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Thoughts On The Cars Of SEMA

Peter Tanshanomi November 16, 2015 Featured, SEMA 11 Comments

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Context is everything. As any artist, architect or museum curator will tell you, the surrounding environment colors our perception of things. A screaming, fuzzed-out guitar solo that sounds so great in concert would be annoying and intrusive in an oyster bar. A woman’s outfit that is considered risqué at a backyard barbecue might be utterly unremarkable on the runways of Fashion Week, and downright matronly at the beach. The where and who matters as much as the what. And nowhere is that more true than when scoping out the cars at SEMA, the 600-pound gorilla of automotive industry trade shows.

Take, for example, this nifty Scibaru. Seeing this parked on the lawn in front of your local dealership would probably be enough to make you do a Little Rascals-style doubletake. At SEMA, it’s a wall-flower, a no-never-mild.

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As I was snapping this photo, I overheard this conversation:

First Dude: “Hey, check this out.”
Other Dude: “Oh, that’s that Hellcat Dart. I already saw it on Gas Monkey Garage.”
First Dude: [Disappointed] “Oh. I hate that show.”

And with that, the two dudes continued on down the aisle. I wanted to go grab them by the shoulders and say, “Wake up, guys! Who cares what show it was on! How often do you get a chance to see a Hellcat engine in a ’67 Dart up close!” But that’s the point; at SEMA it was yesterday’s news. There’s only so much time and so much truly new stuff that nobody wastes a moment on anything they are remotely familiar with.

Sometimes, even when you are jarringly aware of the gravity of what you’re looking at, you don’t know what to do with the experience. Here I was, looking at the Ghia/de Tomaso P70. Not only is this a historically significant car, but a thing of jaw-dropping beauty. But it took me only a minute or two snap the few photos I could that didn’t include some guy’s backside, think to myself, Wow, this is cool, and…then what? There was nobody around sharing stories about its history or asking questions about it. It was just there. I moved on.

One problem with the scale of the show (actually, shows — the AAPEX repair parts and maintenance show down the street adds a third more square footage) is that the area to cover is so huge that even with multiple days to spend, you never lose the half-frantic fear you’re going to run out of time and miss something important. After a while, your eyes glaze over and you just walk up and down the rows, covering territory for the sake of covering territory. The other problem is that there are only so many vehicles you can see before they start to look the same:

So much lifting…

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…so much dropping.

Race cars…

…and more race cars.

So, what did stand out to me? Well, looking back on it, the list is rather random and inexplicable. Here, however, is a quick rundown of the moments when the malaise lifted and something took my breath away, at least a little:

Amongst the sea of perfectly sculpted bodies, buffed out chrome and miles-deep paint jobs, this Miata was refreshingly real, proudly wearing a few battle scars and looking very genuinely badass.

[Editors Note: That’s Mad Mike Whidett’s car. He sat down for a great episode of Driver on Driver. The video loads right in the post so if it doesn’t pop up right away just give it a moment.]

The custom show cars were mostly either cookie-cutter traditional or so outrageous that they didn’t impress me, but this purplelurptic T-bird hit just the right notes of flash and restraint, boldness and practicality. Wide whites and wires is not my usual taste, but they work for you, girl.

As I mentioned to Chris and Jason on an upcoming podcast (Thanks a ton for letting me sit in on a mic, guys!) I had never seen the LM Rally Fighter in the flesh, and didn’t think it was my cup of tea. I guess pictures don’t do it justice. After my close encounter, it has shot to the top of my want list. It didn’t hurt that the Local Motors guys were enthusiastic and eager to answer questions.

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Most of the bikes at SEMA were gaudily-painted, slammed Harley baggers with mile-wide floorboards that would drag in a 10-degree lean. But my disappointment evaporated when I stumbled on this year’s Victory Pike’s Peak bike. I probably spent more time examining every nook and cranny of this bike than nearly any car there. I guess I’m still a bike guy after all.

This Datsun 510 race car was sitting all by itself, no fancy display, no crowds pressed around it. It’s not cutting edge or radically extreme. But I came back to it at least three times. I love, love, love this car.

