Saturday, January 14, 2006

It keeps them off the streets part 4 (DB Drag Racing)

From This American Life, David Segal's report on dB drag racing.

There are more than 10,000 competitors in the Extreme Car Stereo Tournaments ("our shootout, I like to call it") and last year there were more than 300 races "or whatever you call these things."

A typical competition car packs a dozen 6,000 watt amplifiers, a dozen sub-woofers, and 70 12-volt batteries in a 33,000 pound vehicle.

The testing tone, a "burp," is only 3 seconds long - a whole song might make the amps burst into flames. A referee puts a sound meter inside the car and shuts the door. The competitor stands outside his vehicle with an on-off switches attached to his stereo and has thirty seconds to "burp" it.
Db drag racers do everything possible to stiffen and seal up their vehicles, to prevent sound pressure and noise from escaping. Doors are clamped shut, walls are reinforced with poured concrete, seats and dashboard are ripped out. There's barely room for one person to sit inside.

There are limits. "We want cars that have the shape of a car, have the function of a car, our rules state the car has to be driven into the competition. ... we usually require the competitor to be able to drive the car twenty feet."

"Mostly these guys have modified everything for maximum performance from the stereo so there's no gauges, the windows have been replaced with armor plating, there's no ventilation, there's nothing in there but a steering wheel and a gas pedal. But a lot of times the steering wheel takes up way too much space so they'll chop it and put whatever they can find in there, golf club heads ..."

You're not allowed in the car when it's show-time. The soundpressure will make you sick. "At that point you start suffering problems with your vision, nausea, so for safety we have them operate their vehicle outside at anything above 110 decibels." Says the head of league: "I've heard people say if you sit in these vehicles, it will kill you. That's not the case. It's not going to stop your heart or cause you to disintegrate or anything like that."

[The guy who invented this sport reminisced about his college days:] "You have something everybody just thinks is really really cool,and wherever you go a crowd of people gather around, the girls want to be with that person ... I would wear earplugs and over that I would wear earmuffs. Like shooters use when they go to the shooting range. ... it was kind of weird but it was kind of cool though, people already knew you had a pretty loud stereo but then you're reinforcing that concept cause they're actually seeing you in your own car wearing headphones..."
David Segal reflects:
I've been to a couple of these now, and I'm struck by the same question: Why? It's not prize money, there's hardly any, and it's not women, there aren't any. There aren't even spectators unless you count other competitors plus the few glum relatives who appear to have been taken here against their will.

My best guess is that it's all about the quintessentially American obsession with glory, however fleeting. Everybody wants to be king of a hill. But the number of aspiring kings always dwarfs the number of available hills, so in this country we build more hills. We've got a league for everything. including underwater hockey and lawnmower racing. [Or Giant Pumpkin Contests or Beard and Mustache Competitions or Gingerbread Houses Face-offs.]

It's utterly pointless: a car stereo competition with cars you can't drive and stereos you can't listen to. Until you realize it allows a group of people to call themselves the best in the world. At something.

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