11/02/2005 A SEMA EXPERIENCE
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Sun, Nov 27, 2005
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
A SEMA EXPERIENCE
By JOHN GRAFMAN
About mid-year, an internal alarm clock goes off reminding me that the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show is just around the corner. For those who aren't aware, the SEMA show is a trade-only convention. What that means is only those who have business within the automotive aftermarket industry are suppose to attend. What that really boils down to is about half the population of this country, and twenty percent of every other country!
If you're going to do something, do it right. Keeping that in mind, the Volkswagen Phaeton seems to be in keeping with the theme. The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas is the destination - also no slouch when it comes to accommodations. It all seems to make perfect sense. Both the hotel and automobile are considered by many to be among the finest in each of their respective classes.
While the need might be questionable for Volkswagen/Audi to have created a car of this magnitude when the A8 already exists, none will question car itself. The Phaeton does provide an exquisite ride and a level of comfort that indeed makes this a world-class machine. This car comes with all the trimmings: 4motion all-wheel drive, auto-leveling air suspension, electronic damping control, four zone Climatronic (auto climate control), xenon headlamps, tire pressure monitoring system, and the list goes on and on. In my time spent in a multitude of cars, there are but a few cars on the face of this planet that offer an OEM factory audio experience as gratifying as the one the Phaeton provides (option 9VE). While the 2005 model is lacking in satellite radio, the 06 model should resolves this. It can also use greater steering feel and effort for my tastes and more detail in the GPS with regards to street names. When harping is limited to so few items, those that were uncertain as to if VW could pull off a car of this magnitude should be aware of one thing by this time: The Phaeton is a player!
The build quality and material found inside the VW is top shelf. The Phaeton provides a good benchmark for other vehicles, as well as for all that is encountered at the SEMA show. The Venetian parallels the Phaeton in outstanding use of resources. All aspects are extraordinarily refined from space utilization to materials and colors. One almost wonders if they shared the same designers in creation of both cars and hotel.
Regardless of a construction delay enroute, the Phaeton is well-suited to this jaunt. Even though this mega size car with a hefty weight penalty does generate mileage of just over 21 mpg on the highway, it does offer a side benefit. Numerous other cars provide better gas mileage numbers; they still can't match the range of the VW due to a generous size tank. For long distance travel, this translates to fewer stops for fuel.
Going to Vegas is always filled with anticipation. As such, a competent car able to cruise the interstate at high speed in the manner this car provides is an exceptional alternative to a private jet for these short hops. Well a jet is nice, it's somewhat less affordable and might not fit in the garage at home. Nevertheless, at 335 horsepower and 317 lbs-ft torque pumping out of the V8 engine, the machine is right up there in power.
Arriving at the valet in the front of The Venetian, it just feels right trading the beauty of the car for the refined surroundings of the hotel. For those going to the portion of the show at the Sands Convention Center, the location of The Venetian is ideal, being adjacent to the event. The Las Vegas Convention Center is where I am headed the following day, and where the real excitement lies.
There's nothing left to do until tomorrow, but soak up the town on Halloween night. Again, I find myself at the center bar at the Hard Rock, which seems to attract the crowds. It's an unusual mix of SEMA goers and holiday revelers. I'm fortunate to catch up with a number of great people, from Bill and Ernie of 3dCarbon, Troy Sumitomo of Five Axis Models, a few Ford employees, the guys at ASC coming in from Michigan, and of course costumed partiers in all manner of dress... and undress!
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the night's activities is a brawl that escalated right in front of the Hard Rock Hotel. I'm watching as a number of less-than-sober people taunt one another, and before you know it, it's on! Normally, being ringside to this is a guilty pleasure like going to a sideshow act, but this is different. How many fights have the participants in costumes? I stare in amazement as the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz jumps in. Too rich! This is a little like Jerry Springer comes to Vegas. The security for the hotel is Johnnie on the spot. Security is breaking it up just as the valet shows up with the Phaeton. In the words of Snagglepuss, "exit stage left"!
