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.