Why SEMA is the Big Auto Show

Editor's Letter

Mike FloydwriterSandon VoelkerphotographerPatrick M. Hoeyphotographer

Is it time for auto shows to go? You can make that argument. Long before we set foot in the convention center, we're locked, loaded (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: www.automobilemag.com/auto_shows/), and ready to bombard the digital universe with what we already know is coming to the latest automotive exhibition. That leaves little drama and few surprises for the show floor.

But there's still one show on the circuit with twisted energy, a distinctly American entrepreneurial spirit, and unpredictability: the Specialty Equipment Market Association's annual extravaganza. Don't let the dull name fool you; SEMA is a stunning, staggering showcase.

Where else can you find fake-jewelencrusted engines, walls of steering wheels, transmission pens, Jeeps with machine gun turrets, Scions with Slayer airbrushing, Porsche 918 Spyders, 1,200-pound Canadian track cars, 850-horsepower Camry dragsters, Danica Patrick, Richard Petty, drifting demonstrations, and booth babes all thrown together?

There's only one place brave enough to host a fiesta like this—Las Vegas. So, yeah, there's that too. Scores of my colleagues either 1) hate Vegas or 2) hate SEMA and Vegas. They'd rather volunteer to clean latrines than come within 500 miles of the mayhem that is the Vegas Convention Center during SEMA week.

I have a hard time understanding why there's so much animosity when the subject turns to SEMA. In every nook, cranny, closet, henhouse, and outhouse of the convention center's 2.5 million square feet, there are astonishing vehicles—roughly 1,500 in all. No matter what, you're going to find something you like, a car that moves you, a product that will turn your head and make you scratch/shake it, depending on your personal tastes.

"SEMA represents an industry that saw an incredible $34.3 billion in retail sales in 2013."

Some of you may already be familiar with SEMA and its eponymous show in these pages (you can check out a couple of this year's show cars here). For the uninitiated, the trade organization started in 1963; back then, the S was for Speed. It was created by the era's pioneering speed merchants, the aftermarket shops that would help fuel the great muscle-car arms race of the '60s.

Their goal was to set some quality guidelines and standards and, most important, provide products for the masses to go faster on road and track. Several of the
original 100 member companies are still in business, including now-famous names such as Edelbrock and B&M.

Today's SEMA is a much different animal, with more than 6,800 member companies. It represents and advocates for an aftermarket industry that saw an incredible $34.3 billion in retail sales in 2013. The Vegas show is its signature event, which for 2014 featured 2,500 exhibitors hawking their wares to 60,000 reps, with 3,000 journalists covering it all. The massive halls are packed with sweaty, often hungover humanity (it is Vegas, after all), attracting more than 130,000 visitors during the week. Sadly, there are no public days.

Given all the dollars flying around, automakers have been scrambling aboard SEMA's supercharged bandwagon. Ford has a massive stand rivaling any of its traditional auto-show setups. It used its space to showcase a corral of wild 2015 Mustangs developed with partners, including Roush and others, and built its own King Cobra drag car fitted with parts from the Ford Racing catalog. Kia has been coming to Vegas for several years now, and it unveiled the latest livery for its Optima race car that's been tearing up the Pirelli World Challenge GTS class. No better place to show it than SEMA.

Then there are the dreamers such as Singapore-based SlamStop that come to SEMA looking to get noticed. Tucked into a corner of the north hall, Dmitriy Iurgens
and Anton Dyshkant were pitching their product, which will pull a door shut if it hasn't been closed all the way. The demonstration Mustang worked as intended and, for up to $1,000 for four doors, they'll have it installed for you.

It is entrepreneurs like the SlamStop guys who fill the SEMA halls each year, and help make it one auto show that shouldn't go.

Check me out on Instagram or Twitter at @am_mikefloyd for photos, story links, and more on all things #noboringcars.

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