Mechanics sneak nips from longnecks. Others clench cigarettes between their lips as they twist wires and pump bass-heavy tracks from Outkast and Eminem, which grow louder with each component added to the electrical daisy chain. A green Ford Metropolitan, lifted on 6-foot wheels and 5-ton axles, rises above the sea of polished metal. The truck has a detachable, touch-screen CD player, three amps and six 15-inch speakers wired to eight car batteries. A black van from Moberly, Missouri, blasts test tones that trigger car alarms -- its open rear doors reveal a cargo of amps stacked like shipping boxes. Some cars have enough raw power to torch amplifiers, shatter glass windshields, rend metal.
Welcome to the 17th annual Tuner Jam: the largest, loudest car-stereo competition on the planet. Stereo geeks from around the country converge here once a year, morphing their cars into the world's most powerful portable boomboxes, pitting sound system against sound system to find out whose is loudest.
Rule 1: Teamwork Is Important
At the center of the exhibition hall, a thick man in a ball cap rides shotgun inside a sonic bomb.
A patch on his green mechanic's shirt reads "Big Ed." He's sitting in the passenger seat of a white Honda CRX parked inside a small arena encircled by a blue-draped guardrail and rows of chairs. Beside it looms a 20-foot-tall checkered-flag tower topped by spinning red lights, a beacon visible from any point in the hall.
The CRX will be the first car to compete today. Big Ed is Ed Bausman, a 32-year-old native of St. Joseph who earned a degree in criminal justice from Missouri Western State College but has never used it. Instead, he spliced and soldered at St. Joseph Electronics until July 2001, when he jumped to a similar position at Competitive Audio in Nixa, Missouri. He used to park his ride outside and pump music, which drew crowds. In 1997 he started taking his one-man show on the road, following the sound-competition circuit, paying entry fees of $30-$50 and crashing with friends or sleeping in crowded motel rooms in places like Daytona Beach, Florida; South Padre Island, Texas; Canton, Illinois; and Tulsa, Oklahoma, to earn enough points to qualify for this, the big show. One girlfriend left him, then another. Recently, he moved in with his parents to save money.
Last year, Bausman met Greg McCool, a 26-year-old from Marion, Illinois, who in 2001 spent $6,000 in entry fees to break the world record for most points earned in competition. A sound-off veteran with boy-band looks, McCool owned multiple CRXs (the standard among competitors for cheap, entry-level cars) and had spent $20,000 to turn an ambulance into a competition vehicle he dubbed the Slambulance.
McCool needed a way to defer costs, so in 2000 he formed Team Sweep, a loose coalition of Midwest boomers who shared expenses, equipment and expertise. Most were small-town guys with day jobs -- a stereo installer, an accountant, a former all-American turned track coach at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, a restaurant manager, a carpet layer, a mortgage broker. Some in Team Sweep had spent years working with Bausman during competitions. This year for the first time, the team asked Bausman to join.
So this has become his Saturday-morning ritual: sitting in a teammate's car like a crash-test dummy. As the largest member of the team, Bausman plays a key role -- he's the girth. Inside a car, his body mass takes up enough space to increase sound pressure by a few tenths of a decibel, which is sometimes enough to edge out a competitor. This weekend, the team has brought seven CRXs and a pickup truck. "Every car I've sat in, we've gotten louder," Bausman says proudly.
Tucked between Bausman's legs is a small sound sensor in a spherical case. Just behind his headrest are four 12-inch woofers in cabinet-sized boxes. The car's battery has just been fully charged, and the CD player will resonate not music but the most guttural note the speakers can hold. The sensor is wired to a cable that runs to a counter on the judges' table. Guys in green uniforms stand behind the vehicle as Bausman puts on his protective headphones and braces his hands against the dashboard. The judge offers a wave: Ready? Bausman nods. The car is detonated by remote control.
