Top Dog

Top Dog

Written by B. Jan Montana

Man has always competed to be Top Dog. In the days when caves were homes, the guy with the biggest club was Top Dog. As we became more civilized, the man with the fastest horse was Top Dog. During my youth in the early 1960s, the Top Dog was the guy with the fastest car.

That position was established through street racing, but when some kids died drag racing away from a stoplight, the county made available a deserted World War II airstrip in the middle of the windswept prairie. "The Slab" had just enough intact pavement to mark off a 1/8th-mile drag strip with about 10 miles of run-off through a cattle range. Every Saturday during the summer, almost every teenager in the area drove to The Slab to see who would be Top Dog, a position which conferred the status of a star athlete for that week.

Stuart was raised in Britain, where aspiring to be Top Dog was tacky, so he was indifferent to the car culture. He spent his time reading physics books and playing with his slide rule, which he carried like a pistol in a leather holster on his belt. Every conversation with him ended up being about physics, which most of the other kids avoided like biology or Bronte. So they didn’t go out of their way to spend time with him – to which he also seemed indifferent.

One day, he drove to school in a well-used Ford Falcon two-door sedan, a car he’d inherited from his aunt. We thought that was a perfect match – a boring car for a boring guy. You can imagine how surprised we were when shortly afterwards, he started showing up at The Slab.

Most of the guys were racing the cast-off cars given to them by their fathers – mainly four-door family sedans with large-displacement V8 engines, or worn-out pickup trucks from the family farm. Over time, they installed high-flow carburetors, noisy exhaust systems, and other go-fast goodies. These vehicles were heavy, so they wasted a lot of horsepower off the line burning rubber rather than building momentum.

Stuart understood the physics of acceleration and the importance of mass. He knew that on a 1/8-mile track, weight was as important as horsepower. So when he learned that his Falcon was the lightest domestic car in production at the time, he saw an opportunity to beat the aspiring jocks at their own game.

The first thing he did was eliminate all the Falcon’s frivolities: the radio, bumpers, hubcaps, spare tire, chrome trim, door trim, and seats. Then he sprayed the whole thing flat black with rattle cans to hide the rust. It looked like a sewer rat.

With help from a friend of his father’s, he replaced the 6-cylinder engine with a salvaged 289 cubic inch V8 from a crashed Ford station wagon, and like the others, added a bigger carburetor and a loud exhaust. When he felt his project was done, he decided to debut it on the last and most important day of the summer’s car culture – Labor Day. That day's winner was judged Top Dog for the entire, endless, Canadian winter.

Many contestants showed up, some in resplendent rides complete with racing stripes and racy cheerleaders. They chuckled at Stuart's flat black, two-door, commuter special with a folding lawn-chair driver’s seat bolted to the floor.

When it was time to separate the men from the boys, the big boys ripped through the 1/8th-mile track with sound and fury, each adding another layer of black rubber to the tarmac while the onlookers cheered with glee. It wasn't until the afternoon's festivities were coming to a close that Stuart was allowed to compete. He was paired with the Top Dog of the day – ostensibly for comic relief. His opponent drove a ’59 Plymouth sedan with fresh pearlescent paint and a transplanted hemi-head engine. Everyone laughed at the contrast.



Courtesy of Fisk.


The flag dropped and the two were off. The sewer rat came out of the chute like a slingshot and immediately took a sizable lead. The Plymouth roared like a movie dinosaur, lighting up the tires which squealed and smoked and thrilled the crowd. They expected it to blast by the Falcon like a jet plane. It built up speed like a 727 and was going visibly faster than Stuart’s Falcon when it crossed the finish line, but not soon enough to catch Stuart.

A silence came over the crowd. When the mumble started up again, everyone agreed that the outcome would have been different had the course been 1/4-mile instead of half that.

But it was irrelevant: Stuart was the new Top Dog. Slide rule engineering had won the day. The guy in the Plymouth left the scene directly from the track. It was the most memorable event that strip had ever seen. Stuart had earned the respect of his contemporaries and afterwards, almost all the high school students made a point of greeting him in the hallways and cafeteria. He even attracted a couple of groupies – science nerds who followed him around like puppies.

