The annual SEMA Show is often viewed as a celebration of excess held in the town where too much is never enough. This year’s gathering in Las Vegas was certainly no exception.
Thousands of exhibitors (more than 2,400) catered to nearly 70,000 buyers, who trekked across nearly 3 million square feet of exhibit space, features and attractions to look at more than 1,500 featured vehicles and more than 3,000 products in a $39.2 billion industry.
Kind of amazing how far things have come in 50 years.
As many people in this industry know, the beginnings of the SEMA Show were slightly less impressive. The very first official SEMA Show was held in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, January 10-12, 1967. As was reported by Babcox Publication’s Don Baker, Jr. (then managing editor of Engine Builder’s sister publication Speed & Custom Dealer, “just under 100 exhibitors displayed their wares before perhaps twice as many dealers and distributors. Few new items were introduced at this show.”
According to Baker’s report and photos, booths were simple – a card table in the stadium’s hallways with some product and literature. A few cars. Lots of suits and ties.
There was also lots of discussion about air pollution laws and how proposed legislation could put individual manufacturers and even an entire industry out of business.
It’s apparent that not everything has changed in the succeding half-century, and that includes many of the exhibitors. During the annual SEMA Banquet and Award Presentation, SEMA President Chris Kersting (shown in the photo below) invited any representative from a company that exhibited at that first show to join him on the stage. A veritable “Who’s who” of the performance industry’s pioneers then made its way to the dais.
At Engine Builder’s table in the banquet hall, we shared the moment with Tom Lieb, president of Scat Enterprises. An attendee of that first show (though not an exhibitor), Tom told us hilarious stories of the industry at that time. As you might expect from a young association (then only three years old) composed of highly creative and headstrong individuals who were primarily focused on winning races (and customers), there was not always agreement between the associations manufacturers, distributors and retailers.
But obviously, despite many dire predictions and against the occasional expectation, the industry dedicated to creativity in the automotive aftermarket has survived – and thrived. The challenges and threats remain but it’s obvious that the passion has not died.
Following Kersting’s appeal to those original exhibitors, he then asked representatives from companies exhibiting this year at their very first show to join him on stage. As the entire platform was soon filled with a much younger crowd, I realized that in another 50 years, this group may well be the bridge to a much different, yet no less passionate, performance aftermarket.
Since I’ve been attending the SEMA Show (admittedly, only for about 25 of those years), I’ve noticed three things: many people think things were better back then, many people think no time is better than right now and many people believe our best days are still ahead of us. Somehow, I think they’re all right. n