I Snuck into SEMA and All I Got Were 3 Shirts, a Bunch of Lanyards, Some Stickers, and Great Memories…
[Editor’s Note: We don’t condone sneaking into SEMA. But… if someone is going to do it, we’ll hear their story. This is one of those stories.]
Every year the auto industry descends on the quaint desert oasis of Las Vegas, Nevada to throw a party disguised as a car show. It’s done in the only way we really know how to do things here — big, excessive, garish, and a little absurd. But at its heart, SEMA is a trade show for the automotive aftermarket, and I’ve even heard claims that business actually happens at the show. But I have no business there. As an enthusiast with a paltry social media following (and a physical therapist by trade), I’m the type of person they’re trying to keep out. I am the final consumer that clogs up the aisles taking pictures and swag. Despite my non-industry status, I’ve managed to find my way in every year since I moved to Las Vegas in 2010… but it is not getting any easier.
Last year, my go-to source of easily acquiring the coveted official badge to enter the show (which I cannot disclose here for obvious reasons) was starting to dry up. I knew I would have to scramble a little this year. My dad asked if I could get an extra pass for him. I was totally confident and jumped at the opportunity to spend a few days hanging out with him and sharing our common passion. Getting a badge to SEMA, however, is a bit like dealing in the black market. You can usually get what you need if you know where to look (and if you can pay). I eventually found someone who said she could get me two passes through her shop, for a price. Things looked promising until about ten days before the show when I was, as the kids say, ghosted.


In Vegas, a weird cottage industry develops a week or so before SEMA with counterfeit badges as well as the occasional extra real badge coming up for sale. Perhaps it’s more like the black market than I thought. With only days until SEMA, and my old man’s flight from Seattle purchased, I was really beginning to feel the crunch of not having passes. I contacted some acquaintances and scoured social media to find a pair of passes, and finally, the Friday before the show I secured a single pass that I was confident was real and could pick up the day of the show. I picked up the second badge which I was assured was legit in a dark corner of a mall parking lot Sunday night before the show.
On Tuesday morning, the first day of the show, as I grabbed my dad’s pass, I noticed that the badge holder looked a little different than years’ past. To my shock and disappointment, I realized that the pass was a well-done forgery. My only hope was that 1) the badge holder wouldn’t flip over backwards and give it’s true nature away, and 2) that event security would perform, as they had done in years’ past, a half-assed inspection for the proper holder. After we parked at the show, we walked to the north end of the convention center, a huge sprawling complex with three separate halls. I picked up my pass and we gawked at some of the Optima Ultimate Street Car finalists—which are honestly some of my favorite vehicles at SEMA because I know they are streetable, beautiful, and capable on the track.
We walked to the entrance of North Hall, where there was a noticeable increase in security, likely as a result of the mass shooting at the beginning of October. We passed through bag check. I noticed the event security personnel were scrutinizing the badges with a black light and my heart sank. I was positive my pass was real, but the counterfeit pass I had obtained for my dad would surely be found out and our day would end before it even started. I started formulating my plan for what we would do once we were kicked out, but much to my surprise, the old man passed through without a hiccup, and we were officially in the show. I wish I could say we infiltrated the show with the same ease and style of James Bond or the Ocean’s Eleven crew, but considering that we were just lucky to be there, we decided to take what we could get. We quickly passed through the hall to the area between North and Central Halls to pick up a scooter (three-plus decades as an industrial mechanic have taken their toll on the big guy’s back and legs) and our badges were examined once again before leaving North Hall. I was excited and relieved that the counterfeit had successfully passed muster twice!

While waiting in line in for the scooter, two security guards standing a few feet away began chatting about all the counterfeit badges they have found this year as a result of the extra security measures. Deciding not to press our luck too much, our next course of action was to head into Central Hall. This isthe main hall with most of the exhibitors and the crazy builds so we could see more with fewer badge checks. But after walking through the door, I turned around, and immediately knew that the jig was up. They caught the fake badge, and after all the trouble we got 90 minutes into the day before we were relegated to the public areas like the other folks.

[Image courtesy of Hunter Swift]

That’s not to say there was nothing for us to see. The public part of the show, found down seldom seen hallways and in semi-hidden parking lots, in addition to Ford’s drifting and Raptor jumping demonstrations out front and the displays around it, and the DUB Experience, were more than enough to keep us busy for the next five hours. I love the DUB experience because that is usually were the most off-the-wall stuff is displayed. Overall, we saw some terrific builds (and some not-so-terrific machines) and I was able to shake hands with BJ Baldwin, as well as have a brief chat with Bill Caswell about how the E36’s interior is a steaming pile of scheisse. I snapped a ton of pictures and got a little sunburnt, and all-in-all it was a successful day.
Still, we wanted more. I contacted my last two options for a second pass. Both of which were guaranteed to not be counterfeit and were able to be picked up that night.

The next day, we arrived at the show with the plan to cover every inch of the inside, since we’d covered every inch of the outside the day before. Golden tickets in hand, we passed through security without an issue and entered what can best be described as an auto enthusiast’s version of Willy Wonka’s factory: an immersive experience that overwhelms the senses, only with beautiful models standing in for the Oompa Loompas. By the end of the day, we’d covered the majority of the show. It was like a trip to Disneyland, except I was the one who was having fun (instead of my kids, bless them); my legs and hips were incredibly sore, and I earned a slight limp. I had also collected a handful of stickers, lanyards, posters, a few shirts, and I got a picture with Magnus Walker. By the end, I struggled with physical and mental fatigue, my crappy photos weren’t framed nearly as well, and every vehicle started to look the same, but Day 2 was also a roaring success for us, and well worth the effort.

I’m reasonably certain that the city was planning to tighten up security regardless of recent incidents. The shooting on October 1st stole some of the city’s naiveté (Las Vegas doesn’t have innocence). It’s sad to see how something so horrible continues to have ripple effects in something even so basic as a car show. 
I think the general theme for this year was “what’s old, is new” with more classic car and truck builds than I’ve seen in years prior. While some vehicles are absolute masterpieces—my favorites were Magnus’ Porsches (we’re buddies now, he gave me a sticker) and Icon’s ’58 Rolls—there are some cars/trucks that, like me, probably snuck in under false pretenses and simply didn’t belong.
There are so many people. Everywhere. However busy you imagine it being, double it, and it gets bigger and busier every year. Finally, with everything offered outside, along with “SEMA Ignited” on the last night of the show, enthusiasts can get 80 percent of the SEMA experience without setting foot inside the restricted areas.

Like usual, my SEMA experience as an outsider was wonderful. I met some celebrities, added to my lanyard and free t-shirt collection, spent two solid days with my pops having a great time and talking cars, and didn’t think about work for a change — it’s a mini vacation.