Life on the Road: SEMA Las Vegas

 Greed is good at SEMA, though with the economy failing...maybe not so much.

It is here where sheetmetal gets its personality. Where engines and tires, previously built to behave, learn about rude manners and burnouts.

Here – in Las Vegas. Where the sun is the only thing brighter than the night.
For the automotive faithful, it’s called the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association trade show, or SEMA, and is lovingly thought of as an automotive carnival stretching across 2 million square feet of Vegas convention space and parking lot. Every inch of space – and more – is used to celebrate the art of creating something special out of metal, iron and paint. And thanks to the legions of shade tree mechanics that have opened stalls since the early sixties, SEMA has come to represent the act of putting creative life into the industrial chill of production lines and factories.

SEMA – the thought of it makes me laugh out loud.
It’s not so much a group of companies as it is an event where people learn to live with their vehicles, a place where a boring secretary’s car becomes a performance icon, or a heap of nothing turns into something shiny and new. It’s where you’ll find the shell of a Mustang floating in midair, a life-sized Twin Mill Hot Wheel, a peach Camry low rider and a matte-finish, violet Volvo C30…with a wide white racing stripe.

Which is to say it’s you. And me. And the guy down the hall, the girl up the road, and everyone who ever thought that cars were cool. It’s every single person who ever thought about getting new paint on their Cavalier or new wheels on their Civic. Because the truth is, despite the Chip Foose machines, the hip-hop wheels and the crazy automaker special editions, SEMA is all about wheels for Civics and covers for Camrys. That’s what it is. Take the Buicks with the pretty girls and celebrities as garnish, because the fact that Buick is here at all is more a sobering reality of all the old Buicks on the road than some celebration in pink metallic paint. And it’s a good thing they are, nonetheless: Forever shunning SEMA as the crazy paint and chrome show, automakers have turned up their noses and watched as one after another enterprising gear head made millions on making their cars go faster, drive better and look nicer.

No no, this is how you should do it…
They’re listening now. Today’s SEMA has intense automaker interest; the light switch was flipped and today, everyone from Toyota to Ford, Chevrolet and Hyundai are offering specialty versions of their vehicles. In years past, the show has gone so mainstream as to feature the debut of the latest Toyota Corolla. But that’s not SEMA – it’s what people do to their Corollas after they buy it and realize they just can’t live with Toyota-endorsed seats and wheels. That’s what SEMA is, that and a bitter Larry Woods signing autographs while grown men cry over Hot Wheels, booth babes prance around 26-inch wheels, and guys on the alignment rack row chase anyone dumb enough to take a picture.

Yep. That’s SEMA, the only real auto show in the world. It’s that place between the new car dealership and the old junker tow truck where love and loyalty happen. It’s where people actually learn to care about cars.

—By Brian Chee

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