Big Audio Dynamite

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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.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd