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 Sat, Nov 17, 2007
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
By JOHN GRAFMAN
Cresting the top of the 15 freeway looking down upon Las Vegas is always captivating. Arising from the flat desert floor are the man-made marvels of epic proportions. The construction of new, bigger and more glamorous monuments to gambling are sprouting up everywhere.
Nestled among this hedonistic town are giants of a different type. For one week in late October is the annual industry-only trade event known to most simply as SEMA. SEMA, the Specialty Equipment Market Association, is actually the organization for the automotive aftermarket industry. The event taking place is the SEMA Show. Larger than life displays are designed to woo buyers from around the world. Along the way both the companies and individuals that are the movers and the shakers of the business converge into this bizzare automotive culture melting pot.
The venues of the Sands and Las Vegas Convention Center have no more ability to contain the show than the cages and walls had on King Kong. Sprawling to hotels, raceways, bars, and virtually every nook and cranny in the city are some aspects of the show. The most obvious aspects are the cars. This isn't Pebble Beach, but everything else that isn't at the Monterey affair seems to be here.
Peeling back the lid on the SEMA Show is where you find the best parts. No, those parts aren't metal or carbon, it's flesh and blood. What makes all of this possible are people. It might seem improbable that with two million feet of floor space (plus the parking lot tents, and off site activities), finding just the right people to speak with would be all but impossible. But this is Vegas, and the odds don't stop the determined or crazy.
Monday night, on the eve of the show, a few companies take the opportunity to have fun. A ballroom at the Wynn hotel plays home base for GM. As it turns out, they had two events back-to-back. The first is the conservative, well-heeled social. Dotting the landscape were both man and machine. A sneak preview of the Pratt and Whitney Corvette for Jay Leno is along side a number of other cars that will be at the GM stand during the week at the convention center.
The second venue at another ballroom at the Wynn features a different vibe. Geared to ultimately a more urban audience, this showcases a number of products from Buick, Pontiac, and GMC. Certainly the cars are dialed in and express what can be done both fashionably and with a fair dose of good taste. But, just to make sure the point gets across, a few players were on hand to drive the point home.
50 Cent (L) and Scott Centra of NC Forged Wheels (R)
50 Cent, and Jerome Williams (aka Junk Yard Dog of NBA fame) are on hand to preview their collaborations with GM. The Pontiac G8 for 50 Cent, and the Buick Enclave featuring Williams's Automotive Street Style wheel line jump-start the event with visuals and sound. Both cars have elaborate mods. Numerous sponsors bring out their best for the occasion, such as NC Forged wheels on the G8. Celebrities add an extra dose of excitement that is always welcome. However, some of the other stars fly just under the radar of most on hand. Having a chance to meet with Clay Dean, Global Design Director of Cadillac, and designer Jose Gonzalez, whose latest Pontiac single seater Solstice concept sparkles under the lights, proves that GM sees this after-hours event and SEMA itself as serious business.
Jerome is a great guy in both stature and personality. Over the week, I bump into Jerome three times, and every time he greets me with a smile and an outstretched hand that shows he is a as big off the court as he is on it.
Jerome Williams (aka Junkyard Dog)
GM and the rest see the potential the aftermarket yields. The recent account pegs the total revenue of the aftermarket industry at somewhere around 37 billion dollars annually. To put that in proper context, you can erect some 20-30 of the mega hotels in Vegas for that kind of change.
Tuesday the madness begins. Everyone scrambles for transport to the convention. The new overhead monorail is a boon to those show goers. On the street shuttle buses, taxis, and cars jam the streets to the point of desperation. While it looks like a short walk, as the landmarks seem so close, it's very deceptive. The only reason it appears close is these hotels and casinos are super-sized, providing an optical illusion in the desert that's only rivaled by a mirage.
To those who have traveled this path before it all seems too familiar. To those that haven't this is overwhelming. Those that know better understand it is all but useless to try to see everything, even if you are here the duration of the show. The number one reason being if you can cover the entire show, inside and out, it will allow something like 34.6 seconds at each booth - far too little time to absorb the display or talk to anyone on site. Secondly, even if you can do the marathon, many events are scheduled concurrently at opposite ends of the site. This is where being a free spirit works best. Just walking around and keeping your eyes and ears open allows for random opportunities to pop up, which is by far much more fun anyhow.
