THE ROAD TO LAS VEGAS
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Published on Wed, Dec 8, 2010
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
THE SPECIALTY EQUIPMENT MARKET ASSOCIATION (SEMA) SHOW IN LAS VEGAS Words and pictures by John Grafman This isn’t an auto show; it’s an insane asylum. Okay, it really isn’t either of those, the SEMA Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center is a trade show for the Specialty Equipment Market Association. In other words, the automotive aftermarket industry. However, PT Barnum might call this the greatest show on earth. And, who am I to argue? We’ve seen many changes in the world over the past few years, and so it goes with the automotive world too. Global warming, increasing gas prices, recession, new technologies are some of what we mean by changes. Of course, some things never change. Power, luxury, girls, and bling are still in demand no matter where you turn. The SEMA Show is no different and it delivers in spades.
THE DRIVE In honor of this state of confusion (the industry, not California), I find myself behind the wheel of one of the few cars that seems purpose built for the drive to Vegas from the OC (Orange County, CA). The $128,649 Lexus LS 600h L is everything we could want and more. This Lexus is the extended length version of the LS, suitable for chauffeuring. Sadly, being alone in the vehicle means not being able to take advantage of premium content like reclining rear seats with massage units. Oh, and those are remote controlled too. And yes, the power fold down 9” video screen would be a perfect distraction while traversing the hundreds of miles of endless nothing on the way to Vegas. This is perhaps as smooth a ride as one could ever want, as quiet as a padded cell. The interior is tastefully wrapped in buttery soft semi aniline hides, with an Alcantara headliner. The hybrid system allows us to manage 25 mpg on the highway, which is not earth shattering, since it’s also only a marginal 1-2 mpg better than the non-hybrid versions. However, it is a step up from the typical LS in the city by 4 mpg. It should be noted this is a huge, and heavy car. But here’s where it gets a bit confusing, this isn’t really about economy. This Lexus makes short work of the highway. With combined power, 438 horsepower is available. As big as this touring car is, you wouldn’t know it by it’s ability to gobble up the road and hit triple digit speeds with a blip of the throttle. This hybrid is a far cry from the Toyota Prius, and the fuel consumption reflects that.
Keeping the speed in check on this drive and maximizing economy is the job of the distance sensing Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. This keeps the distance to the vehicle in front of you set to one of three driver-determined lengths when the Cruise Control is on, even when a vehicle ahead of the Lexus speeds up or slows down. Of course, if the vehicle in front accelerates to a speed greater than that you have chosen to cruise at, your speed will remain that which you have chosen. The thin-film transistor speedometer showing programmed cruising speed makes setting the cruise control speed foolproof. There is also a Lane Keep Assist (LKA) that beeps and weights the steering wheel to alert the driver after the car has drifted well into the next lane. In essence, this works best for drivers that have fallen asleep. However, the road to Vegas is one of impatience, and sleeping is the least of our concerns. But, the LS is also equipped with vented seats just in case we need to chill out. The trunk of the hybrid is, however, not as roomy as the exterior appears to be. Hauling luggage for four adults could be problematic. This trunk space is especially important, as we aim to complete our socially conscious part of our experience with the addition of a bike for our commute from the hotel to the convention center. With the removal of the wheels, and taking a wrench to the handlebars, the beach cruiser did squeeze in just fine, but it took a few tries.
ROOM AT THE TOP In step with the image of the Lexus, the Hard Rock Hotel is ditched in favor of the Trump Las Vegas. While I can rave for hours on just how great the staff is, or how superb the rooms are (originally developed as condos), I think it will suffice to say this has one of the best views of the entire Las Vegas Strip due to being located almost smack dab, geographically inline with the center of the boulevard. Most of the views on the south facing side are incredible. With a total of 64 floors, expect panoramic views unlike almost anywhere else. Additionally, this is one of the few hotels without gaming, so the Trump holds all the aces when it comes to a restful outing in Vegas. This new and stunning hotel is but a short 1.3-mile jaunt to the convention center and the SEMA Show, and perfect for a bike ride. Why a bike? Well, let’s see. The bike is available anytime, doesn’t get stuck in the hellish city traffic, doesn’t require costly parking, and can be locked-up right in front of the entrance to the convention. How sweet is that? Oh, it’s also environmentally correct. Total bike ride time from the Trump to final destination is about five minutes. Try doing that in a cab. I do get some looks from the valet back at the Trump, but I’m fairly positive they don’t put on any extra miles on the beach cruiser while it’s out of my sight. The way the valet praises the car, I’m not so certain I can say the same about the Lexus.
