Pink wheels. Bad paint. Crazy customs. Tucked-in T-shirts. Scene kids. Buyers. Exhibitors. Capital-M Media. SEMA is a nexus for the aftermarket, and all that that entails. It can be vulgar, it can be crass, it can be revolting and amazing all at once. And there's a very good reason for all that: money.
I spent three days at the annual Special Equipment Market Association Show in Las Vegas this week. Three days of pounding the cavernous, maze-like convention halls. Three days of waiting for shuttle busses. Three days of bad convention food. Three days of examining what seems to be a netherworld that most of the car-driving public never encounters. I did my best to learn what makes it tick, to see why it exists, and to understand the beast.
If you wonder why we here at Jalopnik spend so much thought trying to figure SEMA out, it's because it's an auto show unlike any other. If you go to the Detroit International Auto Show or the New York International Auto Show, it's all pretty standard. Every manufacturer brings a stand or two, they have all of their offerings on display, and maybe even a few concepts. The general public pays way too much to attend, but you get to see more cars under one roof than you would normally. The big guys get to sell to you, and you get to be sold to.
There's something for everyone at those big shows. High-end offerings for the enthusiast, and basic point-to-point transport for everyone else. Standard issue, really.
SEMA is entirely different. It is closed off to the public, for one, and despite its attendance of 130,000 people it can actually be quite difficult to gain admission. Nothing seems to make sense there, either. On the surface, it's a disjointed mashup of all that is unholy.
There's an old Gene Simmons with a sad Ford truck. There's a 1,000 horsepower stanced minivan. There's a Toyota Highlander with a goddamn fishtank in it that's been completely roped off while beside it sits an unassuming Camry that's been turned into a rally car that nobody seems to care about.
It's your automotive equivalent of a bad trip. But again, only on the surface.
It's not for selling, so much as it is for negotiation. And it's not for the big manufacturers, either. Most may have a stand in the corner somewhere, but you truly get a feel for the place when for the next half-mile all you can see is row upon row upon row of wheels. If you want to know what SEMA is really like, you can't look at the photo I've set at the top, which is the common assumption. You have to look at the one right here:
It's a big swirling mass.
But you shouldn't think of it as an auto show. No, that would be unfair to both SEMA and auto shows. Think of it as an ecosystem. The ecosystem exists so that the business that actually make up the Specialty Equipment Market Association can continue to make money and support a growing and thriving aftermarket industry. But like any ecosystem, you need to study its parts to understand what's going on. Tucked-in T-shirt man glides past scene kid, scene kid darts past metalhead, and metalhead moves past a bone-standard Honda Civic. I have nothing against any of these types – hell, I've been all of them at some point or another. But they all serve a purpose, and none of them would exist without the others. So let's take a look at them:
Tucked-in T-shirt Man: AKA "The Buyer." He might own a CNC milling company, or a mechanic shop, or he may represent a major supplier to the manufacturers. He exists to buy the wares of the Exhibitor. He also thinks that if you tuck in your T-shirt, it makes it formal. (Hint: it is not formal.)
Button-down Short Sleeve Shirt Man: AKA "The Exhibitor." He owns a lighting company, or an intake company, or a widgit company. He exists to sell his wares, because he owns his own company and he built it from the ground up and he deserves your goddamn respect. He also paid about $30,000 just to set up a booth there. He does not know that wearing a short-sleeve button-down shirt tends to just make you look like a box, when you should just choose a regular button-down or a t-shirt. Hybrids are not always a good choice.
Suit Guy: AKA "The Flack." Everyone looks at him askance, because he's wearing a suit and this is supposed to be a casual thing. He's usual just PR. Harmless, but he wants you to try their new product. He exists ostensibly to promote, though some things are often not worth promoting.
Foreign Buyer: AKA "Please don't let Las Vegas become the emblem of America to you, the rest of our country is not like this I swear." The Foreign Buyer is usually Japanese or German or from South America. He exists for the same reason as the regular buyer, except he is normally dressed. I feel bad for them, as it is a long flight and then at the end all you get is Carrot Top. Carrot Top looks like this:
The Capital-M Media: AKA "Why the hell did I wear this blazer I look so stupid right now and Parker Kligerman just implied that I look like a big hipster." The exhausted writer who runs around constantly, only to start pounding bitter coffee in the media lounge one hour into the show. Everyone simultaneously hates him and loves him. But mostly hate. He exists because everyone else is here, and if everyone else is there, then it needs to be covered. If the Media is not there, does it not make a sound? (The answer is "No.")
Going into all this, I knew that SEMA was about industry, and not enthusiasts. But with each new year, more and more products are hyped to people who just love cars, and don't care about anything else. If it's a little unclear of where I stand on it, that's because SEMA seems to be a little unclear of where it is in its own right. It's desensitizing, its wonderful, but its bizarre, but in the end, it's all about one thing.
So does it suck? No, definitely not. In fact, my personal opinion is that it's a little bit great. But one day there needs to be a SEMA for everyone.
A SEMA for those who love racing, but don't want to go find Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus sitting forlornly at a tire company stand that isn't Pirelli.
A SEMA for those who want to see a Mansory SLR, but without a DJ blasting terrible dubstep in their face.
A SEMA for those who not only want to see a Ferrari F12, but also want to see it growling around the makeshift track with everything else.
A SEMA for those without a tucked-in t-shirt, a short-sleeve button-down, a flat-brimmed hat jammed over their ears, or an ill-fitting blazer.
A SEMA for the enthusiast.
Photos credit SEMA/Michael Ballaban