There are times in life that I have often thought, what am I doing here? It may sound strange, but, that questions comes up pretty often for me. Having had several years of travel and constantly going to events and happenings, I have learned that the question is one that has always fascinated me. It is a question that I think about every time I go to a new event or place. In all of the years that I have been doing photography I am still constantly surprised by where it has taken me. I have worked in some awesome places and with some incredible people, and all the while I ask that question to myself. You may be thinking that this sounds kind of strange, and the truth is, that it kind of is.
You see, several years ago, now almost ten years ago, I was part of a car club. Now that I am putting this down in writing, it’s hard to believe how long it’s been. Either way, I own a 1990 Nissan 300ZX. Before you go about asking, yes, it is a twin-turbo, and yes, I have had numerous mechanical and electrical problems with it. But, regardless of all of that, it is a car that I am infatuated with. In fact, I can honestly say that I love that car more than my children. Considering I don’t have any children, it’s a pretty easy thing for me to say. But, that’s neither here nor there. Anywho, back in the early 2000’s after purchasing that car, I ended up joining a 300ZX club. Being around like minded people was something that I have always enjoyed being a part of, and considering it was for my newest chariot, it seemed like a no-brainer to join. While I lived in Orange County, the monthly club meetings took place in Los Angeles. It may have been far to go out that way, but, when you love something, you do whatever it takes to be a part of it. Every time those meetings came around I had a lot of fun. Most of the time my car was out of commission, but, having befriended some of the guys there, I was fortunate enough to be able to ride with them and still be able to talk cars. It was a really nice time. We were from all different backgrounds and places, but, the one thing that brought us together was the ‘Z’. There was one guy there though that left an impression with a lot of us guys there. This guy was a fellow 300ZX owner, and he used to enchant us with stories of his adventures in photography. He used to tell us about models that he used to shoot with his car and all the crazy stories of things that used to happen. It used to sound pretty far fetched to me. But, then again, I didn’t really know him. Plus, a lot of the other members had worked on a group photoshoot with one of his models. Again, it seemed so far fetched, that I didn’t know what to think. Well, that was the case until he arrived to one of our meets with a book full of pictures of his cars (on top of the sweet 300ZX he owned, he also owned a C5 Corvette Z06. Boy were those cars awesome and I couldn’t have been more jealous) and all of the models he had taken pictures of. It turned out that he was telling the truth, and to be honest, seeing the pictures that he had taken (of which they were all incredible), intrigued me.
That was the spark that got me interested once again in photography. You see, before I got into photography (not long after that meeting with my buddy Rich, whom had photographed some scrum-diddly-umptious models), I was shooting for an entertainment company in Hollywood. While I loved models and going to the events that we were covering, I wasn’t too happy with the way we were doing it. It was the age of film, and I hated shooting and waiting for the results. I wasn’t too experienced at shooting any photos at the time, so, it frustrated me to work in the way that we did it. Sometimes I would have to wait a week or so just to see the pictures that I had taken. Yes, for all of you younger folks, there was a time that digital photography didn’t exist for the masses, and the wait time to see a photo was crazy. For a lot of people, the days of film were the good old days. That statement doesn’t hold true in my books though. I guess in the day and age in which we live, in which we have instant access to the photos we had just taken, and the ability to adjust what we need is something we take for granted now. I was at a friend’s house a few months ago and noticed a camera on his coffee table. I was a little tipsy (feel free to judge me if you will, but, then again, it was a party, hehe) and had been eyeing that camera the entire night. I was daring several drinks in and asked my friend if I could take some pictures with the camera. He was ecstatic and said that I could. There was film loaded and I took one picture. I was so eager to see the picture that I tilted the camera forward and looked at the back of it. I started laughing when I realized that this camera wasn’t from the digital era and I was looking at a plain backing to the camera. Yeah, we have it pretty good nowadays. But, that on top of a few other things had pushed me away from photography. I hung up my camera strap and didn’t really feel an urge to shoot again.
But, that all changed when I saw the pictures that Rich had shown our group. I remember asking him the next day about how he got into that line of work and how I could go about doing the same thing. I could sit here and say that my motivation behind the whole thing was for the art of photography, but, the truth is, I loved cars and I loved women. That combination was a little bit like chocolate and peanut butter for me, and that was, for all intent and purposes, the spark that lit the fire. I started to shoot events and work with many models over the years, and my network of people grew and grew. The final piece of the puzzle of life though, happened when I entered the military. Over the course of my ten years in the Air Force, I spent a lot of time traveling and getting to know the world. I always had wanted to document where I went, so, without even thinking of it, the camera I used for photoshoots came with me. Those years opened up a world for me, and seeing just how far down the rabbit hole went became an obsession. While it didn’t start out that way, the photography that I was doing became a joy to do, and one of the things I enjoyed most was telling a story. But, part of telling that story that became difficult, was learning how to get where I wanted, and how to tell it in a way that made sense.
