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."
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.
"Yeah!" Jeff calls out, obviously pleased. "That's 132.2, and car number two is the winner." Jeff has been doing car audio since he was 15, and so have a lot of his friends. "I started a part-time car-audio business while I was in college," he explains turning away from the console while the next two cars prepare to face off.
Three guys with yellow Buddy Holly hairstyles, khaki shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and this year's version of Seventies puka-shell necklaces stand off to one side. The middle one, Nick, is shaking his head. "It's fairly loud. I don't know." This is his first competition. He heard about it on the radio and came to check it out. "It's kinda cool but I don't know if I'd do it myself unless I was really rich. I mean, I have a stereo in my car and it was expensive--too expensive--but nothing like this."
A little ways away from the commotion, Curtis Sorenson, who owns one of the Extreme cars, is smiling sweetly, surrounded by friends who traveled here with him from Austin, Minnesota, five young women who are sunburned brick red. Two of them are competitors in the Street class. They appear to be the only females here, with the exception of Jeff's wife, and two others who are parked, pregnant, on a small patch of shady grass between the parking lot and the street.
It's obvious that Curtis's heavily modified car, which he towed in on a trailer, isn't the only attraction. Tall with short blond hair, blue eyes, and a few hairs struggling to form a goatee on his sun-scorched chin, Curtis looks directly, yet shyly, into each girl's eyes and is always running to help a friend who needs his windows pressed. Right now he's working at A&W and spending a good portion of his earnings going to competitions. "I try to find one every weekend. I've gone as far as Omaha, Kansas City, South Dakota," he says. "I've been to the Cities many times. St. Cloud, Richfield, all over. I've gotten first place in all six competitions I've been to this year except one, where I got second."
Curtis is 17 and he's been doing this for two years. This is the first year he has entered his white late-Eighties model Grand Am in a competition. "I just hung around all my friends who did it. I used to drive this car when it had seats in it. It was my first car and I just started spending more and more money and then I got sponsored by Sweet Sounds here in Mankato, so I get a lot of stuff now at dealer cost."
Back at the tent a screaming contest is in progress. "To keep people interested all day," Jeff explains. The first contestant is a big guy wearing sneakers with no socks. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, jamming his toes into the sand bag that keeps people a certain distance away from the mic. "ROOOAAAA," he yells rocking back on his heels. A guy scream. "AAROOOOO." Everyone gets four tries. Jeff shouts out the decibel level of each one. The next screamer's nickname is Beevis. "Holler, Beevis, holler," a group of sunburned guys yell. The arms have been cut from Beevis's T-shirt, but the neckline is still intact and he struggles to get the sweaty band away from his throat. "AAAH!" "Hey, his face is getting really red," a concerned-looking girl says.
Curtis takes a turn. "That guy is loud," Jeff tells the crowd, announcing a decibel level of 124.9. Another scream and Curtis ties for first place with a blond-haired guy in hiking boots that are spray-painted silver.
Then it's time for the scream-off. Silver boots guy screams and gets a 125.0, followed by a 125.8. "That's a new record and Curtis has got some work to do," Jeff says.
But then Curtis wins easily with 133.
"I want a retry," silver boots says.
"Fuck no," says Curtis.
Heat waves are shimmering above the pavement, and a slender, dark-haired girl named Liz is sitting just beyond the tent with her hands wrapped around her knees. "I try and understand it when my boyfriend talks to me about it, but I just don't get it," she sighs, leaning back. "I can understand how they can be, like, into it. I mean I would, too, if I had a nice car to put it in, but I just don't really understand equipment and stuff."
Jon, her boyfriend, is stomping around in a circle in front of her. "I'm just having a piss-poor day today. My second run I did 133.6. My third with two people holding my windows I got a better score." Curtis--no surprise--won the big prize of the day, $200.
"Yeah, but you were also playing a little bit different music then," 19-year-old Liz says, trying to comfort Jon.
Would she come to one of these events again? "Um, well, yeah, if I'm dating him next year I would. I mean, I wouldn't just show up and sit here all day if it wasn't for him."