The giants are hard to evade. GM and Toyota have a presence as one might expect that is sizable. Nevertheless, many other OEMs fill in the landscape that's swarming with companies of far smaller presence.
Ford again is showing a wide range of product and modifications on those. From the huge Ford 450 pick-ups to the new Flex. Variations on the Flex theme are courtesy of such well-known names as Foose and 3dCarbon. The Flex is maybe a poster child for creativeness. Just when you thought you have seen it all, someone comes along with something better, and that is what SEMA is all about.
One whole floor of the South Hall is flooded with wheels and tires. Everything is here, from Giovanna wheels to Vredestein Tires (a Ferrari supplier). This is also where you can find an abundance of models of the female sort. Is this why the hall is always packed with guys? Maybe!
Michelin is one of the tire companies showing an amazing range of products. One look at the display, and it's plain to see many of the fastest cars on the planet trust the Michelin tire. The connection is, if it's good enough for cars like the dominating Audi R10 that can effortlessly squash the competition at 200 mph or better, the Michelin brand should work just fine for more domesticated purposes. The booth makes the best use of space by displaying the cars in a near vertical fashion, with the nose closest to the ground and the tail leaning on a circular hub of the display.
Michelin is a natural meeting place for those in the industry, from Henrik Fisker to Kimatni Rawlings. The best products always bring out the best people.
As Wednesday, Halloween day, breeches the darkness of my hotel room I succumb to the inescapable conclusion that late night festivities are not really compatible with early rising. I know this is Vegas and all of that, but I am concerned if my liver is on the same page as my brain.
Day two is a continuation of the prior day with more cars, and more girls. Smart marketing types know that even the car crazy can be saturated by too much automotive candy, so perhaps a little cheesecake can turn a few heads in the right direction. Damn, those marketing types do make it tough to pay attention, but they are well aware of the power of persuasion.
On the flip side, completely opposite of the scantly clad females, one company is here to show that to them Halloween is more than just a holiday to dress up, or for that matter dress down. Halloween 2007 marks the 50 th anniversary of Toyota doing business in the USA. From a small dealership selling the marginal Toyopet and off-road capable Land Cruisers, to becoming a massive international giant took just half a century. One wonders where they might be in the next 50 years.
On display are several cars at the Toyota after-hours affair, but joining the usual tuner toys are a glimpse into the future. Both the 2009 Matrix and Corolla are on display for the guests to size up. Both are true to the brand and badge history. Corolla is a nice, albeit conservative, sedan that is perhaps now bigger to handle the growing wasteline of America. The Matrix is a funky youth-oriented design that will actually seem at home in the Scion line-up. The point is, whatever your taste is, Toyota has a car. And what Toyota doesn't offer, the aftermarket can finish the job.
The Hilton adjacent to the Las Vegas Convention Center houses not just the ballroom Toyota employs but several others as well. One such ballroom is the domain of GGI. The name might not be familiar to many, but the brands under that label are sure to be recognizable to those who are familiar with high-end tuning. Carlsson, Hartge, and Sportec have stunning cars featuring the companies' best goodies. It surprises me little that this is a class affair, as the aftermarket products and cars displayed are representative of the same mindset. Likewise, it doesn't shock me to find some fantastic people at the early evening affair. The lesson to be learned from tonight is the best products bring out the best people.
Post GGI, it starts to get a little hazy. Upon returning to my hotel, I run into one of the fixtures of SEMA: Melvin Betancourt from Ford. Melvin is responsible for making the Ford SEMA project materialize as anticipated. With the enthusiasm surrounding the Ford booth by so many show attendees I would have to say Mel has done his job, and then some. I manage to find myself up at the wee hours of the morning again. This place is dangerous.
