Nowhere else on the planet is there an assembly of automotive and truck industry personnel mixed amongst everyday enthusiasts like there is at the annual Specialty Equipment Marketing Association (SEMA) Show, held every November in Las Vegas, Nevada.
With over 161,000 individual attendees and more than 2,400 exhibitors on location, the SEMA Show is a behemoth of an event. Because it’s so large and broadcast in such great detail across so many media networks, there seems to be an influx of negativity surrounding it. Everything from the status of last-minute show cars to the over-the-top booth displays garners a reaction from everyone attending—and the majority of the internet—but there’s just so much more to the event that you don’t see from those perspectives.
It might as well be viewed as our industry’s World Cup—you know, that big international soccer competition held once every four years. I don’t compare it to the Super Bowl because that only involves one country, whereas SEMA attracts companies and attendees from all over the world. Think about it, without SEMA, there would be no change in trends, there would be no showcase for innovative new products, and most of all, there would be nothing that brings our industry together in quite the same way.
I know right now a lot of you are thinking, “but what about PRI?” Well, yes, there would still be PRI, but because that event is so much more performance-based, many of the secrets developed by its attendees and exhibitors are held close to the chest. With SEMA, companies, builders, media, and manufacturers go all-out in a bid to win over the valuable attention of the public. Similar to the World Cup, those who are most prepared, most skilled, and—in some cases, have slept the least— earn the spoils.
It’s a draining undertaking for everyone involved. Whether the SEMA guest spent months leading up to the show stuffed in their garage cramming hours upon hours into finishing up their build or gleaning over minutiae in the setup of their booth’s display, this event will steal all of their energy. But it doesn’t stop there. Let’s just say the project car makes it to the showcase, or the display goes up without a hitch, which is rarely the case. There are still several multiple-shift-days ahead during the actual show wherein questions need to be answered, contacts contacted, and public relations related. Not to mention the hours on one’s feet, whether standing or walking the vast grounds of the Las Vegas Convention Center.
However, amidst the noise, the hijinks, the ostentation, the real-life click-bait, and the exhaustion, it’s still one of the—if not the—most meaningful events our industry has to offer. I’ve gone through and picked just a handful of examples of vehicles or trends that stood out to me in 2019. There were hundreds of them in my personal list of favorites, but unless you want to read about my SEMA coverage next year, I figured it best to narrow them down as far as possible. Sit back, get your coffee, read through and let me know whether you agree that each one of these is meaningful in its own way.
Art/Design Takes On Such A Significant Role
As an appreciator of art and an artist myself (photographers are artists, right?), there’s nothing more important to me than the inclusion of art and design in my daily life. It’s a factor that can be overlooked if you’re too focused, but it changes everything when you recognize its importance. Whether it’s a clear example of something that someone would call “art” like Benedict Radcliffe’s brilliant 1:1-scale wire-framed interpretation of a modified Overland SUV in the Toyo Tires booth, or it’s a more subtle example like the beautifully intricate fabrication work on Jose’s Speed Lab Creations Camaro in the Vibrant Performance booth, art is everywhere, and the more we can utilize its impact, the more compelling examples we can create.
There is art in the design of custom aerodynamic performance additions like the carbon fiber EVS Tuning bits circulating the show on various display cars throughout the halls, or in the wild lines of the Live to Offend widebody kit found on Rebellion Forge Racing’s BMW E30 in the Meguiar’s booth. If the exterior wasn’t enough, the merging of eight exhaust runners into one collector prominently exposed under perfect lighting definitely invigorated the artist inside most attendees.
First of all, BBS Motorsport wheels were seemingly everywhere this year, and I’m not mad about it. Anytime that you have to count back in your head how many times you saw BBS LM wheels throughout an event is never a bad thing. Attendees could take their pick from a few new A90 Supras to a McLaren LP570. The wheel company was present across all genres this year, including some rare birds on Dai Yoshihara’s Civic Type R-swapped AE86 Corolla in the Turn 14 Distribution booth. We can’t find any reference to those specific wheels anywhere, as they appear to be unique to Dai’s build. What we do know is that this vintage motorsport wheel was found deep in the archives of BBS America and brought into the spotlight specifically for this project, and boy was it ever worth it. The wheels fit the car perfectly—both stylistically and physically.
Also, yes, wheel companies are popping up more frequently than ever. But is that such a bad thing? When put into the right hands, new wheel companies are discovering realms not yet explored by wheel companies of the past, and it’s exciting! Street style is alive and well with Kansei Wheels, which, in only its second year at SEMA, exhibited with a glorious two-tone GX81 and the company’s new one-piece Roku Formlite wheel. I can’t tell you the last time I saw a GX81 at SEMA, especially one as exquisitely modified as this.
And while I’m on the topic of seeing things infrequently at SEMA, let’s discuss these BBR Competition wheels on @bmerlots / Rywire Motorsport Electronics’ 1985 Honda Civic. A borderline forgotten relic produced by Enkei, these examples have survived the test of time in private ownership. As a fan of vintage Japanese wheels, these exceptionally shielded a set of Spoon brake calipers and stood alone, above the fray, amidst the rest of the Toyo Tires Treadpass display.
Classics and Subtlety Are Alive and Well
Here I go again, discussing classic lines and subtlety in my SEMA coverage, but those two factors are a surefire way to get me to stop in my tracks and examine a booth’s car. For example, that same Civic I was discussing above exudes classic styling and subtlety. You won’t find any newfangled widebody attacking the classic lines of this little hatchback, nor will you find any loud wraps detracting from the beauty of the chassis itself. Just good ol’ fashioned two-toned paint laid across beautifully restored OEM body panels. It may lack in exterior innovation, but its level of detail and advanced wiring setup make up for that in spades.
Hawk Performance and Eibach Springs showcased classic German vehicles. Neither of which attempted to alter the timeless exterior, or parlay its rich history with modern technology. Each utilized sophisticated parts from the respective brands they were representing, but neither strayed from its historical roots, and that was a delight to see.
You probably noticed the Hot Wheels display next to the BMW 2002 at the Eibach booth. Well, I’ve got a pretty cool backstory about that. After speaking with a few employees at Eibach, I learned that the owner of the company’s booth car showed up to its US headquarters in Corona, CA, for a routine meeting unrelated to the automotive field. After discussing his line of business, he mentioned he had an old BMW using Eibach products that he raced in a vintage series. After looking at pictures of the spotless car, the higher-ups at Eibach decided it would make for an excellent booth car. So the process began to get it ready for SEMA. Well, Hot Wheels was interested in creating a scaled version of Eibach’s booth car, and the 2002’s owner was thrilled to hear that. The Hot Wheels 2002 actually released during SEMA and was being given away at specific times inside the Eibach booth. After receiving their limited toy car, recipients were having the car’s owner autograph their toy’s packaging! Think about that for a second. What started as an ordinary business meeting not only resulted in his car sitting front-and-center in a SEMA display and immortalized into Hot Wheels history, but he was also autographing the scaled replica for fans. What an incredible story!
Product Innovation Is Still Surging
Our friends over at Turbosmart took home some hardware at this year’s SEMA show for Best New Product in the Performance/Racing Division for the new electronic wastegate, the Gen-V e-WG60! It looked great on display in various sizes and should aid significantly in tuning, as there is no longer a need to change springs nor a CO2 bottle in the driver’s compartment of a racecar. Boost control is now adjustable from a computer—that’s wild.
While the product in the ARP booth isn’t exactly innovative for 2019 as they’ve long had the winning formula for hardware, it was the company’s display that was brimming with product innovation. I’m talking about the Sixteen Power V16 engine with quad LS3 heads and twin roots superchargers. This marine-duty engine with this forced induction setup produces juice in the realm of the 2,000 horsepower mark! Fitted with ARP hardware, it looked at home as a display, but the imagination in me would still love to see it squeezed inside an old muscle car of some sort—similar to the way Speedkore has used Mercury Racing engines in the past. One can only dream, I suppose…
Racecars Are Still My Favorite
Racecars are still—and likely always will be—my favorite part of going to events. At SEMA, there are illustrious professional racing vehicles at every corner, but none grabbed me quite like the Bergsteiger E36 from Bimmerworld at the Optima Batteries booth. This thing is just about everything I’d want from a racecar, and it’s fit to walk the tightrope in one of the world’s most grueling races: the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. In fact, the term bergsteiger is German for mountaineer or climber, so it’s fitting for this tailor-made attack vehicle.
After Bimmerworld’s inaugural attempt at Pikes Peak back in 2017 with a street-based E92 M3, they stepped it up in 2019 with an F82 M4 GT4 race car, which was an improvement. However, for its newest mountain-conquering attempt, the company started from scratch and built this beastly E36 from the ground up. While its aero utilizes nostalgic pieces taken from an Argo GTP Lights racecar, the widened carbon fiber body of the project was produced using molds from ’90s E36 Schnitzer Motorsport racecars of yore. Combine those elements with custom aero touches from AJ Hartman and a slew of custom fabrication features, and you end up with the monster you see here.
For a touch of something different, the crew at Bimmerworld opted to swap the inline-six engine with the S63 twin-turbocharged V8 lump from an M6. The tubular engine bay flooded with carbon fiber ducting and this engine layout reminded me of the Team RLL IMSA BMWs I drooled over at Long Beach last year. It was a stunning car, and I can’t wait to see it race to the clouds.
SEMA can be described as a lot of things to a lot of different people. It’s noisy—both figuratively and literally. It’s gigantic, and as a result, exhausting. It’s demanding and daunting, an escape but also a reality. It’s vibrant, passionate, and a showcase for the talent and expertise of our industry. But most of all, it’s necessary, and despite all of the controversy surrounding the world’s most colossal stage of automotive excess, there are always gems to be found throughout the grounds. The event keeps getting more extensive, but quality can still be found within the quantity—you just have to look for it.