The SEMA Show, Day One
Half the battle is actually getting to the show. While shuttle buses run from most of the big hotels and the Sands Convention Center to the Las Vegas C.C., it is still a brutal trip. Traffic is murder, and the routes the buses are forced to use make a short hop take forever. I guess when you flood a city with an additional 100,000+ industry show attendees it can lead to problems in logistics.
At the show, I know I'll never have a chance to see all the 2,100 vendors, 1,400 new products, or cover the roughly two million square feet of exhibits, or the hundreds of modified cars situated in every nook and cranny inside and out of the massive buildings - nor will the estimated 50,000 domestic and international buyers. I draw up a quick game plan as I am only going to see but a fraction of everything. First, I need to hit a few worthy press conferences, maybe a few select companies, take shots of everything possible, and lastly with whatever time is left in between traversing from point A to B, keep my eyes and ears open to the whatever jumps out at me. The last part is sort of freestyle convention surfing, which sometimes leads to the unplanned surprises.
I find myself shoulder-to-shoulder with a mob of show goers at the DaimlerChrysler Corporation press conference. Up on stage is a host of luminaries from the ubiquitous Chip Foose to Bill Goldberg, wrestler - turned car enthusiast television host. On hand also are two well-known company executives, Christine Cortez and Ralph Gilles with an intro to the Hemi technology. The booth, if you can call it that, occupies a massive amount of real estate inside the building. The Chrysler cars are everywhere you turn, dwarfing the stage purpose built for the conference.
When one thinks OEM-built tuner car, the Mitsubishi name is at the top of the list. Two hot products on hand are the Eclipse and Raider - both being heavily massaged into giant killers. Vendors have upgraded the performance while the exterior was provided care of their Orange County R&D facility. The new face on the Eclipse and hood of carbon fiber take the design of the production car to the next level. Implanted in it is a juiced up Evo motor and AWD giving this the balance and handling many have cried for. This combo of design and power is incredible, sadly we have to be content with a show model (for the moment anyway).
Mitsubishi also flexed their considerable design and modeling talent with a scale model of a Raider that looks every bit real if you didn't have a size reference. It's quality model making like this that allows a company to find design direction without resorting to a full size model until the last phase of design, saving time and money.
Perhaps one of the most notable displays (by virtue of its location on the edge of a upper level overlooking the show) is offered by Ford, which, once again, has a full house of cars from all of its brands. Take your pick: A Range Rover with a full blown Troy Lee Design treatment, or how about a one-off Volvo Rod featuring mandatory massive wheels from famed Volvo tuner Heico Sportiv.
Of course, healthy doses of 3dCarbon-tricked-out Fords are par for the course. This year, the boys at 3d have attacked the Focus, Fusion, and Mustang with enviable flair. Sporting their body kits give these cars a faster, more aggressive look without being hokey looking. The 3dCarbon production pieces manufactured from high-pressure urethane give the OEM parts a run for their money as well when it comes to quality.
Alongside the more plebian Ford products were several displays with the GT. One such display had the Ford GT dissected like a frog in a high school science class. Sadly, that's one less car for the streets! Nonetheless, those cars aren't posers. I can attest to their prowess around the track at Willow Springs, they can hold their own against the best of the foreign exotics.
Meandering through the halls, I notice the lack of bare flesh that seemed distracting last year, interesting, but distracting still the same. The girls at the Pirelli booth show just enough to catch our attention. Sure, tires are sexy but the girls are just, well, more photogenic! Just in case the girls are not enough, Pirelli has several eye-catching cars on the stand too. Showcasing Pirelli's best is a Ferrari 430 from Dazz Motorsports featuring 20-inch P Zero's. This is SEMA and sometimes you need to kick it up a notch just to get some visibility, so on display is their new 28-inch Scorpion Zero, which should do the trick!
While on the subject of what's hot, Hot Wheels again manages to generate a line of attendees to their booth that goes down, and then around the aisle! They have some great cars and displays on hand with both the little cars and some kick butt real cars. With the mob surrounding the vehicles it's near impossible to get a clear view of the project cars in their entirety.