Thursday is a day for regrouping and saving the energy for the crÃƒÂ¨me de la crÃƒÂ¨me. CEC Wheels again has a showstopper, or at the very least an after-hours affair that is a party planner's dream. The guests of Claus Ettensberger along with the support of Michelin Tires are treated to a show. Or more appropriately, a fashion show that displays not just some of the finest products but some of the best cars in the world.
Nothing is left out of the grand display. While one by one the cars are driven out, race car driver and TV host Tommy Kendall gives a commentary as to what the car is, the products that have been so elegantly installed, and the drivers. Tommy's humor is, as always, perfectly fitting. As most of the drivers are not particularly remarkable he ad-libs names of well-known personalities to spice it up. One such name he didn't need to falsify is Ashley Van Dyke, his former TV co-host. Another well-known name and face who is every so carefully motoring the Bentley GTC onto the runway is Barry Meguiar, who also just happens to be co-sponsoring the CEC event.
Just to give the show a little variety, a few breaks in the action are made to allow a few dance numbers by the Sirens of TI. The dance numbers and the songs are the perfect interlude to automotive gems.
While this should be where the night ends, we have to utilize the phrase made popular by Ron "Ronco" Popeil: But wait, there's more! On the insistence of a few friends in the media, we make our way to the icing on the cake, or perhaps the grill on the car might be a more appropriate phrase in this circumstance. In a breathtaking suite atop the Palms hotel is a party given by Strut. Positioning itself as the leader in high-end automotive grills, it also is fitting they position the late night event at the top of the trendy hotel and casino. Tommy Gaut - VP at Strut and his crew, family, and friends treat everyone with warmth that you normally don't find. If the manner of the people within the company and attention to presentation are any indication of the company itself, I can see why the company is doing so well.
Yikes! Friday is the last chance to soak up the show. I do manage to cover a lot of ground. Yes, more girls and cars, but along the way I come across items that are for many the real reason why they come to the show in the first place. One company is displaying a line of key chain breath analyzers that indicate a fairly accurate level of alcohol in one's system. I can see the need for this everywhere given the stats on abuse behind the wheel. I would think the buyers who come to the show also can see the possibilities.
Another interesting company, RoboPainter USA, has a product used for transferring graphics on a car unlike vinyl or airbrushing. Instead a machine applies graphics in the same manner a printer does on paper. The larger than life printer creates an image with each additional pass up and back down the car, in this case along a door panel. This does expand what is possible, and allows someone of limited artistic background to generate an eye popping graphic.
Ashley Van Dyke (L) and friends
Hot Wheels, the automotive icon that produces more cars than anyone is celebrating the big 4-0 anniversary. While throngs of attendees surround the circumference of the generous booth waiting on free toys, the real treat lies inside. In the center of the booth is a display of car designs, and models in fifth scale and 1/64 th sale (Hot Wheel size) produced by auto companies like Lotus, Ford, Honda, Mitsubishi, GM and some Mattel generated examples. These are some of the clearest examples of the design process. This is the first edition of the Hot Wheel Design Competition, and hopefully not the last.
As I take leave of the show, as the curtains are being drawn on SEMA 07, I all but bump into Bill Wolf, Director of OEM Relations. Bill had his plate full for years with this mammoth annual undertaking, but now he has more to tackle. The end of this year's show is also the end of Carl Sheffer as VP of OEM Relations. In talking to Carl earlier in the show I realize just how he, along with Bill, have created one of the greatest shows on earth. Carl's years of service at SEMA going back to 1999 have allowed this to become arguably the most important date on the automotive calendar. It is hard to fathom how the loss of his experience will affect the show in the future. Fortunately for SEMA Bill is no lightweight, but he is just one man, and this is the show of shows.
Bill Wolf is one of the thousands of reasons why the industry goes to SEMA. The most impressive of vehicles are at the show. If a car has been tweaked, modified, or altered, you can find an example of it here. Cars that have graced the cover of so many magazines and the small (and big) screen are plentiful beyond belief.
Behind each and every one of these cars are the people. The movers and shakers, the buyers, and the tens of thousands that make this spot in the desert the place to be.
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