Charging Forward: What You Should Know About the SEMA Show

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photos by: the author

Is The SEMA Show Getting Out of Control?

Being a full-fledged, official member of the automotive performance industry, you get many perks; tip-offs of upcoming products and vehicles, access to some of the best hardware and machinery, and the opportunity to work alongside some of the biggest and brightest stars. However, there’s countless hours, sleepless nights and endless air travel tied into it. It’s not a hobby for us, it’s a passionate obligation. By default, this typically also grants you access to automotive trade shows, such as the SEMA Show.

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For some quick context, the SEMA Show is just an extension of the SEMA organization itself. SEMA, or the Specialty Equipment Market Association, was formed in 1963 by Dean Moon, Willie Garner, Robert E. Wyman, John Bartlett, Bob Hedman, Phil Weiand, Jr., Al Segal, Roy Richter and Vic Edelbrock, Jr. It was designed as a way to bring professional car builders, tuners, media, car dealers, specialty equipment distributors, OEMs, installers, retailers and restoration specialists together all under one roof.

SEMA has even become instrumental in helping push forth legislation that protects the industry, and the millions of people who it employs — often lobbying against the EPA and various branches of the Federal government to back off their ever-tightening smog, fuel consumption and emissions regulations. They’re a very essential part of the industry and we car enthusiasts are very lucky to have SEMA on our side!

The idea behind the show, however, is to allow these industry leaders to connect, network, socialize and plan for the upcoming year. Whether that’s for the next project car, how to promote their company’s latest products, come up with creative marketing campaigns and so on, these shows are a place of business with some fun sprinkled in.

Believe it or not, it’s a lot of work; loads of formal meetings, typically 100,00-125,000 steps walked (per person) a week, countless interviews, thousands of images documented and hours worth of professional video footage shot. In fact, most people who are [supposed] to attend, actually dread it because of what lies ahead of them every year. By Day 3 of the show, you’re looking forward to the end of Day 4 so you can catch your flight home — you’re just physically and mentally drained by that point.

Over the last several years however, the SEMA Show has morphed into something of a monster. The outside drifting shows, miles of cars outside, and the seemingly and alarming leniency of who they let into the show has taken a turn for the worst. As a result, there’s now over 140,000 people who partake in the event every year, but there’s also a question as to how many of those event attendees are essentially the general public, as opposed to legitimate industry professionals.

It’s been a topic of conversation for years among those internally, but that subject has become exposed and blown wide open for the world to see just this weekend, when an Instagram troll somehow managed to convince the SEMA vetting team that he was part of the industry. Last week, he filmed several videos of himself enticing random show-goers (of questionable credentials, themselves) to jump on top of vehicles, fling piston rings in the Total Seal booth, hammer on a windshield with a heat gun in the XPEL booth and disrupt a vehicle unveiling.

Scrolling through the comments on the post was equally unnerving, as many commentators yucked it up along with him and made light of the whole scenario. Many of these people aren’t car enthusiasts themselves, or probably aren’t even out of puberty yet, though common sense and a good upbringing alone would be enough to tell you that you don’t do those kind of things. The aforementioned vehicle in question was none other than a [reportedly] $250,000 pickup built from the ground up by Colorado Auto and Parts. It was the subject of countless magazine articles and tons of online exposure, even before the debacle.

Though this particular type of situation is new to the SEMA Show, the hoards of casual car enthusiasts finding their way into the show is not. For example, there are apparently those who attend the SEMA Show for a day or two, then sell their badges to random people off the street.

In fact, I was once asked if I wanted to purchase an attendee’s badge while leaving the show one day, simply because he no longer needed it. When I inquired as to why he no longer needed his badge (ignoring the fact that I was still wearing mine), he told me he only stopped in because he was in town to party anyway, and he “could still get in.”

He went on to tell me that his uncle once operated a body shop in the 1970s, and he used an old business card and some general BS to slide his way into a trade show filled with professionals. We had a young couple ask my Timeless Muscle Editor and myself if we were willing to sell our badges on Day 4 this year.

Let’s put it this way, if you’re willing to sell your badge with your name and your company’s name on it to a complete stranger, you have no business being there yourself.

Others manage to “jump the rope” by becoming friends with a local body shop or repair shop owner who attends, and convinces the owner to say that they’re employed by his/her company or to give them their badge. It’s been going on for years, and despite ever-tightening measures by SEMA to choke these opportunities out, quite a few still slip through the cracks.

I’m not the only one sharing my displeasure for this, as it negatively affects the normal day-to-day operations of the SEMA Show. For those of us who depend on this show for our livelihood, every minute of every day of the event matters. Though some vendors are “OK” with casual car guys getting into the event and asking the most basic of tech questions, it does throw off many of us who have obligations and schedules to keep. Some things to consider:

  • It’s not a party.
  • It’s not a hangout.
  • It’s not a car show.
  • It’s not open to the public.
  • Owning a ’98 Camaro doesn’t automatically qualify you to attend.
  • Shorts, flip-flops, a tank top and a cowboy hat isn’t official attire.
  • If you have a tendency to inject yourself into a full-blown, in-depth conversation and expect everyone drop what they’re discussing to talk about “your car back home,” you’re barking up the wrong tree.
  • If you have a beer in your hand at 12:31pm on Tuesday, you’re probably not supposed to be there.
  • If you pop in and out of the show for an hour here and there while you tour Vegas, you’re probably wasting your time (and everyone else’s) as well.

If any of this sounds familiar, I’m probably talking about you. To help our readers further understand what the SEMA Show is about, I’ve compiled a quick way to self-qualify you for the event. A short list of qualifying points, if you will.

Qualifying Yourself for the SEMA Show:

  • Do you own, operate or are employed by an automotive performance, restoration or tuning shop?
  • Do you own a business that creates and markets a legitimate automotive product or service?
  • Do you own or are you employed by a legitimate automotive media company, that actually creates meaningful and valuable content? (Facebook and IG fan pages don’t count)
  • Did you bring a vehicle with you, that you’ve entered into the show, that was built-in partnership with a number of performance suppliers and/or tuners in the industry?
  • Do you consider the SEMA Show just a rad, massive car show to meet famous people and “check out sick builds?”

If you answered no to any of these questions, apart from the last one, then the SEMA Show isn’t for you. There are many events that are probably much closer to you, that probably fills a particular niche that you’re into anyway, such as Goodguys, LS Fest, Chevrolet Performance Challenge Series, the NMCA racing series, the various Carlisle Events or even the Mecum or Barrett-Jackson auctions.

All of these shows offer loads of high-end vendors that you can rub shoulders with, seas of impressive car builds and fun for the whole family. Even better, you don’t even have to lie about who you are. Everyone wins!

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Being infatuated with cars since he was a toddler, GM EFI Founder and Editor, Rick Seitz, has a true love and passion for late-model GM vehicles. When he isn’t tuning, testing, or competing with the brand’s current crop of project vehicles, he’s busy tinkering and planning the next modifications for his own cars.

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