Forging onward, I cross the Nissan cars brought in by this OEM, some of which showcasing their homegrown tuner, Nismo, label. These are a noticeable step up from the generic stock vehicles, but they leave plenty of room for real hard-core types who push and punish their cars. Nissan, like all car companies, have a task force of lawyers who keep them out of hot water. I would imagine they had a discussion regarding the dos and don'ts of liability prior to this offshoot of the Nissan brand hitting the dealer floors.
In the far end of the hall (god knows how far from the end I came in at) is the corner occupied by Honda and the project cars they are showcasing. This year, Honda has the special designation as the Official Vehicle Manufacturer of the 2005 SEMA show. The indoor environment created by the lighting is as well done as the best Hollywood party I have seen. All of the effort that went into this makes their cars come alive. At the epicenter of this year's focus is the Honda Civic, which is thoroughly redone for '06. I can see all the aftermarket companies ramping up to pump out products to fulfill the demand that this car will be generating. A few years ago (while many had their backs turned), the sport compact market was born and the Civic was an integral part to that. That was then, and today when Honda has a new product to announce, all heads snap to attention!
The last scheduled conference is at Volkswagen - another trek to a distant hall. There are so many people gathering that the show staff of the convention center has to continually ask us to keep the asileway clear. As this is their first formal year with a booth, the guys from VW really crank it up a notch or two. The new Executive Vice President, Adrian Hallmark was on hand to mark this premier occasion. The in-house vehicles are the results of their "Moonraker" project. Oddly, or maybe not so very oddly, their conclusion is much the same as the other companies. The public wants more power, and they are the people's car. When the people speak, VW listens, and then turn the words into earthshaking machines. Try 500 horsepower and good looks to match. All of the proper goodies are on board to handle the horses, but a static model on a stand is no way to treat a work of art such as this. While the words of their top brass echo with a vague familiarity to other auto companies answering the ever popular, age old question of will this make it into production - with the reassuring retort of, if the market demand is there. I would love to hear what the lawyers have to say about that!
As the doors to the convention center will be closing to the masses in just a little bit, I make my way to the first of many after-hour parties. The first one on my dance card is given by Honda. In just a few minutes inside I sense the party is a reflection of the high standards they have in all of the Honda products that distinctly lean towards a fun lifestyle. DJ, food, drink, plush surroundings and a suitable light and sound presentation that works good in bringing us back to reality after a long day spent endlessly walking. Within minutes, I run into some friendly faces from Dazz Motorsports. One of my favorite parts of SEMA is how it brings so many great industry people together into one place at one time. I only wish there was enough time to mention everyone at show. Joey Ortega of Dazz is just one of many, but in many ways he reflects the spirit and warmth of the people at this year's show.
I finally bid farewell to the Honda party in spite of how fun it is. There are more fish to fry and parties to attend this night. Clear across town in the wonderful Mandalay Bay Hotel lies a little intimate club called Forty-Deuce. Lexus, in conjunction with CEC wheels, decided to have a little swarrae in addition to their usual fare. This was by far more risqué than we have seen at other after-hour parties. This includes none other than Carmen Electra and a spicy burlesque show. I have to say, this is definitely an attention-getter among the normally conservative automotive companies. Being Lexus and CEC are presenting this is even more eye opening. Are they trying to tell us something here? Maybe they're taking a new bold step forward, or maybe not.
Again, we take leave for our final party of the night organized by Volvo. This takes place at the mega structure called the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. Perhaps this isn't as bodacious as the last event, but it does show a very Volvo element to it. Taking place at the Teatro, the Swedes renamed it Club C70, in honor of their latest offering. While the new car is a convertible with some of the finest material that Volvo offers, the club has it's it own swank décor swath in red leather and polished stainless steel. Stylish is the word they most likely want to convey in the cool surroundings in the Club.
Each event is there to reinforce something that you just can't express anymore on the hustle and bustle on the vast floor of the SEMA show. Slowing it all down and having a few moments uninterrupted by constant distractions allows the select few to truly get a sense of the companies, products, people and perhaps the direction they are looking towards moving in the future. This is significant to understand that each company is different and not some faceless entity.
The SEMA Show, Day Two
As I awake and look around the room at The Venetian, I wonder how I can ever leave this place. Virtually ever amenity is provided and all the furnishing encourage me to remain and take up residence at the hotel. Well, there is more to life than becoming a recluse, ala Howard Hughes - even though the suite is wonderful.
Back to the masses yearning to be free. Day two at the show is just as packed as the prior day. Unlike the prior day, I can wander around looking at whatever comes my way. I am feeling a bit of Deja Vu as this year's show is reminiscent of 2004, packed with endless halls that have more products, car, girls and more of everything automotive than I can fathom.
I do sense a leaning towards more products destined for pricier vehicles. Perhaps it's just that's how it appears with so many cars on display that no longer have a base price that falls into the affordable category. A constant barrage of exotic cars are here to catch buyers' eyes, but maybe they also give a false impression that the products incorporated on these display vehicles are unattainable by average consumers. Savvy buyers know the score, but I wonder if some of the mom and pop store buyers get it.
On the second level of the South Hall lies the tire and wheel companies. This place is going off. Glitz runs amuck here. Rolls and Bentley are the platform for countless wheel and tire combos, enough to make you start asking just how many of these cars did they produce? The wheels are remarkable as there are so many variations including a set of diamond-encrusted rims. Now that's flash!
I don't know why it is that this hall has some of the most attractive models, but I'm not arguing. It is far too easy for most males to forget just why they are at this show to begin with.
Now I know no stone is left unturned. I come across the Automotive Rhythms display showcasing some of their products on none other than the Volkswagen Phaeton. With such a plentitude of cars of nearly every make and model at SEMA I guess it is only fitting that the Phaeton garners it share of the spot light. Automotive Rhythms elevates this car to a new realm of desirability with a new E&G grill, Davin wheels, Michelin tires, DVD screens that are the work of Audiobahn, and an audio system with JL Audio amps and subs to further complement the already overly capable ability of the VW to smoother the occupants with total luxury over long distance jaunts.
Although I didn't spend as much time with the upper level of the south hall as I would like, nevertheless, the show must go on, and so should I. I decide to spend my last hours just enjoying some of the hundreds of cars on display in and around the entry to the halls at the show. Outside in the parking lot that was converted to more halls and exhibitions in front of the convention center is a couple stories tall structure announcing Yahoo's foray into all things an automotive enthusiast craves called, as one might guess, Yahoo! Autos Custom. Inside, the tower they erect is a garage where two NOPI/NDRA teams are actually assembling competing Mitsubishi Evo VIII street racers that are actually scheduled to drag down a 1/8-mile section of Las Vegas Boulevard in the wee hours of the morning. All of this is sanctioned by NOPI, of course!
I manage to see modified trucks, massive pick-ups from International that are as overwhelming as Godzilla, old school Cadillacs, muscle cars with overbuilt engines, sport compacts galore, and crazy paint jobs of all types done to the hilt. If you can think of it, it's here. Each and every element found on these cars outside of the convention center has some company inside moving the product. Those who attend as exhibitors plan all year for this week, toiling away long and hard to make a lasting impression and sales that will carry them throughout the year.
On the very long road home, I digest the previous days activities - and come across a few realizations. The first is driving isn't the best means of traveling long distances. But, when choosing to use the interstate as the mode of travel, one can do far worse than the VW Phaeton. The Phaeton is a real luxury vehicle, rather than a wolf in sheep's clothing. While others might offer the right ingredients, Volkswagen knows how to create a masterpiece with them. This car has the ingredient that many lack, it's called magic.
Secondly, so many deserving products from Brembo brakes to Yokohama tires, and hundreds of other companies, require at least a minimal amount of time to digest their latest and greatest products. Moving through the show at good clip means barely enough time to get a smell of what's going on, let alone a real taste. On leaving the show, I find myself strangely unfulfilled. Knowing there is more to see is like leaving a good movie just before the conclusion.
Finally, SEMA is a helluva event in a town known for being outrageous. While I can only guess what next year will bring, this is sensory overload even for the heartiest of convention goers. It seems more than a bit appropriate to hold this event in Las Vegas, as both the convention and the town are growing by leaps and bounds, and perhaps they are just a little out of control.
Strangely coincidentally, looking back in time, the founders of both SEMA and Vegas could have in fact shared the same tag line as well. Build it, and they will come!
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