From Humble Beginnings...

En route between the two principle Las Vegas Convention Center buildings that housed the 2008 SEMA show, some recollections came to mind worth sharing. SEMA wasn’t always named the “Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association” and it historically didn’t require two million square feet under roof for its annual trade event. This was my 41st consecutive SEMA show and its evolutionary trail has been remarkable at the very least, with a notable maturation path.

Probably near or at the nucleus of its development was a time right on the heels of World War II when testosterone-charged veterans came home hunting for ways to vent emotion as well as energy. Southern California was a natural landscape for these young men who dragged relatively inexpensive and plentiful older cars out of garages and junkyards and began experimenting with “go fast” modifications.  Probably never with the intention of becoming businessmen by design, these people soon began receiving requests to duplicate parts they’d cobbled for their own cars from friends who wanted the same components. Home shops, garages and the back rooms of service stations became the epicenters of parts evolution. Pretty soon along came a young man who reckoned a magazine would provide a place for fledging parts “manufacturers” to advertise and contain editorial about the emerging hot rod community.  The young man was Robert E. ‘Pete’ Petersen and his magazine was Hot Rod.

Then another inspired speed parts entrepreneur decided to create a place where parts could be housed and ordered, and Vic Edelbrock, Sr., opened the first “warehouse” where the Bob Hedmans, Ed Iskenderians and other such parts providers placed their wares for consumers to order.  Unencumbered by reasons why it should not succeed, this renegade “industry” grew to the point where some of the more forward-thinking of its members reckoned it needed more organization.  So, a half-dozen or so of these groundbreakers assembled a structure called the “Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association” and opened its doors to a dozen or more members.

Within a scant few years, another someone decided it would be worthwhile to hold a trade show, enabling parts manufacturers to show their stuff in a forum attended by people who were building what was to become a “two step” distribution system comprised of warehouse distributors (of the type Vic, Sr. had pioneered) and jobbers (mom and pop retails stores), and “speed shops” selling directly to consumers.

The first SEMA Show was held on the second level of the Los Angeles Dodgers stadium, to the tune of about 40 or so exhibitors, and I recall vividly walking away from the event with Hot Rod’s Ray Brock on a rainy Saturday afternoon and wondering if such a show would ever be held again… it seemed so small and insignificant.The Show then moved to the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, CA... in a single room.  Shortly thereafter, SEMA made a decision to expand into the Anaheim Convention Center, at the time far too large for the event. After a few years there, it was decided to change venues again, this time to one level of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The event rattled around in this spot for a short time. Its expansion included a portion of the lower level as the exhibitor and attendee list grew, then a second building, culminating in the two million or so square feet it demands today.

So as I looked around the room at this year’s SEMA Hall of Fame member luncheon, it was pretty easy to reflect on what those who attended and others who’ve passed from our midst have contributed to SEMA and the industry it represents. Sure, the Show was “down” a bit this year in exhibitor count… maybe a reduction from last year’s 2,600 to 2,200 booths.  And maybe there weren’t as many attendees either, an estimated 100,000 compared to 120,000 in 2007.  But it was clear those who came were serious about being there, absent many of the tire kickers who tend to clog the aisles and abbreviate the time available to talk business issues.  Is the industry feeling the impact of reduced discretionary dollars?  Certainly.  We build parts people want, not need.  Are some companies hurting, downsizing or on the threshold of merging with larger businesses or simply going out of business?  Actually, any and all of these.  But this is an industry founded on innovation, flexibility and vitality.  While it may not look or act the same when this period in its evolution concludes in what is projected to be a year or so, it’s expected to survive.  And the strength and direction provided by the SEMA will be essential to that survival, even though the Association emerged from such humble beginnings.