Overwhelmed in Vegas: A SEMA Newbie Navigates the World's Most Intense Automotive Show

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
overwhelmed in vegas a sema newbie navigates the worlds most intense automotive show

It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Las Vegas time, when the pretense of politeness wore off.

Feeling punch drunk, and perhaps ready to throw an actual punch, after five hours of walking all over the Las Vegas Convention Center while attending the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show, I whipped out my phone for a pic of a stanced Nissan or Porsche or whatever (I don’t remember) and bumped into another person doing the same. The look we exchanged is the kind of look two strangers share in a movie scene – the look that precedes a bar fight or street rumble.

Hours earlier, we’d have both smiled and said “sorry”, but the day was clearly wearing on all involved. We grumbled and grunted some sort of acknowledgment that may or may not have been apologetic, and moved on.

I nearly posted on social media about SEMA making me want to kill, before remembering that mass violence is far too real a thing in 2019, and I’d rather not spend my afternoon in a Vegas police precinct getting The Hangover treatment over a truly dumb joke that a distant “friend” of mine could misinterpret as an actual threat.

At 10 a.m. that morning, I’d been excited for my first SEMA show. Cool cars, a few celebs, a few familiar faces milling about – I was ready. Like Joker in Full Metal Jacket, I wanted to get in the shit.

By the time I boarded a bus bound for my hotel at 3:45, I felt drunk and could barely recall the day. I had the thousand-yard stare. The onslaught of chrome wheels, Rascal scooters, and bad convention-center food had conspired to make me as grouchy as Oscar.

(Full disclosure: As part of the Honda Civic Si press drive, Honda gave us passes to the show. As part of that Civic drive, Honda fed and housed me.)

To be clear – I don’t want to sound like a whiner. SEMA should be car-enthusiast heaven. Unlike an auto show focused on OEM products or classic muscle cars, there’s something for everyone. There’s jacked-up trucks, lovingly restored classics, OEM concept cars, OEM production cars (C8 Corvette, for example), modified classics, modified modern cars, custom accessories, every part and component you can think of, drift sessions in which you can ride with a pro, you name it.

Thing is, what makes SEMA great is also what grind you down – there’s just SO MUCH. I can’t even comprehend how much there was to see – and how much I know I missed. You probably need the whole week to see the entire show.

I intended to write a “worst cars of SEMA” post, but with the exception of some bad stance jobs and some ridiculous brodozers, most cars and trucks on hand were either well-done or simply unremarkable. Either that, or I’m more forgiving of bad taste than most.

There were more than a few good cars on display, as well. Honda had a clean S800 at its booth, and I was taken by the Acura Type S concept. I got my first look at the C8 Corvette race car at Chevy’s booth, the same booth where the line for a free T-shirt was longer than the autograph lines for Rutledge Wood and Michael Waltrip at Toyota’s stand.

Toyota Supras and Jeep Gladiators dominated the show, and some of the Supra concepts were fetching. Others, perplexing. Our corporate masters brought the world’s only manual-transmission Supra to the show, and I resisted the urge to try and talk my way into driving the car home in the name of TTAC.

Speaking of Gladiators, one of my favorite trucks on display was a lifted and modified Gladiator parked at aftermarket company aFe Power’s booth. This one was not a ridiculous brodozer, but rather the type of beast I want to be driving once democracy finally fails and America becomes a Cormac McCarthy novel. Rigged with jerry cans and ready for whatever challenges come its way, this Gladiator intrigued me more than the factory model.

Ford’s booth was massive and held two showcases for the company. While the Bronco racer made news, a classic Bronco stuffed with a GT500 engine and a five-speed manual transmission was star of the show. Jay Leno himself is the owner. He took the Bronco after fellow late-night gabfest host Craig Ferguson parked it in his spot as a prank.

Down the stand a ways was the other showcase car – an electric-motor Mustang with a six-speed stick. As much as electric power seems anathema to the Mustang, I have to admit instant torque in a pony car is hard to argue against. I was more befuddled by the shift-it-yourself aspect. I am as as the next guy, but the idea of a manual paired to an electric motor is so unusual that I couldn’t fully wrap my head around it. Then again, it’s been a week and I’m still wrapping my head around SEMA.

SEMA also showed that the concept of [s]booth babe[/s] product specialist is alive and well. Even in a post- world, plenty of companies believe that the only way to get attention is to stuff an attractive woman into too-tight pants or shorts, layer her in makeup, and tighten her cleavage- and midriff-baring top. I’ll leave the discussions about sexism (should companies hire women in this role at all? Should companies hire men, too, in order to balance things out?) for another time – I just wanted to note that SEMA is keeping an old “tradition” alive.

Should you choose to be a creep and ogle a product specialist, you may pay for it. Scooters – think Rascal, not Bird – are EVERYWHERE at SEMA. I’m very sympathetic to those who need a mobility scooter to get around, and I know not every injury is easily visible to onlookers, but some of these scooter riders looked quite able-bodied to me. More than a few were too young to qualify for an AARP card, even. One couple sharing a scooter looked like they weren’t that much older than I, and I haven’t yet reached my fourth decade. It reminded me of Costanza conning Play Now.

Maybe I’m just jealous – by day’s end, I had walked so much I was getting bow-legged. My feet were screaming, comfortable footwear notwithstanding. Perhaps claiming an “injury” and gliding around the show floor at the blistering pace of 2.5 mph is the best way to see the show.

SEMA is the most intense car show I’ve ever attended as either a member of the media or a paying customer. I’ve covered more auto show media days than I can count, and I’ve spend my own money and/or time to go to shows large and small. From classic car shows taking place in a parking lot or along some suburb’s Main Street to World of Wheels to Bloomington Gold to Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals, I’ve seen plenty of cool (and not-so-cool) stuff. But SEMA, a show that isn’t even open to the public, tops them all.

Given a full week, I think I could take SEMA at the proper pace. For now, having had a good taste of the sheer madness of it all, I’ll be content to march on, happy to have survived my tour of duty.

[Images © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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2 of 7 comments
  • Cprescott Cprescott on Nov 14, 2019

    SEMA has been stale for over a decade. There is precious little new stuff that matters. Unless you crush a new Supra there is nothing you can do to it to make it look acceptable. And I'm tired of truck this and truck that.

  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Nov 15, 2019

    SEMA: A taste of what the OEM's could do if they had any imagination.

  • SCE to AUX I charge at home 99% of the time, on a Level 2 charger I installed myself in 2012 for my Leaf. My house is 1967, 150-Amp service, gas dryer and furnace; everything else is electric with no problems. I switched from gas HW to electric HW last year, when my 18-year-old tank finally failed.I charge at a for-pay station maybe a couple times a year.I don't travel more than an hour each way in my Ioniq 1 EV, so I don't deal much with public chargers. Despite a big electric rate increase this year, my car remains ridiculously cheap to operate.
  • ToolGuy 38:25 to 45:40 -- Let's all wait around for the stupid ugly helicopter. 😉The wheels and tires are cool, as in a) carbon fiber is a structural element not decoration and b) they have some sidewall.Also like the automatic fuel adjustment (gasoline vs. ethanol).(Anyone know why it's more powerful on E85? Huh? Huh?)
  • Ja-GTI So, seems like you have to own a house before you can own a BEV.
  • Kwik_Shift Good thing for fossil fuels to keep the EVs going.
  • Carlson Fan Meh, never cared for this car because I was never a big fan of the Gen 1 Camaro. The Gen 1 Firebird looked better inside and out and you could get it with the 400.The Gen 2 for my eyes was peak Camaro as far as styling w/those sexy split bumpers! They should have modeled the 6th Gen after that.