Big Audio Dynamite

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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.

Morgan stops.

"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.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd