They say “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” but that no longer applies when the SEMA show is in town. Last month, I took a trip to the City of Sin for an all-out barrage of ten foot tall pick-up trucks, diesel converted lead sleds and the intoxicating smoke of tire-decimating drifting events that all make up a piece of the world’s largest aftermarket automotive convention in the world. SEMA is the Specialty Equipment Market Association that holds this event every year at the Las Vegas Convention Center- one of the largest convention centers in the world. With nearly 2 million square feet of exhibit space, it is truly an automotive lover’s paradise, with custom cars and killer mods from wall to wall. While I was in Vegas, I decided to go big or go home (and I sure as hell wasn’t going home), by renting an Aston Martin DB9 cabriolet, thanks to the rockstar team at Enterprise Exotics rentals. We took the car on a scenic trip through the Valley of Fire for a photo shoot in the desert, on to the Hoover Dam and then visited Shelby American headquarters for a tour of the shop and museum. During our stay, we also ate our weight in prime rib from the Steakhouse at Circus Circus, the best damn Caribbean food and drinks I’ve ever had from Bahama Breeze, and nacho lovers absolutely MUST visit Nacho Daddy, right off the strip. Vegas is any foodie’s dream come true, and while I’m no culinary critic, I can appreciate the difference in an $8 meal and a $100 one. This was my first time in Las Vegas (as well as SEMA), and it certainly did not disappoint.
For those of you that live vicariously through instagram and facebook during SEMA, I feel you. I really do. For 10 years I drooled and pined for the day that I would be the one taking all those photos of badass cars built by these amazingly talented people, dreaming of one day, even taking my own build to the show. The one thing I can tell you, is that SEMA is nothing like it seems in photos. Let me reiterate the fact that Las Vegas’ convention center is almost 2 million square feet, on top of all the exhibits and vehicles outside the building. In four days, you haven’t even come close to seeing every vehicle, cool product or meeting all your favorite builders and celebrities.
We were up by 6 am every morning, and sometimes even 4 am, rushing to make sure we had everything we needed for the day. Camera bag? Check. Spare batteries and memory cards? Check. Convention center map? Check. Pants? Oh, right…. I knew I was forgetting something. Silly me. There also may have been some sparring for the next spot in line at McDonald’s. Luckily, no one died from their injuries; bandaids came free with the purchase of a McGriddle. After scarfing down some breakfast, we headed down the street among the throngs of other SEMA-goers, cameras and passes in hand. As soon as we turned the corner, it was like the Texas State Fair of cars on steroids. Giant blow up spray bottles of Mother’s polish and Coker tires and miles of trailers line the front of the convention center. Off to the right, Ford is doing drifting ride-alongs with ’65 Cobras, GT350s, Focus RSs, and even Vaughn Gittin and Jack Roush Jr. are out there with the RTR and Roush Mustangs tearing up the asphalt. The squealing tires and scent of burnt fuel titillate your senses and feed your mounting adrenaline rush as you walk up into the main hall. There are endless cars and people everywhere you look.
Attending SEMA for the first time is like having dial-up internet and trying to download a full-length 4k movie: your brain hamster is sprinting furiously, trying to keep up with the demand, before overheating and finally collapsing in an exhausted heap onto the hotel room floor way earlier than would be considered appropriate in Vegas. Now imagine you are that hamster. Careful planning is the key to successful SEMA attendance. You will not have the time (or frankly, the energy) to see every car or celebrity there. Before you even pack your bags, make a list of the brands and builders you absolutely can’t leave without seeing, and plan your days accordingly. That was our mistake this year; jumping into it without a clue of what we were doing. But, even so, I was able to meet my automotive hero, Chip Foose, and see some of the most badass builds you’ll ever find.
Among my favorites are the matte black and copper Cummins Caddy at the Wet Sounds Marine Audio booth, built by Hot Rod Restos from British Columbia. Featuring a 5.9 twin turbo Cummins, one-ton suspension and hydro boost braking, this boat hauler is as functional as it is a showstopper. Another unique car was this 1972 Datsun 510 powered by a 13B Mazda rotary engine. The amount of care and detail that went into this build is simply inspiring. Owner Phil Blottie found the car rusting in a field and in 2013, began working his magic on it. All in all, everything about SEMA is an incredibly overwhelming experience, but one that you would certainly do all over again, every year, for the rest of your life, with amassing enthusiasm.
On day three of our trip, we had the pleasure of cavorting around in the desert with the stunningly beautiful DB9. The Valley of Fire was the perfect backdrop to contrast the sophisticated lines of the Aston’s body. As a photographer, the Valley of Fire is a definite must-visit. Rent yourself a cool car and maybe that snazzy lens you’ve been dying to try and go for a drive. You’ll come out with some amazing shots. I went with Enterprise, but Hertz also has a performance and a luxury line, however they do not have nearly the selection or availability that Enterprise has. There are even some smaller rental places that have neat finds such as GT350s, Vipers or I even found a company that had a 1965 Cobra. The smaller places rent for a lot more money, with limited mileage, and they go by hours, whereas Enterprise and Hertz rent by the day, with unlimited mileage. With that being said; here’s the results of the shoot:
On the way back into town, we hit up Shelby American and took their tour of the museum and the shop. The tour guide is a walking encyclopedia of everything Carroll Shelby and Ford-related. Even Shelby’s grandson, Aaron, was there. Hearing the two of them talking about memories and his mannerisms just makes you feel all the more sentimental coming from people who actually knew him. I also thought it was pretty cool that they avoid being labeled an automotive manufacturer by producing rolling chassis’ separate from the engine. They do not produce a single complete vehicle, otherwise, they would have a whole slew of regulations and limitations to comply with, thus losing their freedom to create the awesome vehicles we know and love.
In hindsight, five days was not enough time to truly experience Las Vegas and SEMA together. If you’re planning a trip for next year, make sure to schedule in a few extra days before or after the convention to explore Vegas the right way. Pack your most comfortable shoes, a few extra memory cards and a full bank account (you’ll need it). There’s plenty to do and even more to eat, so again, the best advice I can give you: plan everything. By all means, make sure to leave some space for spontaneity, but don’t wing it completely like we did. I am already planning a future trip to go back and enjoy everything I missed!