easily, however.
"Basically," he says, "I want to make this truck bigger and better."