Car Tech

Behind the Curtain at SEMA 2017

LAS VEGAS – Bring in thousands of the hottest show cars around. Set up a drifting track. Bring in auto celebrities like Mario Andretti, Chip Foose, and Ken Block. Then add all the coolest stuff ever made for cars, and you’ve got the SEMA Show.

It stands for the Specialty Equipment Market Association, which has been presenting the show since 1967. It was just a few booths at the beginning, but now it’s an all-out blowout. Still, for all the circus atmosphere – and with some 65,000-plus attendees, it can get crazy – SEMA is actually a trade show. The cars and the stars are only there to draw attention to the products on display at the massive Las Vegas Convention Center.

Because it’s a trade show, the public can’t get in. It’s strictly for exhibitors, buyers, and media. This is where almost anything that goes on, in, or anywhere near a vehicle usually starts its journey from the manufacturer to the store. Companies rent booths to show off their products, and if they’re lucky, distributors and buyers will decide if an item’s going to be successful enough to take a chance on it.

In many cases, the items on display are tried-and-true. Well-established companies bring out the products we all know, just to keep them on the radar, while presenting any new products coming down the pipeline.

But it’s not just huge manufacturers here. You also get small companies or even individual inventors who bring their products in the hope of catching a buyer’s eye – almost a Dragons’ Den of the auto world.

And sometimes, no matter how crazy a product is, it catches fire. I recall the year that someone showed up with a bizarre item he called TruckNutz – plastic testicles meant to hang off a truck bumper. Most people laughed and shook their heads, but a distributor figured there were enough folks who would go for it, and didn’t the damn thing take off. Fortunately, things didn’t go as well for the follow-up product of a plastic stripper that stuck on the dash and twirled around a pole whenever you hit the brakes didn’t do as well. (Somewhere, I am ashamed to admit, I still have the sample one the fellow gave me.)

The oddball products here this year aren’t as weird overall as they’ve been in past years, but they still have their moments. How about seat covers decorated with Swarovski crystals (which look about as comfortable as sitting on a mess of Swarovski crystals sounds)? A beer pong board that fits on your truck’s tailgate (of course the driver has only water in his pong cups)? Or an air freshener that looks like Darth Vader’s head? The dude walks around a hot spaceship clad head-to-toe in leather and a cape – what does he smell like, anyway?

These odd tidbits aside, most of the new products serve a purpose. They include everything from smartphone-capable battery chargers, diesel fuel and oil additives, replacement LED headlamps and airbrushes, to vinyl wraps, security cameras, engine components, and car washes.

But the cars – ooh, the cars. When there are some 2,500 exhibitors, they need to make themselves stand out, and by doing more than just putting out bowls of candy at the front of the booth (which we appreciate very much, especially the Snickers bars…). If a show car’s been built using a product, the company will bring it in to show off just how well that product looks in a finished vehicle.

At most car shows, these would be the feature cars and trucks, roped off and far away from the crowds. Here, they’re just part of the deal, parked in booths or crowding the massive lots outside the convention centre. And because keeping show-goers happy is all part of the plan, you can enjoy such treats as riding along in a drift car with Ford, or in a Corvette piloted by driving instructors from Ron Fellows’ local school.

The SEMA show runs only from Tuesday to Friday – this year, it’s October 31 to November 3 – but the fun doesn’t stop there. Once the doors close on Friday, all the feature cars make their way across the street for a giant cruise night, known as SEMA Ignited, that’s open to the public. Fans line the street on bleachers as everything from spindly antiques and lifted trucks, right up to full-blown race cars, drive past them and over to the parking lot to finish the fun. The Ignited event also includes a Battle of the Builders for the best custom car, an ear-splitting race car cacklefest, and drifting exhibitions.

Hey, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas – including the odd burnout or two, and that’s what makes SEMA so great.