The speakers emit a fixed tone called a "burp" -- a 3-second shock wave. Bausman knows what to expect: The reverb hits him like a baseball bat, slamming his chest, knocking air from his lungs. He can't breathe or swallow. His stomach drops. His balls vibrate. His eyes bulge.
Rule 2: Honor Your Mother
A 69-year-old woman with gold-rimmed glasses and freshly painted red fingernails stands inside a white tent, calmly watching the action. Next to her, a 1988 Ford Bronco blares club anthems to near-deafening levels. The vehicle is loaded: 15 alternators, five amps, ten 18-inch subwoofers, and 12 batteries powered by a 1995 Mustang Cobra engine. The car's steel frame has been reinforced by concrete. The back window is aluminum, not glass. The front window is 2-inch-thick bulletproof glass.
Men circle the car like paparazzi, shooting it from all angles with video cameras. Young guys hand cameras to their girlfriends and ask to pose with the older woman. A line of people rings the tent as she scrawls her name in indelible ink on a stack of free T-shirts: Alma Gates.
In 1996 and 1997, Gates' Bronco was the loudest vehicle in the world.
"It's like the Pied Piper," Gates says of the Bronco. "You turn it on, and people come. It's called marketing. Fun part is when kids come and look at it."
A retired schoolteacher from Phoenix, Gates never set out to be an industry figurehead. She started building car stereos in the mid-'90s as a way to bond with her son. Patrick Gates had collected electronics magazines like comic books, and when he turned 16 and wanted to put a sound system in his car, she asked if she could help.
Her garage became a neighborhood refuge, filled with teenagers putting stereo equipment in their own cars. "They were doing math," Gates says. "They were doing physics. They were doing all these things and not knowing they were doing it."
For fun, she and her son built out his Bronco and her 1996 Ford F-350 pickup. Then, in 1995, they attended a national sound battle in Dallas, hoping to meet Patrick's hero, Mark Fukuda. Though Fukuda always seemed to be smiling in the magazines, he told Patrick to get lost.
"He really pissed me off," Gates says. "All this could have been prevented. All that man had to do was say, 'Come back later,' and I would not be here today." Instead, she wanted to beat him at his own game.
To finance her revenge, she sold a 160-acre tract of land to strip-mall developers. Then she hit the local stereo shop, bankrolling Patrick's friends. "It was a bunch of young people who thought they knew everything about the world, and I was, like, prove it," she says. "At that time, money was not an issue. To me, it was just an investment in Patrick."
They sealed off the back end of the Bronco to increase sound pressure. "It was a very extreme install," Gates says. "We built a box inside a box."
A year later, they showed up at the World Finals in Greenville, South Carolina. Patrick entered their pickup in sound quality; Gates entered the Bronco in what she calls "the dummy part" -- the sheer volume contest.
In 1996, according to an October 2000 Wired magazine profile of Gates, the world record for sound pressure level was 157.9 decibels. That's louder than a rock show (120) or a jet engine rumble (140) and just below a shotgun recoil (160).
Gates blew a 164.9.
"We annihilated everybody," she says.
An audio components company called Precision Parts Inc. offered her warehouse space and a team of mechanics to repeat the feat, and in 1997 she defended her world title in Greenville, winning with a 169.4. In Daytona Beach in 1998, she blew a judge's microphone off its stand and logged a 172.2 chasing a third title. She lost the world finals that year, though, then spent the next two years away from competition. In 2001, when she returned to the United States Autosound Competition International finals in Kansas City, she was trailed by film crews from Ripley's Believe It or Not, who taped her car for a segment -- a clip of the vehicle blowing a girl's hair straight up still runs during the show's opening credits. But at a sound battle in Texas in July 2002, the Bronco's speakers overloaded and exploded, shattering the rear window and distending the truck's 500-pound roof like a muffin top. Gates rebuilt it but now parks at shows as a promoter for stereomaker JBL. Around that time, she started Team Gates, now a 600-person fan club that offers free window stickers to those who join.