THE SHOW – The OEM INFLUENCE Is this really the same show we’ve come to know and love? It seems to be a little less chaotic than in the past, and maybe a tad less loud. Even the parking lot is a bit vacant (more on that later). This is a kinder, gentler SEMA. People seem to be in a more positive mood. The economy is bouncing back, and the show is on the upswing compared to last year. Each hall has its own specialties. The major themes are Trucks/SUVs and Off-Road, Wheels and Accessories, Global Tire Expo, Mobile Electronics, Restyling and Car Care Accessories, Racing and Performance, and others. These comprise some of the 11 major groups, and several ancillary listings like the New Products showcase, and the Art Exhibit. Some years it’s hard to tell which OEM is making a bigger splash. This year there is one big exception. Ford is clearly out to show it’s still the big fish out here in the Las Vegas desert. The domestic manufacturer retains its massive booth space that extends the width of the hall. It’s hard to swing a dead cat and not hit a Ford vehicle of one type or another. Static displays are the norm, especially for those with limited marketing budgets. Well, it’s a little different for the boys at the blue oval. That massive vacant area in the front parking lot of the convention center really is something other than vacant. Ford is taking this huge paved area to showcase its power in the motorsports world. After show hours, thousands are treated to what’s billed as Ford Out Front. The antics of stunts preformed on motorcycles keep us entertained until the main event. Kenny Block takes center stage with his 650 horsepower Fiesta. Millions have seen his gymkhana theatrics on YouTube, and it’s even more fascinating in the flesh. Vaughn Gittin Jr. shows his talents behind the wheel of the Mustang, spewing smoke and rubber in his wake. Ford does have some help in keeping the masses happy with the assistance of Monster Energy Drink, providing food and drink.
In between all of the displays and drifting, we’re kept busy with the dozens of girls from Monster Energy. If this wasn’t Vegas we would almost feel guilty. Back to the convention, Ford and Monster Energy aren’t the only companies that are using eye candy of the female kind to draw attention to otherwise unexciting booths. But, that still works from what I can see. This is Vegas – sex sells. Standing on end at the Ford booth is the new Fiesta being painted in a manner that Jackson Pollack might approve of by Camilo Prado, the illustrious, pony tailed designer of the Ford GT. This multi-step process of drizzling Ford race colors paint down the length of the car by gravity feed gravity is something different and not to be missed. The countless Fiestas and Mustangs could lead one to think Ford owns this show, but there are numerous other companies that are putting the pedal to the metal. The Mazda 2 is a new offering for budget conscious buyers looking for fun, and there are several on hand that have been tuned and tweaked to perfection. These are reminiscent of how Honda years ago became the darling of the youth market. Speaking of Honda, the new CRZ is also continuing the tradition of imaginative aftermarket opportunities. The sparkling red car prepared by Five Axis Models for Honda is like a diamond amongst lesser gems. The Honda exhibit space in the far end of the hall always seems like a hike, but well worth the travel.
GM has taken an unusual route, concentrating entirely on the Chevy line. Certainly most of the aftermarket products for GM products are geared to the bow tie brand, so it does make good sense to focus on that. The FoMoCo (Ford) has a real rival in the Camaro. With the Camaro convertible being released, GM is certainly the darling of the muscle car market right now. Many of the major SEMA companies have a version of the Camaro on display, like the silver 3dCarbon copy with its multi-piece body kit. A near life-size, whatever that really means, Transformer replica stands adjacent to a Bubble-Bee-like Camaro. This towering Transformer figure dwarfs just about everything else in the surrounding area. But really, the modified Chevy is eye-catching enough without any assistance. Scattered about the GM exhibit space are the new Cruze, and the long awaited Volt. Surprisingly enough the Volt is shown with some modifications. As expected, Corvettes and trucks round out the group. Dodge is in its traditional space at the show. As one would imagine, the floor space is filled with Challengers, Chargers, Rams and the rest. But wait, you haven’t seen anything yet, well sort of. Outside and between the center and south halls, far from the show entrance, is a tented passageway. Inside is a Mopar lover’s dream. This is muscle car history. Some of the most significant Chrysler cars from the sixties/seventies fill 90 percent of the gallery. As many SEMA member companies specialize in these cars (along with Mopar) this is very fitting. The tented area does have a little something special that awaits those venturing out there. On hand is the yet to be released Fiat 500. Even more impressive, there are two modified cars for us to delight in. One of those even has a wide body fender flair that I suppose makes light of the ‘monster-size motor’ that lies within. Most of the OEMS, from Lexus to Kia, have a special booth. On top of those, the three halls and outside facilities are filled to the gills with every manner of car and specialty part from every conceivable company.