As more of a gearhead than a wheelman, I am not a huge fan of race series that put every driver in an identical car. I see the attraction of pitting driver against driver on equal terms, but I too much enjoy mechanical variety on the track. That being said, the 1450 lb./185 HP NASA NP01 spec car looks like a hell of a great idea. I wanted to get in it and drive.

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Jet Hot’s AWD ’32 roadster has been around for a couple of years, but it doesn’t make the differential poking out the front any less sexy. This was another car I went back to more than once.

I should point out that all I’ve mentioned here are the cars. Amazingly, nobody is actually there to buy cars, they’re just window dressing for the thousands of booths selling everything from ungodly expensive engine parts and complete suspension setups to vinyl wraps and diagnostic scanners. That adds a whole ‘nuther layer of brainwash solvent.

As I said earlier, in my two days there I also had to cover SEMA’s buttoned-down twin, the AAPEX show. Vegas Automotive Aftermarket Week is like a mullet: AAPEX is the business in the front, SEMA is the party in the back. AAPEX is full of vendors selling brake pads, lubricants, gaskets, and service bay equipment. Downstairs in the international section is a huge collection of 8’x8’ booths selling Asian copies of everything from gauges to engine blocks. For a lot of people, this bread-and-butter stuff is where their real money is made, but it’s not nearly as alluring as the stuff high-performance dreams are made of over at SEMA. Looking through my AAPEX photos, it’s telling that most of my photos are of the display booths, not the products themselves.

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Over at AAPEX was where I found my very favorite car of the entire trip, however, and it was not even the focus of the booth. Hunter Engineering Company was using this faux-carbon wrapped electric Cobra to demonstrate a pair of drive-over ramps that automatically measure tire tread depth. The sheer ingeniousness of an electric car you could drive back and forth indoors was matched by the delicious absurdity of building an electric Cobra. And from the view under the car, it was built for real, and had seen road use. This car was positioned in the foyer right outside of the convention hall entrance closest to my employer’s show booth, so I saw it repeatedly, and it made me smile every time.

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  • Andrew_theS2kBore

    Not gonna lie, if a money tree sprouted in my backyard the NP01 would be right at the top of my purchase list. Not because it’s the most accessible prototype race series (Radical’s had that covered for a while) but because NASA has a high standard of competence and competition that makes for worthwhile racing (Radical trophy has a reputation for harboring what are politely referred to as gentlemen drivers).

    • The Rusty Hub

      There are two of them on the 25 Hours of Thunderhill entry list, where they will compete with other prototypes in the ES or ESR class (I assume). I’m interested to see where they slot in because they should be more fuel-efficient but slower than the bigger P cars like the Radicals and the Wolfs and so forth.

      “…you never lose the half-frantic fear you’re going to run out of time and miss something important. After a while, your eyes glaze over and you just walk up and down the rows, covering territory for the sake of covering territory.”

      This is exactly how I spent 2 days at PRI last year in Indy. I had no idea what I should be doing or who I should be talking to and pretty soon the rows of billet everything just look the same.

  • Batshitbox

    That’s kind of how any car show or large museum experience goes. P.J. O’Rourke called it the Mortadella syndrome. Relatively few tasty morsels floating in a sea of baloney.
    Context, as you say, is important. A museum is something you can return to to pick up on the bits you glazed over the first time, unlike a car show. In both cases, though, if there’s no placards or docents there to explain why this car is in this show / museum, you’ll just look at it, take a picture, and walk away unenlightened.

    Different subject: Welcome to the world of really really wanting a Rally Fighter! You have the sickness, now start buying the lottery tickets.

  • bigredcavetroll

    Did you see Rusty?

    While I applaud that those trucks at least have solid axle swaps, everything else about them makes me rage inside with righteous fury.

    • No, but I did have dinner with Skitter, and as mentioned in the article, I also met Chris Hayes and Jason Conner for the first time.

    • No, but I did have dinner with Skitter, and as mentioned in the article, I also met Chris Hayes and Jason Conner for the first time.

      • bigredcavetroll

        No Mr. Rusty Slammington? That’s pretty cool that you got to meet those people though.

  • Cool_Cadillac_Cat

    I really want to take this to SEMA.

    http://dallas.craigslist.org/ftw/cto/5295094404.html

    …after I put a 502 in it.