"Each one of these kids are our future. That's just an Alma thing," she says.
The crowd around her has thickened. It's packed with kids wearing NOS visors and Chiefs football jerseys, but most are facing another stage. DJ Sparky, a potbellied announcer in a Hawaiian shirt and sideways cap, runs across the distant podium in front of hundreds of waist-high golden trophies and two six-stack speaker towers. He's throwing T-shirts and hats to the audience. And he's yelling: "Who wants to see some bikinis?"
Rule 3: Take Advantage of the Fringe Benefits
Seated near the trophy stand, Wayne Harris removes his neon-orange earplugs and explains the driving force behind stereo competitions. "There's no better way to meet girls."
Harris invented the dB Drag, a sound-off that pits competitors against one another in an elimination, bracket-style format.
In the early '80s, Harris was just another horny electrical engineering student at the University of Texas at Arlington. During the day, he worked part time fixing police walkie-talkies and squad-car radios; after dark, he cruised the streets and tried to avoid the cops.
"I always was too nervous to pick up chicks," Harris says. "I'd never go to a nightclub to pick up a girl." Then he realized something: Females went to clubs only because there was no other venue to get noticed.
He decided to offer an alternative. So he and a friend dropped heavy sound equipment in his car, dressed like tight-pants-wearing rock stars and parked in a Jack in the Box lot to crank it.
"Everybody loves music," he says. "Girls see that you are the center of attention, and they want to be with the center of attention -- perception is reality. If you are the center of attention, then it's not hard to meet girls."
There's only one problem. "Eventually, you have to be able to back it up."
In 1984, he ratcheted two 12-inch and two 15-inch speakers into his Buick Regal. At the time, microphones topped out at 140 decibels, and competitors used the Flashdance soundtrack. (Someone had discovered that a short bit from one song had a burp note.) Speakers as big as the ones Harris put in his Regal were used only at stadiums or outdoor concerts, he says. He refinanced his home, painted the Regal with Van Halen emblems and named the car Eruption, after the roaring, guitar-solo song from the band's first album.
Harris drove the tribute vehicle to Dallas to enter Rolling Thunder, the first national sound-pressure-level competition. He won the $5,000 grand prize. A local electronics chain offered him a 1985 Corvette to become a spokesman for the company. Months later, he took a job as an engineering assistant at the parts maker Orion and moved to Arizona to work at the company headquarters, where he joined a loosely affiliated group of industry manufacturing reps who eventually would become the International Audio Sound Competition Association (the first sponsor of dB Drag).
Meanwhile, he went louder. He spotted a rusted-out 1960 Cadillac hearse in an abandoned field and hauled it to an install bay. Spending more than 10 months and $50,000, Harris built the Terminator, a sound machine equipped with an Apple computer, eight 12-inch subwoofers, and three 24-inch subwoofers. A few years later, he jumped ship again, becoming an engineer at car-audio giant Rockford Fosgate.
Harris ran the first dB Drag in 1995. The concept struck a nerve, and by 1998 he was running 500 shows. This year, he organized more than 1,000 competitions in 54 countries.
In years past, he says, cash and prize payouts have totaled about $80,000. This year, thanks to what he calls a "staggering" downturn in the industry -- Rockford Fosgate lost more than $31 million last quarter -- there will be nothing to win but respect.
Rule 4: Always Bet the Underdog
An electrical grunt has just told one of the bikini models that her yellow swimsuit matches his yellow Ford Festiva, luring her to the mechanic's pits to pose amid the lawn chairs and tools scattered between half-built cars.
"Normally, if the girls are single and attractive, they're paid to be here," says Matt Rennells, a 29-year-old in a Team Sweep jersey. "Quite a lot of money for not a lot of effort, if you enjoy walking around like that."
Rennells leans over a piece of plywood held by his girlfriend, 26-year-old Kristin Tate. He traces two stenciled circles with a buzz-saw blade.
