Sex & Cars & Rock & Roll

I entered the Rolling Stone Rock & Roll Bowl on a whim. How'd I do? Just call me Johnny Ca$h.

The next day is the big day, the day of the competition, and I'm up so early I wonder if I've slept at all. The cloudy sky has cleared the beach, and we spend most of the morning in shops and bars, trying to relax and pretending to be interested in the charming beachfront kickshaws A key chains, T-shirts, shrunken heads wearing "Blow Me" hats. In the afternoon the resurgent sun coaxes us out to the Hawaiian Tropic pageant, where company founder Ron Rice is delivering a rambling, insincere speech about the special nature of the contest, how beauty is more than skin deep, how his judges have been instructed to appreciate character and talent as well as clock-stopping hardbodies. "Just yesterday, in fact," Rice proclaims in a wobbly tone that suggests the ravages of sunstroke, "we gave each girl two crayons and a piece of paper, and then we let them go." One of the contestants parades her ample art before the crowd, and a half-dozen guys to our left voice their aesthetic disapproval by screaming racial slurs at the top of their lungs. To call Daytona Beach misogynist is like referring to Charles Manson as eccentric or the ocean as moist. I will say this for the place, though: If you want to reaffirm your faith in humanity, go somewhere else.

In the wake of the pageant, good cheer is difficult to restore, and all afternoon we're subdued. We shy away from the thonged throngs decanting gallons of beer into the Atlantic sand, refuse to meet the eyes of hungry cruising girls, decline to sign a petition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the phrase "Headlights on for safety!" Even a classic beach culture-clash A a charged exchange between a Suzuki Samurai with side-mounted Super Soakers and a trio of bony greasers leaning against an old convertible A can't buoy our spirits. Then we see it, the Howard Johnson logo making orange noises in the early evening sky. "It's time," says Steve.

At the door to the Howard Johnson ballroom, the contest organizers have stationed two guards to check for alcoholic beverages, but it looks like they're letting plenty through A pocket flasks, hidden splits, entire cases of beer jammed into camping packs. The categories are already posted, and after Will and Steve and I say our hellos to San Jose State and Mario, as well as assorted corporate reps, we huddle in a corner and generate possible answers for "World Music," "Duos and Trios," "Benefits and Charities," "Hair." The warmups and door prizes seem to drag on forever, and when we finally take the stage, we're exhausted from anxiety.

The first question -- Where is Technotronic's Felly from? -- stumps both teams, but we stay with the "World Music" category and answer the second question (This soloist first used African influences for his tribute single "Biko") and then the third (What South African vocal group backed Paul Simon on his Graceland album?). We know our strength lies in streaks and besides, we've beaten these guys before. Name the MTV News anchorman who...BUZZ...Kurt Loder! This trio featured Noel...BUZZ...The Jimi Hendrix Experience! What rock promoter ran the FillmABUZZ...Bill Graham! Ten minutes later, we're up by nearly 200 points, and San Jose State is still sitting at the starting line.

Slowly they begin to climb out of goose-egg hell, and for a moment we're paralyzed A the last thing we want now is to relive L.A. from the other side. This time, though, there's no stunning comeback in the cards, and we squash their rally with another category sweep, and another. Our anxiety is behind us, the 400-plus crowd is behind us, and San Jose State is way behind us.

We know that if we more than double their score, the final bet will be irrelevant, and as we near the end of the round, this becomes a real possibility. The last six questions split evenly, and then the six of us sit tight for confirmation of the point totals. Northwestern 330, San Jose State 160. A drunken bleat of "Bet zero!" rises from the recesses of the room. We comply, name the final song anyway (Big Audio Dynamite II's "Rush"), and then stand there calm as cans while Mario announces the consolation prizes. Then he details the grand-prize haul. We'll be receiving not only the car, but also an Aiwa stereo and a year's supply of HĄagen-Dazs. Thankfully, we won't be getting another denim jacket. Still dazed, we're escorted from the building to do some promo spots, which consist mostly of sitting in a Mustang and mustering mannequin smiles. Any impulses we have toward sarcasm or cynicism are swept away in the windfall; goofily magnanimous, we even embrace Daytona.

On the way back down the beach, we're recognized more than once ("There's the rock and roll guys!") and though we stop in at a few clubs for preparatory drinking and flirting, our real destination is the Hawaiian Tropic afterparty. In the Marriott sports bar, it's business as usual, unctuous fiftysomething entrepreneurs crowding pageant contestants like slimy tongues encircling cuspids. At the bar, Will and I speak to Miss Germany, who informs us that she is "fun" and "happy" as she clutches a sheaf of business cards she has collected from admirers. Miss Uruguay (blonde) sits in silence, nursing some private project, while Miss Uruguay (brunette) works the floor. One of the Miss Swedens, impossibly beautiful in a black baseball cap and incandescent smile, pencils her room number onto countless napkins. Protected by the glow of our victory A for those first few hours, it feels like invincibility A we stay rooted to the bar long into the night, talking, drinking, staring, every once in a while trading jokes with a woman sashed by one country or another. Tracey Wood, one of the Miss Canadas and our counterpart in triumph, never stops by to say hello.

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