The Loudest Competition on Earth
Behind a vape shop in East Sacramento, Ron Delizo stands next to his white Chevy Tahoe, ready to blow. More than 50 cars and their owners are here, crowded into a cul-de-sac on a summer afternoon to find out who can generate the biggest sound wave of them all. The stereo from Ron’s truck has been removed from the dash and stands on a tripod outside the driver’s-side door. Ron’s finger is on the dial. Inside, the Tahoe has no seats — and the rest of its usefulness has been turned over to 40,000 watts of amplifiers and speakers so powerful they can create their own gusts of wind.
A robotic voice calls out, “Ready. Set. Go.” Ron turns the dial, and his truck emits a low, single-frequency tone — 54 hertz — a deep hum that sounds, from 20 feet away, like an enormous machine lifting something heavy off the ground. The hum intensifies, and the wiper blades on the Tahoe begin to flap. The roof and door panels vibrate so furiously they appear to turn liquid. Ron cranks the dial some more — to 65 percent power — and the windshield cracks like an ice sheet, scattering glass splinters across the hood. The crowd cheers. As the judge retrieves a small black-box sound meter from the truck, a screen above the action flashes: 162.7 decibels —louder than an accelerating jet engine.
In the realm of “car audio sports,” decibel drag racing is an international circuit of dedicated bass heads vying to build the loudest sound system on the planet. Since 1994, when an engineer named Wayne Harris organized the first head-to-head dB drag event in Dallas, the race to hack together ever more powerful hi-fis has become something of a worldwide pursuit. Today, the sport is booming. More than 10,000 people are members of the dB Drag Racing Association, according to Wayne, and competitions have taken place in dozens of countries. “We’re huge in Russia,” Wayne says. “We have 50 events happening there this year.”
The current world record for loudness in a dB drag race was set last summer in São Paulo, Brazil, in a Ford Bronco fitted with Plexiglas windows and bolted-on doors, with thousands of pounds of concrete sealing the cracks. The SUV topped out at 183.5 decibels — a level described incredulously by Brad May, a hearing scientist at Johns Hopkins University, as “about the volume of the Mount St. Helens eruption.” If the numbers are to be believed, some of the loudest sounds in the world are regularly being produced in undrivable cars.
For average dB drag racers, though, the rewards are in the machine itself — a sonic amusement-park ride of their own engineering. According to Ray Choy, an official association judge, “That feeling of being submersed in the music, where you have to breathe in time with the beats because the air is being pushed away.… There’s just nothing like it.”
Over time, dB drag racing has grown to include a complex hierarchy of classes and events. Some, like Psychlone, in which competitors play bursts of pink noise, focus on sound quality; others, like Top Dog and Bass Race, focus on volume. On Father’s Day in Boise, Idaho, I watched the reigning national champion in Bass Race, Angel Castilleja, compete against a challenger from Nevada. The rules required them to play a song for 30 seconds while carefully throttling the volume to stay as close as possible to 150 decibels without going over. It’s like trying to fly just beneath a high wire.
Angel, who works in a potato processing plant near Twin Falls, has been deaf since birth. He told me he senses the vibrations through his hands. During the heat, his opponent stood outside his car, holding a remote control wired to the stereo. Angel, like most of the other competitors in Boise that day, sat inside his car — a silver Honda Accord with a missing front bumper. When the 30 seconds were up, the two men had tied with near-perfect scores: 149.9 decibels, as measured by the sound meters affixed to the inside of their windshields with suction cups.
Before 2003, competitors relied on microphone-based sound meters that could be wildly inaccurate and were, according to Wayne Harris, “just not suitable for the incredibly violent sounds we were seeing.” So Wayne invented his own ruggedized piece of hardware, which uses a digital air-pressure sensor to ensure more precise results. He says it can give accurate readouts up to 193.5 decibels. He also wrote a sort of mission-control software program that keeps score and controls the robotic voice presiding over individual heats. In Wayne’s telling, the dB Drag Racing Association is like the NFL, and his meter the ball; even competing leagues in the U.S. and abroad have adopted his technology for their events.
This standard for sonic measurement, along with YouTube and Facebook, where bass heads post videos featuring shots of impressive sound-meter readouts, has accelerated the dB arms race. Back when the competition was just getting started, Wayne says, “145 or 150 decibels was loud.” Today, bass heads frequently clear 160 decibels, an aspirational benchmark Wayne spray-painted on a piece of plywood in 1985. It seemed unthinkable at the time.
Among the dB drag racers I met, a popular theory holds that loud bass tones are less damaging to the ears than higher-pitched ones. When I ran this by Brad May at Johns Hopkins, he described the “middle-ear reflex” — a mechanism by which the muscles in the ear contract, reducing the transmission of low-frequency vibrations to the eardrum. But at 150 decibels and above, the effect is negligible. At those volumes, “I don’t think you can protect yourself,” he added. “Your skull is going to be vibrating.”
After attaining a score of 160.1 decibels in Boise, Kenny Capener of Tremonton, Utah, invited me to sit in his car. “How ’bout I play you a few songs?”
“OK,” I said.
Kenny, a professional landscaper during the week, sighed when I asked how many lawns he’d mowed to pay for the gear weighing down the back of his red Chevy Suburban — amplifiers, car batteries, and banks of capacitors he’d bought on eBay. After lots of tinkering in his garage, Kenny had a system he was proud to show off at competitions. He could now achieve the kind of punching, subsonic frequencies that “make people’s hair fly around.”
I braced myself in the passenger’s seat. As Kenny turned on the stereo, I instinctively placed my hands over my naked ears. On came the searing guitar of AC/DC’s Angus Young. It was loud at first, but not uncomfortably so. Then, right when the bass and drums kicked in, Kenny reached for the volume knob. In an instant, my shirt was flapping against my chest. I felt as though I’d been submerged in water. The doors bucked wildly on both sides of me. Kenny tried speaking to me over the din, though I couldn’t hear a word. A friend of his tossed a T-shirt into the open driver’s-side window. It paused midair and shook as if it were being electrocuted.
When the sound cut out, I felt disoriented and traumatized but strangely cleansed. The closest sensation I’d ever felt was swimming in a river one summer afternoon when lightning touched the water. Later, the whole-body shock of being shot through with sound left an itch in my bones. I wanted to go again.