He boasts that his Chevy S-10 is, part-for-part, the loudest stock pickup in the world. She says she has the loudest Porsche on the planet. They've been in this parking spot all day, building speaker boxes and installing square and circular woofers -- first in tilelike rows, then in checkerboard designs -- to see if they can get more power.
Rennells and Tate live together in Lawrence, where Tate, who graduated from the University of Kansas with a biology degree in 2000, works as an event planner at her alma mater. This past April, Rennells took a job as a home-theater tech for the Best Buy at 115th Street and Metcalf in Overland Park.
When the duo joined Team Sweep this year, Rennells contributed something most of their blue-collar opponents lacked: a formal education in booming.
He earned a degree in aerospace engineering from Purdue in 1999. Beneath his jersey, he wears a shirt explaining exactly what that means: Yes, I really am a rocket scientist. Until a month ago, when his grant was pulled, Rennells had been doing acoustic research for the government, finding ways to make military vehicles quieter. Here he prides himself on making civilian vehicles louder.
"Sound is essentially airflow," he says. "In aerospace engineering, my specialty was aerodynamics, so a lot of things I used there, I use here. The principles apply. I just have to use them a little differently."
He's on a limited budget, he says, but he beats competitors by being smarter than they are.
Rennells and Tate started seeing each other after mutual friends dragged them on a double date six years ago. Both had grown up in Chillicothe, Missouri. They'd met before, in 4-H during a Halloween game to guess the number of candy-corn pieces in a jar. Rennells, then a seventh-grader, multiplied the pile's height, width and length. Tate sneaked a look at his answer, added five to her total and won the game. In high school they barely crossed paths. Rennells distinguished himself as a trumpet player and member of the Future Business Leaders of America. Tate, a freshman when he was a senior, hovered anonymously, she says, in a "second tier of cool people" -- not jock-and-cheerleader royalty, not in the nerd underclass.
He was still in Iowa when they started dating, and Rennells breaks their courtship into numbers: 2 years, 505 miles, 2.5 hours, 2 time zones. When he hit audio shows on the weekends, Tate went along. By 2002, they were living together, and Tate had asked him to help convert her red 1982 Porsche into a competition vehicle.
"I got into it because I was tired of being ignored," she says. "I took it as a challenge to compete with the guys."
Now their fireplace mantel is covered with trophies. Closets brim with golden-colored plastic from years past. Their garage is parceled into three sections -- one for wood, one for tools, one for speaker boxes.
She demonstrates her car's power by playing songs by Madonna and Garbage. "I like today's music only because it sounds awesome in my car at high volumes," she says.
Both say they are nothing like the trunk-rattling thugs most people see at traffic lights. They are louder.
"You see somebody bumping on the street -- they are not a competitor," Rennells says. "The only time I'd do that is if some punk kid pulled up. Then I'd blow him out."
Tate has decided to run Rennells' truck in competition today because the extra cab space will give her more room for speakers. But when they arrived this morning and tested their speaker setup against the team's sound sensor, it rang lower than expected. Rennells finishes the latest cutout. Tate grunts as she heaves a speaker from the truck bed. This will be the second sound box they've built and their sixth speaker arrangement. Neither has eaten. The tub of cookies Tate baked for the team sits in the back of the pickup unopened.
"Building a box at competition -- that's pretty desperate," Rennells says.
"I call it modification," Tate says cheerfully.
Hours later, when she pulls the truck into the judges' circle, her sound design looks completely unorthodox. The truck competes against a fleet of CRXs. The couple could have entered their own CRX, borrowing a Team Sweep car to blast a bigger number, but Tate vetoed the idea. She says she wants to be more than a "button pusher." For her, the fun of sound architecture is designing her own equipment.
Tate exhibits unfailing sportsmanship, calling the judge "sir" numerous times and thanking him profusely.
