Big Audio Dynamite

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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.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd