Big Audio Dynamite

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"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.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd