It’s now 2019: approximately ten years since I first attended the SEMA Conference in 2009. For those who are unaware, SEMA stands for Specialty Equipment Market Association. This is quite an ominous acronym, but in some ways, such a moniker is almost a necessity. SEMA is an industry only, automotive trade show/conference/celebration. Whether it’s sports cars, luxury cars, SUV’s, off-roading vehicles, drag racing cars or overlanding automobiles, SEMA has something for everyone in the automotive industry. Companies from all over the world converge at SEMA every year to show off their latest offerings to industry buyers and influencers (media) in hopes of gaining more business and extending the reach of their brand.
Academic Speak (feel free to skip if casually reading)
For academics, this sales convention may sound like a highly inflated infomercial. However, this event is so much more than a sales convention. It is where the “aura” (in the Walter Benjamin sense) of the automotive industry is showcased and transferred first hand. Hybridity theory (Kraidy) is seen through the collision of international collaboration through manufacturing and cultural consumption physically manifests and disseminates. Cultural Proximity (Straubhaar) is geographically merged in a temporary autonomous zone and influencers create and broadcast social, cultural and economic capital (Bourdieu) in real time through social media.
How am I able to attend?
Throughout the course of a week, over 100,000 industry participants converged on the Las Vegas Convention grounds. I was lucky to have an “in” to the convention as I have performed video production work for Boost Logic, a high performance automotive shop in Austin, TX.
Boost Logic played a major role in helping me complete my dissertation 10 years ago when I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin. I met one of their fabricators at the time, Marc Evans, who introduced me to the whole crew. They helped me build my Turbo Mercury Grand Marquis and I helped them with media work, website advice and cleaning shop (literally) from time to time.
For the uninitiated, Boost Logic was founded by Kean Wang and Chris Johnson with their first platform focusing on the Toyota Supra MKIV (1992-1998 US Toyota Supra). More specifically, a lot of their work centered around making turbo kits and ultimately building high-end aftermarket custom builds (producing over 1,000 horsepower). During my dissertation in 2009, the company was sold to their sales manager, Zohair Jaffery, who still runs it to this day. During the 2010’s, they focused on the Nissan GTR R35 (2008-Present) and, at SEMA 2019, they introduced their latest foray into the new 2019 Toyota Supra platform.
Why attend SEMA as an academic?
So, you may be asking yourself why I bothered to attend SEMA 2019? To be frank, there were a couple of reasons. Initially, I was approached by a friend of mine who works as a mechanic and restoration specialist (in addition to being an architect) Stephen Williams, who expressed interest in attending the event. He definitely made a good pitch about going. The other reason was that I had gone to SEMA in 2009 when I was performing my research and wanted to see how things had changed. When I went with Boost Logic in 2019, SEMA was a huge deal for me. I learned so much and met people in the industry who would become key influencers over the next decade, such as Ken Block. I also got to get a feel for the industry from multiple perspectives, which helped shape my dissertation.
My goal for this trip was to make content in real time (aka post to social media), take video field notes and also take high-end photographs of the culture of SEMA 2019. I packed a full Sony A7III setup for photography and used my iPhone X for video.
Attending SEMA 2019
SEMA, as mentioned previously, is a huge event…one that cannot practically be fully covered. Most attendees are going simply to see one or two areas, such as off-roading and wheels, or automotive repair and show cars. My goal both times attending was to do a survey of the whole show and then make my way back to my areas of interests. It took me the whole first day to attempt to survey the full event, which I succeeded in covering 80% of on the first day. I made notes and took photos as I walked. Then over the last two days of attending, I was able to walk through the show and see specific areas in detail.
The Toyota Supra
The new Toyota Supra was SEMA 2019’s seminal tuner platform. When I attended SEMA 2009, the Nissan GTR was the seminal tuner platform. What does it mean to be a seminal tuner platform? It means that the platform has been adopted in mass by tuners. Turbo kits, body kits, exhausts, intakes, interior mods, wheels and tires, engines, transmissions and torque converters, etc are developed by early adopter shops and then showcased at SEMA.