I was reminded of this story decades later at the home of a fellow audiophile. Like Stuart, Brad did his physics homework. He created a speaker system using second-hand JBL drivers sourced from a pro sound shop in the big city a couple of hours distant. Each speaker employed two 12-inch woofers, a 10-inch midbass driver, a large horn, and a bullet tweeter – all contained in crude, home-made cabinets with huge baffles painted in flat black. They looked as tacky as Stuart’s car.

He also bought several pro-sound amplifiers, which matched the distressed look of the speakers. Each of them was as heavy as a cannon, but Brad liked them because they had tons of reserve power and the seller threw in a passive equalizer. He also bought a professional Stanton turntable which was top of the line – from a decade ago. His living room was lined with striped, multi-color, Hudson Bay blankets for sound damping.

The members of our audio club frequently visited one another’s homes on Saturdays to socialize and listen to music. One day, my co-worker, Hermann, joined us. I’d been to his large home several times. He was a lawyer and had the latest audio hardware and expensive, voluptuously-curved speakers painted in pearlescent automotive paint.

After the obligatory serving of adult beverages, Brad played a cut from one of Hermann’s albums, “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck. When the stylus dropped, so did Hermann’s jaw. I knew he was hearing more detail, dynamics, bandwidth, and soundstaging on this system than he’d ever heard at his home. He listened to the entire cut without saying a word, then requested Brad play several cuts from his other albums. Hermann was speechless. His sophisticated system had just been smoked by a sewer rat. Shortly afterwards, Hermann took his records and went home.

Atypically, I didn’t hear from Hermann for several weeks. When we finally got together for lunch, he did what I’d expected and dreaded: he asked if I thought Brad’s system sounded better than his.

This was a no-win situation for me. If I affirmed that it did, Hermann’s critical listening skills and fiscal acumen would come into question. If I didn’t, I’d be lying. So, I copped out like a politician and responded to his question with another question.

Let’s talk about what we agree upon, Hermann. We both agree that better recordings result in superior sound, right?”

He agreed.

“And we also agree that a better system results in superior sound.”


“And we agree that acoustics plays a major role in the accurate transmission of that sound?


“You’ve spent a lot of money on equipment, but you didn’t spend much time researching like Brad did.”

“I’m a busy guy, Jan, I relied on reviewers to tell me what’s best,” he responded.

“And maybe it is, for them. But their sound preferences, musical tastes, and acoustic spaces may be totally different from yours.”

“That’s likely,” Hermann mused.

“You have a great house with a lovely view, but the front wall of your living room is all glass, the back one is a marble fireplace, and the floors are travertine tile. Acoustically, it’s a giant bathroom, Hermann.”

He chuckled, “I know, I know, I’ve thought about room treatment,” he said, “but I’m not prepared to compromise the view or the aesthetics of my living room. My wife would never allow it.”

“OK, but now that your son’s in college, you have a good-sized bedroom available that can be converted to a dedicated sound room.”

“But my wife has moved her sewing stuff in there.”

“So make her a deal: in return for removing all your audio clutter from the living room, you get the bedroom.”

Hermann’s face lit up. “That might be doable!” he responded.

A few weeks later, Hermann called to advise that he’d just taken delivery of several acoustic panels. I returned to his place and we spent an afternoon moving furniture, equipment, and sound panels. Each time, I measured the results with my frequency spectrum analyzer. We used an equalizer (which I’d brought with me) to eliminate a 12 dB room mode at 60 Hz.

The difference was startling. The smaller room dramatically improved the bass and dynamics, the EQ killed the 60 Hz room mode which made the midrange sound more highly resolving, and the acoustic panels kept the sound from the metal dome tweeters from ricocheting between the walls like bullets. Hermann was delighted.

But his system still didn’t sound as much like live music as Brad’s. For that, he'd need different speakers. It takes more than pearlescent paint to be Top Dog.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Greg Gjerdingen.

This article first appeared in Issue 75 and has been revised.

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