Boom Buggies

Welcome to the world of decibel drag racing, where trophies go not to the fast, but to the loud

It's 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, July 8, and the two-block-long parking lot of the Belle Mar Mall in Mankato is already starting to fill up with half-naked young men and cars, a whole bunch of cars. Some were driven here; others were hauled in on trailers, because they are so loaded down with stereo equipment they aren't drivable anymore. Today looks don't matter. Rusted-out beaters are pulled right up next to brightly painted muscle cars. It's Mankato's first big decibel drag race and competitors are here to see who has the loudest car stereo.

Everyone knows that woofers, amplifiers, and electrical systems are going to blow up and melt down today, but winners will earn trophies and points that could snare them an invitation to the dB Drag Racing World Finals to be held in Nashville, Tennessee, in October. There winners will take home thousands of dollars in cash or maybe even the grand prize--last year a motorcycle. And, unlike today, there will be scads of women cheering them on. And, if magazines dedicated to the sport are truthful, most of those women will be wearing only tiny nylon shorts and even smaller shirts emblazoned with the name "Hooters."

"The first thing to get out of the way is qualifying," explains Jeff Sweere, the 25-year-old owner of a Mankato stereo store called Sweet Sounds Inc., which is sponsoring today's event along with competing retailer Rockin Ronny's. "People will compete to see who is the loudest in each of ten categories. Then those people will go on to the elimination rounds. It's going to go long, because we want to be fair and give everyone a bunch of chances since a big event like this hasn't been held in Mankato before and people don't really know what to expect."

Extreme sound: Curtis Sorenson's rolling boom box
Michael Hoium
Extreme sound: Curtis Sorenson's rolling boom box

Jeff, who has been busy spinning dials and flipping switches on a huge console shaded from the sun by a small tent, looks up at the makeshift lanes in front of him where cars are lined up two by two. The doors on the first pair of vehicles are swung open and volunteers are using the sport's standard-issue microphone jig--a notched piece of plastic a little longer than a ruler--to mark the exact point from which the console will measure sound levels.

Cars are divided into Street, Super Street and Extreme classes, Jeff says. "Each class is determined by the number of woofers and the amount of modification that's been done to the vehicle to increase volume," he continues. Basically, the Street class allows up to four 12-inch woofers using 1,200 watts of power. Super Street cars can have nine woofers, use 50,000 watts of power, and contestants can modify their vehicles anywhere behind the front doorjamb. Most of the Extreme-class cars can no longer be driven: Their insides have been replaced with poured concrete and spray foam so sound won't get lost in hollow spaces.

Jeff is disappointed that only two of the 50 cars signed up for today's contest fit into the Extreme category. He and his co-sponsor had not only hoped for more of those, they had also expected about double the number of cars that are here. But this is a slow time of year. There aren't many competitions going on right now and Jeff figures people are taking the time to fix up their cars for challenges in the fall: "People can spend anywhere from $500 to $100,000 to compete like this with their vehicles, so they take it very seriously."

When the qualifying round starts, friends and supporters crowd around each car to lean and lie on the windows, doors, trunk, windshield, and roof. "They're trying to keep the vehicle from flexing," Jeff explains. "The more flex you have, the less pressure stays inside the car and the pressure is what we're measuring: SPL, sound pressure level. With two cars going against each other, we're basically racing sound. Hence the name, dB drag racing."

Dressed in a black baseball cap, black shorts and the official half white, half black-and-white-checked dB drag-racing shirt, Jeff darts from one contestant to another and then back to the console. In the loud, clipped voice of an Indy 500 announcer he starts the competition. "READY...SET...GO!" There's a brief pause and then the white car on the left shakes and lets out a BRRRRRRRR," the low-frequency, booming-bass sound often heard from the street late at night when you're trying to sleep. "That's 125.5 for car number one," Jeff yells, but it's nearly impossible to hear what else he's saying over the yelps and curses coming from people whose flesh is burning on each frying-pan-hot vehicle.

"All right, that's 126.6 for car number one," he says, "127 for car number two. Come on, let's get those numbers up, come on. All right--128.3."

"Jesus," yelps a sweaty boy who looks to be about 12, switching hands to rub the burned one on his shorts. The clock on the bank across the street says it's 98 degrees.

"BRRRAAAARRR," burps car two, which has ten human sound barriers to the other car's five. Each vibrating blast makes the dog tags hanging from the rear-view mirror quiver like they're experiencing an earthquake. No one can be inside the cars when the sound is being measured. Decibel levels over 120 can cause hearing loss, so the sound systems are controlled by battery-operated remote.

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