I wasn’t ready: My first time at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas

I wasn’t ready: My first time at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas

I’ve been to Vegas before, but this recovery has been brutal

Editor’s note: Get more news from the 2018 SEMA Show in Las Vegas by checking out our dedicated page.


The annual SEMA Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center was everything I was told it would be: “Awesome,” “insane,” “overwhelming,” “huge,” “hectic,” “crowded,” “crazy.”

Every single one of those people were right and I was still unprepared.

I’ve covered huge events in my career, ranging from playoff sports games to a presidential convention. But it’s not possible to mentally prepare for more than 1 million square feet of automotive trade show glory (not including the surrounding parking lots) and about 150,000 people pouring into the Las Vegas area, eager to buy, sell or report on the latest and greatest in the car world.

Walking into the convention center last Monday, fewer than 24 hours before the show opened, I didn’t think it was going to go smoothly. Boxes and shopping crates were strewn about as crews scurried about trying to get their booths ready in time and, like me, I thought they would lack a little polish when the doors opened for the official Tuesday morning start.

Welcome to SEMA Central. It's only this empty at the very beginning and very end of the show and I traipsed through here more times than I can count. | Carter Nacke photo

Welcome to SEMA Central. It’s only this empty at the very beginning and very end of the show and I traipsed through here more times than I can count. | Carter Nacke photo

Boy, was I wrong. Every sign was perfectly placed, goodies were ready to hand out, and cars were gleaming as buyers, exhibitors and media – the three primary badge types at the show – walked through the doors.

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If a car lover died and went to heaven, there’s a good chance they would end up at something like SEMA. What began as a few people gathering to exchange parts has erupted into a show that fills every nook and cranny of the convention center.

Ford Broncos, like this one at the United Pacific Industries booth, scattered the 2018 SEMA Show floor. I'm a fan and stopped to look more than I should have. | Carter Nacke photo

Ford Broncos, like this one at the United Pacific Industries booth, scattered the 2018 SEMA Show floor. I’m a fan and stopped to look more than I should have. | Carter Nacke photo

There’s every kind of part, accessory, kit and whatever else you could need to customize your car. Full sections of the show are dedicated to hot rods, while others focus on trucks and still more on tuners. The floor is positively littered with display booths, which are separated by thin, crowded lanes of attendees that ebb and flow as someone stops to chat or take a photo of a custom car.

And the cars. Oh, the cars. I saw everything under the sun, from imports to exotics to muscle and vintage. SEMA is a show about creativity and customization. The message was clearly taken to heart by some of the nation’s best car guys.

I’ve been asked a few times what my favorite car I was at the show. That’s impossible to answer. I would have just as happily driven away in Noah Alexander’s 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle build or Jeff Allen’s rad-yet-weird Volvo-Corvette mashup as I would have in a glorious, all-original and non-customized Volkswagen Beetle I came across in North Hall.

Unlike a lot of cars at SEMA, this lovely Beetle had an actual for-sale sign in the window. | Carter Nacke photo

Unlike a lot of cars at SEMA, this lovely Beetle had an actual for-sale sign in the window. | Carter Nacke photo

Now that I’m home and writing this, it’s safe to say my favorite part of the experience was the people. Having covered huge events before, the media is typically allowed a handful of quick questions before being moved on. At SEMA, each and every person I talked to — people like Alan Taylor, who interviewed ClassicCars.com CEO Roger Falcione on a few occasions — gave me a full 30 minutes of their time, sometimes more, which is a lot, considering how busy most of them were.

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I lost count of the number of hands I shook. I ran out of business cards by Thursday afternoon. But there was a common bond shared by everyone that always began with, “Is this your first time at SEMA?” Those who had been before would offer tips and those, like me, who were there for the first time would talk about where and how many times we got lost.

By the time Friday rolls around, everyone at the show is spent. Three full days of walking the floor takes its toll, as, for some, does the Las Vegas nightlife. Before I left for home, I walked the floor one last time. The crowds had thinned and the shipping crates had begun popping up as companies anticipated a long breakdown (a friend exhibiting didn’t finish until 4:30 a.m. Saturday) and most of what I saw were connections – new and old – stopping by booths to wish everyone safe travels.

One benefit to Friday? There's way more room to take photos of cars you've been drooling over all week. | Carter Nacke photo

One benefit to Friday? There’s way more room to take photos of cars you’ve been drooling over all week. | Carter Nacke photo

As I left the glitz and glam of Las Vegas in the rearview mirror, I knew this was going to be tricky to write. After miles of walking, meeting with some top car builders, taking way too many photos and even drifting in a Roush Mustang, I wondered how to sum it all up.

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So here, as a now former first-timer at SEMA, is my advice to you: Carry snacks with you, drink more water than you think you need, and get to bed on time. Talk to the people you’re around. If you can, jump in the passenger seat for a ridealong.

And, most importantly, wear comfortable shoes.

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4 Comments

  • Norman spirit
    November 10, 2018, 4:28 PM

    For those who haven’t been to it (and most won’t get in; you need an industry connection to get in, it’s not open to the public..) SEMA defines sensory overload. You can go every day of the show and walk around until your feet hurt and STILL not see everything. Believe me. And that’s just what’s inside..there’s cars outside five deep all the way around the newly-enlarged Convention Center.

    REPLY
    • Rod Dahlgren@Norman spirit
      November 10, 2018, 8:51 PM

      Very cool glad I’m able to get there and talk to the vendors and manufacturers. but what I really want to know is who walked the most miles? who walked the most miles per day who walked the most total miles for the entire week

      REPLY
  • Tracey Boston
    November 29, 2018, 9:34 PM

    We go every year and leave blown away each time. I wish it was every six months honestly. There are days that we are strategic and efficient in our searches. Then there are days where the night before is still haunting as we make progress on the daily 20k steps, at a snails pace. Honestly SEMA is the one and only location for instant gratification and multiple love affairs with unreal creations. The business relations and friendships are priceless. SEMA Ignited has raised the bar to a new level. We watch the cruise and then walk throughout the parked vehicles and meet the owners. During the cruise we again are reminded we did not see everything. Unreal…

    REPLY
  • Paulo G
    November 30, 2018, 5:27 AM

    Carter, it was my first year too and it was for me also, more than I was prepared to, :D. More walking, more photos, more videos, more talking, and yet, much more awesome, much more cars and parts, much more everything good I could even thought before. I had high expectations and they were far exceeded.

    I hope to be able to went again next year.

    The title "I wasn’t ready…", is perfect for the first timers (and maybe the "second" timers too?!)

    Cheers from Brazil,
    Paulo

    REPLY

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