AFTERHOURS Even though some companies have very elaborate exhibit booths, some wish to have a more controlled environment that enables them to offer a unique experience to woo industry buyers. Vegas has everything an event planner could hope for, from a full-fledged racetrack to 5 star restaurants. As mentioned, Ford overtook the space right outside the convention center, and that’s convenient to say the least. Subaru, the choice of the outdoorsman, decided to go swanky inside Encore hotel’s newest nightclub, XS. A favorite with hundreds, as always, is the Kicker Big Air Bash at the Palms hotel, or more accurately, in the Palms’ parking lot. The company known for big sound has an equally big party. Again, Monster is a partner in this celebration too. The focal point for the event is the high-flying extreme motorcycles and quads that take to the ramps spanning about 75 feet right in front of cheering crowds. The bikes are pulling off incredible acrobatics, including flips. The only thing louder this evening than the sound system from Kicker is the roar of the crowds. DUB also is having its soiree at the Palms Hotel inside Rain Nightclub. Is this just a coincidence? Seems like shooting fish in a barrel once the action outside wanes down. It doesn’t take very long before the masses swarm the club. The audio and visuals afforded by the venue keep the action going, if only in spirit. This also is a perfect opportunity for co-sponsors Pirelli, Mobil1, K&N, Pioneer, Rock Starr, Kinetik, effen vodka, UFC, Tapout, and others to reinforce each company’s message and show industry commitment. On hand for the DUB party is DJ T-Pain, and a live ONYX performance, plus guest appearances by MMA icons Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin. This is really a backdrop to the real point of the evening, the 2010 DUB Awards.
DAVID vs GOLIATH While the original equipment manufacturers have wheelbarrow loads of money to spend on booths, or so it seems, the smaller, independent companies have to get by on raw talent and charm. Regardless of the previously mentioned females at the show, the SEMA exhibitors let the products do the talking, well, most of the time. One small company looking to get people out of a jam is Max Trax. The lightweight, portable plastic pieces allow off road vehicles to get a grip on loose roads, like sand. The stuck vehicle owners can place these easy to use spiked planks under the tires, and away they go. Other parts are tailored to the DIY for rebuilding or customizing cars, such as Dynamat sound insulation. Any self respecting hot rod shop owner is bound to need items just like this. Other, larger companies are using the show to make announcements. Solutia is introducing its LLumar paint protection film. And 3M is taking the next step by partnering with Pep Boys to open 3M Car Care Centers. While the only ones at the show impacted by this appears to be Pep Boys, this still might be heralding a new direction of cooperative ventures.
ROUND AND ROUND The most obvious difference over prior years, aside from the overall reduction in exhibitors, is the diminishing number of wheel companies displaying products. It used to be everyone and their dog had a wheel company, from spinners to forged alloys. Darwinism appears to be at work here, and only the strong have survived. This really makes sense, in a recession who really needs some other rims when a car has a perfectly good set to begin with? This is indeed a good barometer of our economy. Still, quality lives on to fight another day. HRE Wheels is one such company that has long held a reputation as one of the industry’s top manufacturers. Again, no one needs to get aftermarket rims, but it’s hard not to lust over the HRE designs, which strike a cord both aesthetically and functionally. Another survivor is Giovanna Wheels and its sister company Gianelle Designs. Any company looking to improve on marketing techniques can take a few lessons here. The exhibit space for this high-end wheel company has all the right facets, from lighting, sound, proper product spacing, luxury and sport cars, to the requisite eye catching female models. Showcasing the Giovanna wheels on products like the Rolls-Royce Ghost or the new Mercedes SLS instantly substantiate these massive rims, and adds a sense of celebrity that only a six-figure car can create. CEC Wheels’ founder Claus Ettensberger knows the formula like the back of his hand. His company offers a number of products that are distinctive and well crafted. Many companies have outstanding cars to display products on, but none outside of CEC has the new Fisker Karma that’s just now rolling off the production lines. Henrik Fisker creates magical designs, and he’s a standout in the small world of automotive designers. But, Claus fills the gap for those that want their car to be exceptionally distinct. What kind of SEMA Show would this be without Dub Magazine? Dub nearly gave birth to the rise of super-size rims and tires. As you can guess, the exhibit also is too big for the hall space. So, just outside of the show is an extensive display of unbelievable metal, and we aren’t just talking about the wheels. On hand are Rolls-Royce, Maybach, Mercedes, Range Rovers, and more.