So, to be going with a group who was not only showcasing the premier platform but being shown in Toyota’s official area and unveiled at SEMA was quite a serendipitous occasion.
While there, I was able to meet with Zohair Jaffery of Boost Logic who discussed the Toyota Supra-Boost Logic collaboration.
In addition to the Boost Logic Supra, there were tons of other examples of Supra’s both at the Toyota booth, as well as around the tuner areas.
I was specifically impressed with Toyota’s showcase of Stephan Papadakas’ (Papadakis Racing) high horsepower engine build. While the presentation took place in-person at SEMA, it was also simultaneously broadcast over the internet. Having been a fan of Stephan Papadakas’ online work, I admit to being a slight bit of a fan-boy while watching him work on the engine. However, I remained composed enough to capture video and photography not only of Stephan Papadakis building the engine, but also of the live audience reactions to what was going on. Some enthusiasts simply smiled while watching the master at work, while others just appreciated the process and liveness of the production.
Asian/Euro “Resto Mods” and Re-imagination
Another trend I definitely noticed was the Asian/Euro “restomods” (Restoration and Modification) scene. Especially LSX “restomods”. For the uninitiated, LSX refers to Chevrolet’s LS1, 2, 3, 7, 9 and general combinations of the engines. Also known as the modern day “Chevy 350 small block,” the LSX has a reputation for reliability, affordability and of course the main objective, the ability to make good power with and without power adders (turbos and superchargers).
Seeing Asian/Euro “restomods”, aka restored classics using modern parts and upgrades, with LSX “swaps” was super interesting and is something that I love about SEMA and modern day automotive enthusiasts. Where as it used to be “domestics” vs “imports”, there has been a marrying of automotive culture that can’t be undone.
Here are some “restomods” I captured:
The other trend I noticed was the re-imagination of the 80’s in 2019. This was highlighted by both 4×4 trucks and Porsche 911’s having BMX/Freestyle bikes featured on them. It makes me believe that the designers and builders who came of age in the 70’s and 80’s are now in charge of design for many aftermarket builders and designers.
YouTube and my “Fan-Boy” Moments
One of my other objectives while at SEMA 2019 was to hopefully run into some YouTubers that I follow, and sure enough I did!
I ran into Tarvarish, who had just rebuilt a Lamborghini Murcielago when I was making my way to the overlanding exhibition. And when I say “ran into,” I mean literally! I was super fortunate to get an interview with him and talk to him about what it is like to develop a YouTube channel.
I also had an out of body “FanBoy” moment when I was at the Rupe’s polishing booth and ran into Larry Kosilla of AMMO NYC and Jason Rose. I was walking through Rupe’s display when I saw Larry and Jason just standing there chatting with people in a hall of history of Rupe’s. Talk about a memorable moment for me! I approached them and had a lovely off-camera conversation about what it is like to be world renowned detailers and YouTube famous. It was very interesting to get their feedback. I got the feeling that while the success has been great, there is still quite a journey ahead of them. Hearing about them navigating the automotive industry as relative newcomers (especially Larry) definitely grounded me. They both seemed very hopeful about the future, and I was happy to have been able to run into them. My hope is to one day have them come give a lecture in an Automotive Culture lecture series I put together (fingers crossed).
Lastly I was able to run into Faye of Piston and Pixie Dust YouTube fame. What’s even cooler is that she is based out of San Antonio, Texas! I told her how I am in Texas and that I was super interested in working with her to have her come and lecture to my classes about being a YouTuber and mechanic. She was super stoked! She also told me about Carfest in San Antonio where people who are going through rough financial times bring their cars to have them repaired by volunteer teams of mechanics. I really look forward to being able to cover that event. Her ability to mix her own identity so fluidly with her passion for being a mechanic and automotive professional is not just inspiring and refreshing to me, but to her youtube and instagram fans as well.
I had a very proud moment at SEMA 2019 when I connected with a former student of mine, Kyle Wolf. When Kyle was a student of mine at the University of the Incarnate Word, he found out I was into cars and we immediately hit it off. The next thing I knew, I was meeting him at Texas 2K and helping him learn the ropes of automotive photography and videography.
Kyle is now a media creative for VP Racing Fuels, and it was wonderful to hear his colleagues speak so highly of him (and tease him a bit). Kyle has always had a super outgoing attitude and seeing his work literally displayed at SEMA was cool.
In addition to my interest in the tuner scene, I have had a newfound interest in Overlanding, a 4X4/High-Adventure car culture. SEMA 2019 had a sizable (yet small when compared to other displays) Overlanding display with 10’s of cars on display showing off the latest and greatest 4×4 Overlanding solutions.
I take a particular interest in overlanding because of my background as someone who loves the outdoors and also likes the idea of being prepared. Over the last 2 years, I have taken such an interest that I bought a 1999 Toyota 4Runner (with 440,000 miles) to get my feet wet, and have since purchased a 2008 Lexus GX470, which is a fully capable off-road vehicle. My goal is to build the GX470 into a formidable overlanding vehicle with just a couple mods, such as all terrain wheels and tires for weekend off roading, as well as some exhaust mods and possibly a front bumper with a winch.
Here is a walk around of my GX470:
As I perused the Overlanding exhibit, I found many themes present, such as tents on cars, camping trailers, bicycle racks, and “mock” campsites.
I also was fortunate to catch a Q&A with Overlanding experts and their analysis of the market and culture of Overlanding. Here is a clip:
I definitely see Overlanding growing as a culture, and I feel it merges many cultures that have traditionally been divided, such as 4X4 off-roading, which is often seen as environmentally invasive, and the environmentally-conscious outdoor adventure culture to create a way to reach remote places and venture out even further than before.
Reflections and Observations
SEMA 2019 definitely left me yearning for more. While I was saturated with information and experiences, I knew I had more to reflect on.
Over the past two months I have had time to rethink my experiences, watch other coverage of SEMA 2019 and develop some takeaways from the event and also pose new questions. So here they are:
- Over the past ten years, SEMA has definitely grown.
- YouTubers have definitely had an influence on SEMA
- The electric car has not made a significant impact at SEMA (Though they had a Bigfoot).
- SEMA has an international appeal with vendors from all over the world.
- When will the electric car have a sizable aftermarket space at SEMA?
- How would I best survey the representation of women at SEMA?
- What would be a good way to engage media students with SEMA?
- Will Overlanding be the bridge between eco friendly environmentalists and the 4×4 community?
- Could I work with SEMA to Investigate the demographics of the attendees and exhibitors and look for major trends in terms of diversity and inclusion.
As mentioned throughout the article I had many collisions with various YouTubers and professionals in the field. I had many great discussions with Motor Trend, DSport Magazine, DG Spec, Larry of AMMO NYC, Tavarish, and Faye of Pistons & Pixie Dust. I had a wonderful discussion with Brandon Scarpelli, Director of Social Media at Motor Trend Media. He was so informative and sounded very interested in collaborating in the future.
My current initiative involves my recently-proposed course, COMM 289 Automotive Media Creation for the Fall 2019 Academic Semester. This class would be a space where I would hopefully have the opportunity to bring automotive media content creators to A&M to share their creations and lead workshops. Over this Spring and Summer, I will be developing the course schedule. It might be a stretch, but having some of my students be able to attend SEMA would be very interesting. I will also be looking into their education program for further information.
If you or someone you know is interested in collaborating, please reach out to me!
Lastly, thank you so much to Stephan Williams who made the initial pitch to go on this trip, you are awesome!
joey lopez phd
Director of Media Lab
Associate Professor of the Practice Department of Communication
School of Liberal Arts
Texas A&M University