Rennells figures they need a 153 to finish in the top five and take home another mantel decoration. He was confident he could figure an equation to hit that number. But the truck blows a 152.3
Rule 5: Make Every Second Count
By midnight, the lights have dimmed and the dealers have left, but a series of bass notes echo like sonar pings through the cavernous hall.
Big Ed Bausman's gray Honda CRX -- a beater with flame decals on its back window, ripped upholstery and a primer paint job -- sits dead last at the back of a gleaming, ten-vehicle motorcade that stretches from the mechanics' pits to the checkered-flag tower. As other competitors push their vehicles forward to the starting line, Bausman's appears to have stalled.
Five guys pack the small interior, jostling against one another. One binds two speaker boxes with duct tape; another inserts a battery beneath them to level the system. Leaning into the passenger side of the car, Bausman twists a tangle of cords together as others huddle nearby to offer advice and discuss where to place components.
Ten minutes ago, the car was empty except for a tangle of splayed cords. Earlier, Bausman blew a couple of amps in a test run. He could secure four loaners from a teammate, but he had to wait until his friend was finished competing.
Now most of his teammates have headed back to their hotel to meet a limousine that will shuttle them to an after-party at the downtown Marriott. Bausman recruited his teammate, 22-year-old James Herren from Harrisburg, Illinois, and three old friends from a Springfield, Missouri, team to help him ready his vehicle.
With tools and tape still on the rooftop, a few guys edge the vehicle closer to the starting line while others scramble to finish securing four amps, four 15-inch woofers, three batteries and various loose wires.
They stop the car near the starting line, then hook it to a battery charger to top off the power.
Bausman parks his CRX alongside a faded-blue Honda Civic beneath the checkered tower. Suddenly Bartle Hall is awash in noise again. Twisted Mayhem, a squad from Tennessee, has circled three SUVs in the pits, blasting hard rap and issuing catcalls. "Y'all don't understand. I challenge anybody here -- anybody on this motherfucker to play what I play," screams 29-year-old Anthony Lee. "We don't need no fucking party. We our own party. Ain't no one can do what Twister do."
Bausman ignores them. He asks a friend from Springfield to be his girth. When the judge gives the signal, both cars detonate.
The Civic's tuner plays a descending scale of notes, trying to find the right low tone. The system pops like a backfiring muffler, and smoke rises, slowly filling the car.
Bausman's system punches just one note, and the vibration resonates. Kneeling near the door, he jumps up excitedly, locks hands with Herren and pulls him into a hug.
The assembly job has held together. He couldn't care less about the score.
"Hell, yeah. A 13-minute install!" Bausman shouts. In the wake of the blast, the room seems quiet. His other friends gather to join the huddle, pounding him on the back.
"Woo!" he screams in his own high timbre. "Woo-ooo!"
Rule 6: After the Show Is the After-Party
At the downtown Marriott, the international event has devolved into the equivalent of a high school dance. Boomers wearing street clothes and official competition lanyard necklaces gather in a basement room. Half-crocked boys in tracksuits pull other boys onto the dance floor, and the few hot girls -- models in industry-logo attire -- circle a corner bar to mooch drinks from hard-up rubes. A woman in a pink top writhes alone beneath a disco ball on a raised stage, attracting no suitors, just stares.
Evening rolls into morning as Ol' Dirty Bastard bumps from the speakers, but the stereo system is subpar, and the room has gymnasiumlike acoustics. After a quick scene assessment, most of Team Sweep piles back into the limousine and retreats to Westport. After pricing out drinks, Rennells and Tate decide to head back to Lawrence to get some rest. Bausman and his friends hit Chubby's on Broadway.
Entering the party, two guys with spiky hair and rumpled garb stagger toward the stairway. "I can't wait to see all the hot girls," one proclaims with a mix of sarcasm and cautious expectation.
More guys sit at tables text-messaging or smoking cigarettes. Others gather in back, talking shop, nodding their heads in time to their conversations, out of time with the music.