BRING ON THE BLING Now wait a minute, we don’t want to give the wrong impression here, DUB is far from the only one with high line cars on display. Just a stone’s throw away outside are several cars from Specialty Car Craft that definitely can break the bank or at least put a severe dent in the wallet of 99.9% of the population. This LA based company is really two companies in one. One specializes in repair and restoration of exotic cars, and the other in customization. The most obvious modification that SCC does is matte finishes. This is obvious on the green Lamborghini Murcielago in Verde Ithaca paint with a matte finish. In the same roped off arena is a flat black Phantom. Additionally, SCC has stationed a few feet from that a Lotus Elise and a Rolls Royce Drophead Coupe’. All of these cars stand as a testament to the company’s ability. What is striking, aside from countless Rolls-Royces, is how many of the new Ferrari 458s are on display. This sports car went into production relatively recently, but you’d never know it by how many are here. The Ferraris attract attendees like a giant supermagnet. Just a few of companies offering up a Ferrari as a little piece of Italy are WeatherTech, Savini Styling Group, Giovanna Wheels (two). The pièce de résistance has to be the History Channel, which has a Ferrari offering rides to show goers promoting the new US version of Top Gear. For all we know there might be numerous others. One could easily lose sight of several Ferraris in a show this humongous. The History Channel is taking advantage of the SEMA Show and pleased many attendees with a fleet of yellow painted exotic taxis. The tens’ of thousands laying eyes on this can no doubt jump-start the show’s debut episode. It isn’t everyday you see Mercedes or a Rolls-Royce dressing up as cabs.
THE MARKETPLACE On the subject of paint, no expense is spared to show off the best each manufacturer has to offer. The PPG booth has a number of absolutely beautiful custom cars with paint to match. However, the crown has to go to PPG’s own Ditzler, not just for the lowered Caddy, but also for the stylized retro drive-in diner. The only way this could get more attention is if Ditzler starts handing out free burgers and malts. The tire companies have a quasi-monopoly on the rubber business. The displays are not as over the top as in the past, but that was then and this is now. Still, Continental and Pirelli, and the others have cars in every hall wearing the latest from each. Racing improves the breed, and these companies want to make sure that point is driven home (pun intended). So, it isn’t surprising at all to see the exotics fit with the finest shoes. Pirelli’s display outside features everything from a GMG prepared StopTech Porsche for the GTGP (Global Tuner Grand Prix) to a BMW M3. The point is, if you have a car, the Italian manufacturer has you covered. In the endless mass of aftermarket equipment it’s easy to forget that some related gear doesn’t get bolted or sprayed onto a car. In fact, some goods are for the driver. The Giovanna Wheels exhibit is showing a nice array of wristwatches for the discerning driver. And, no hot shoe should go do without, well, a hot shoe. Piloti offers its own form of traction. The line-up of footwear ranges from civilian models to those with one purpose in mind, racing. SEMA is now the launch pad for car companies, as well as aftermarket companies. One of which is Talon with its initial model the Invader. This three-wheeler uses the Suzuki Hayabusa 1300 cc motor, propelling the Invader from 0 to 60 mph in under four seconds, and can hit 150 mph. For a first effort this is impressive, and should be garnering further attention soon enough. Local-Motors is just getting into actual production of its vehicle that has a rally car stance and a made in America label. The start-up makes good use of existing parts and integrates those into a bold and respectable design. I’m not sure if this is equivalent to an Underwriters Laboratories seal of approval, but Dave Marek of Honda R&D fame, and legendary Bob Lutz are both spotted in the Local-Motors exhibit space. Coincidentally enough, the designer for this new company is a former student of Dave’s at Art Center College of Design. Yes, it is a small world. The future will be glowing brightly at SEMA. An industry collaboration featuring Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CUICAR), Art Center College of Design (ACCD) and numerous other companies ranging from BMW Group to Dell Computer have a hand in developing future automotive projects, with Clemson taking the lead. These two-year projects create a new engineering concept, with a new project initiating every year. This project entitled Deep Orange will be educating both engineering and design talent.
There is no shortage of new products out there on the floor of this expo. It is nearly impossible to see everything here over the course of even several days, as any industry veteran can testify to. And while it looks like every conceivable auto part has been developed already, cars keep changing, and its only a matter of time before we see hybrids, electrics, and fuel cell cars swamp the aisles of this convention center. This means two things. The grads from Clemson and ACCD will be hard sought after come graduation day. Secondly, while it looks like the aftermarket industry is hot now, just wait till next year. MORE PICTURES FROM THE SHOW