Attending SEMA, held at the Las Vegas Convention Center each November, requires very comfortable shoes. First-timers are easily spotted leading a miffed spouse in three-inch heels back to their hotel. Over a million square feet of show space takes a long time to walk, and staying awake long enough to look at the almost 2000 cars on display requires Turkish levels of caffeination. SEMA, or the Specialty Equipment Manufacturer's Association, ostensibly acts as a lobby group for all things in the vehicular aftermarket, but most importantly organizes this yearly showcase of automotive excess. There's something here for every shade of automotive enthusiast, with every flavor of visual, visceral and mechanical possibility on display.
Who goes to SEMA? Gentlemen with hair combed straight back or combed over, festooned with gold pinky rings, bracelets, and yes, the glory that is gold nugget jewelry. While the aforementioned type makes up a startling large percentage of the crowd, most are the kind of people that friends introduce you to at BBQs because "they like cars too." In theory, this is an industry-only event, meaning most of the over 100,000 attendees are involved in developing, manufacturing, wholesaling, retailing, racing or using parts, be they Lamborghini-style door conversions or 600-horsepower big-block crate engines. Or paint that changes color from puce to chartreuse. Or turbochargers the size of toilet bowls.
There is steady money in truck and off-road parts, hot rod and muscle car restoration, but what everyone wants is a steady reach into the pockets of the fickle youth market, lined with pizza delivery money quickly and impulsively spent. Thusly, the unofficial "car of the show" is always a hot topic. The reality is that there was no one car in particular this year. Honda Fits abounded, due to the fact that Honda gave a bunch of freebies to tuners. The show also teemed with Mustangs, justifiably, as it remains the most readily modified car on the market.
Detroit is back. And what happened to all the Civics?
Four years ago, the number of Honda Civics at SEMA threatened triple digit exposure. This year, we saw not one new Civic outside the Honda booth, and only a couple earlier stragglers, usually racecars. This marks an end of the sport compact era, a movement/celebration/plague that has graduated a new generation of enthusiasts demanding high technological content and functionality. What's left over in that market is the good stuff, hardcore tuner and racing parts, and near none of the stairway-to-heaven wings, trash can size exhaust tips, and Neon fever.
American muscle is, without question, back. Darn near every American performance booth had a Mustang/Cuda/Camaro/'Vette with a twin-turbo/supercharged/big-block fuel-injected engine making 600/800/1200 horsepower and wearing a $20/40/60K paint job. The number of forced induction packages for anything with rear-wheel drive and a V-8 is astounding. We saw kits using single turbos, twin turbos, single blowers, dual blowers, and mixes thereof. And unlike the hack jobs of yesteryear, most of them are intercooled and come with proper fuel management for cars that can survive the commute in addition to the drag strip.
Diesel truck performance has matured into a large sector boasting its own magazines and even drag racing series. All products to date, which include single and twin-sequential turbocharger upgrades and hardware, are for big truck engines, but we expect the passenger cars in the pipeline to be embraced with similar enthusiasm.
Replacement and aftermarket wheels and tires make up a large percentage of aftermarket sales totaling some 36 billion annually. The wheel-and-tire hall is interminably long, and if most the wheels look the same after awhile, it's because most of them are made in the same factories in China, Thailand and the Philippines. Absurdly large and heavy chrome wheels have experienced no fall in popularity judging from the scores of pseudo-luxury brands with butchered Italian names and Chinese wares who can afford the genuinely luxurious Rolls-Royces and Ferraris inside their booths.
And there's the other stuff ...
Mystified by the long lines that circle certain booths? A "model" whose résumé includes the cover of Smokin' Gigantic Trucks and the Hooters calendar is signing posters in one of more the 10,000 booths selling anything from mud flaps to torque converters. A longer line? A star of films not found in your local Cineplex is signing posters. The barely-clothed poster signers are as built as many of the cars at SEMA, using both internal fortification and trussed structural exteriors. And just as many layers of paint.
Better-funded companies hire bigger guns to draw lines into their booths. Such appearances include, but are not limited to, Hulk Hogan, Bo or Luke Duke, Tony Stewart and Randy "The Natural" Couture.
Astute observers will notice that a good percentage of the wild-assed machines look like a million bucks, promise thousands or horsepower, but have never run. Some will eventually, many won't. Little things like lack of brake or fuel lines give up the gig. These are called "SEMA cars" as in, "it's just a SEMA car, so we finished the paint and stuck a dummy motor in there."
Born of the shift in the 1990s to enthusiasts modifying new or relatively new cars, new vehicle manufacturers, 14 of them this year, have a significant presence at SEMA and take it seriously. The greatest-sized plot at SEMA belongs to GM, a company that always rolls out modified versions of just about everything it makes, including Buicks and other head scratchers.
However dire its financial straights, Ford ponied up the strongest booth of any manufacturer, packing it with innovative content and show stopping vehicles. Big announcements were the return of the Boss 302 crate engine, a 500-horsepower 5.0-liter V-8 (all hail the cam-in-block Windsor) and a relationship with Chip Foose that will probably result in Foose-badged models appearing in dealerships.
Or the parties ...
Arguably, some dudes just come to SEMA for the parties. On any of the four SEMA nights, there are dinners and receptions thrown by the various exhibitors, and just about every club in Vegas has a party each night sponsored by an automaker, company, distributor, or magazine. These are guaranteed to have more swordfights than an Errol Flynn picture, as most women there are being paid for their time.
Once partiers stagger out of the clubs at 3 AM, it's time to enjoy the subtle graces of dancers who have flown in from around the world, truly, just for SEMA week. And yes, contracts are signed and purchase orders filled in dankly lit corners; it's just another place work gets done.
It's on the fourth and final day of SEMA that the full realization of how nefarious, foul, and dirty Vegas is hits, and you vow never to return. Sin City, however, is quick to neutralize those brain cells required for rational decision making through sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption, and the omnipresent fumes of Superfund-caliber cleaning solvents necessary to strip horizontal surfaces of the previous day's revelries. The façade of good times and luxury remains. SEMA next year? We can't wait.