Years down the road and numerous shows later I stood at the gates to SEMA asking myself that same question that I ask any time I am in a place I can’t believe. “How did I get here?”. SEMA was something of a dream for me for well over a decade. I remember hearing about SEMA back in 2003 when I worked at Autozone. SEMA and the tales I had heard surrounding it made it seem like something of a myth. Everyone and their mother wanted to go to SEMA, but, so few people were able to go (at least people that I knew at least). I mean, how the hell could we get in? While we were in the industry, SEMA was something that we couldn’t even fathom about attending. A little over ten years later, I would be going to SEMA for the first time, and with a little help from my friends, and my stubborn attitude, I finally was able to enter the halls of the most hallowed of car events. SEMA 2015 would be the first time that I would be able to head to this massive show, and it would mark a new era not only for me, but, for the magazine that I had started several years back. Up until 2015 I had tried to get into the event for two years, and both times I was rejected from attending. But, the third time was a charm, and finally after more than a decade in wait, I would finally be able to cover the event that I had been anticipating for a long time. While I did write up an article concerning that last show over a year ago (if you would like to see that article, check our our AUTO section for more on that) detailing what that first show was like, I knew that this time around, it would be a different beast all together. Boy, that couldn’t have been truer for SEMA 2016.
This show was on my radar since the one last year had ended. Less than a year out, I was more than excited for this show to come. SO much so that I couldn’t contain myself and the planning for it started many months before. This time would be even more special though as I would be at SEMA for more than one day this time around. That’s a story in and of itself. Last year I was only able to cover SEMA for a day and this time around it would be for a lot longer. This time around I would be accompanied by some new members to our Spektrum team, so, it would be a very different adventure than it was before. Little did I know all of the mayhem that we would get ourselves into, and all of the incredible people that we would meet.
The trip to SEMA began on Halloween day at 4 in the morning. We didn’t know if we would be running into the normal mass exodus of vehicle traffic that tends to plague Southern California. But, having worked out a plan to leave to Las Vegas in the early morning, we hit the road mighty early. Luckily for us, the traffic was even less than what we had planned, and within an hour or so, we were out of the Inland Empire and well on our way to Victorville. The drive to Vegas was calm and serene. But, during the drive we managed to see a few flatbeds and trailers hauling some of the cars that would undoubtedly be making their way to the Las Vegas Convention Center. While the crew and I were no doubt barely recovering from our lack of REM sleep, it was seeing things like those cars that began to amp us up more and more. It also helped that we made a quick stop in Baker (which is always a welcome treat) for some gas and some goodies. As a beef jerky fiend, I love to make the stop at Alien Jerky whenever I make the trip out that way. But, being so early in the morning, I didn’t know if it would be open. Luckily it was, and other than the selfies we took with our new alien compadres, we stocked up on some more food for the road. It was delicious to say the least, and this belly full of jerky and a tankful of gas would help propel our fat bodies further into the desert in search of cars, trucks, gadgets and beautiful people. This day would be awesome, and we knew it.
Less than two hours later, we would arrive in Sin City. With billboards featuring Terry Fator (to this day, I still don’t know who that is, nor do I want to. Perhaps it’s a bad thing to say, but, you know…..eh, I got nothing) and architecture ripped from some of the most recognizable landmarks in the world (sometimes in miniature form too). But, as much as we would have loved to sit back and take in the sights (especially with the beautiful weather that we were treated to), we knew that we would be going in for the kill. We would be going to the mecca of car events in the United States, and a place that so many people lust after. If the scene wasn’t set already then it surely would be the closer we got to convention center.
We arrived in Vegas with enough time to check into our hotel and drop off the stuff we didn’t need at the show. That worked out well, because, the last thing we wanted was to have a car full of equipment and our undies get snatched. I had my car broken into earlier in the year (more than likely by a neighbor as well) and the possibility of it happening again has been on my mind ever since. But, it ended up working out great. We dropped off our stuff and headed right over to convention center. Considering it was a Monday morning, and it was Halloween really made me wonder what we were going to see. It was also media day at the show and while I must admit I did not even know what that meant, I was thinking that we would have free reign of the show grounds (before all of the crowds) a day before the show would open officially. Boy, oh boy, I could not have been more wrong about this. I mean. I guess I should have known that things might not have been ready when I saw trailers of cars being hauled on our way to Vegas. But, alas, considering this was only my second time to SEMA, and being there for more than one day, I couldn’t have fully anticipated what we would get.
Upon arriving at the convention center, we were greeted with cars upon cars still being parked and cleaned, as well as a massive amount of displays not set up yet. Wait. So, was this what media day was? Does this mean that we have free reign of the halls and the perimeter while still under construction? In a word, no. Wait, so, you are saying that we made the effort to come our a day early and would not be able to see things as we would the next day. Yeah, pretty much. To our surprise, media day wasn’t really for media after all. It only meant that we could pick up our badges and be ready for the next day. While you would think that this would be disappointing, you would be wrong. I actually like getting to see the behind-the-scenes moments. Being able to see huge events like this, but, from behind the walls has been part of what drives me in this industry. I remember right after we had picked up our badges we had walked into one of the show halls (sadly, it was the only hall we were able to get into) nearby. It was definitely still under construction, and off limits to the media (yup, we were not allowed anywhere but here, and I think it was by pure luck that we were able to get into this hall), but, seeing unopened boxes and stage parts scattered all over the place was really awesome. We don’t get to see (or should I say, don’t really think much of) all of the hard work that goes into putting together events such as SEMA, but, the people that put these things together work really hard. I definitely witnessed that when we were walking through the Upper South Hall (custom parts for trucks, SUV’s and off-road vehicles) and noticed two guys sleeping behind the booth that they were building. Knowing that we too work events and the work that goes behind the things you see at an event, I could totally relate to them. So, I have to give credit to all of the maintenance crews that do what they do. It is, in a lot of ways, a thankless job, so, I have to give kudos where it is warranted.
But, upon seeing that we were not going to be able to cover SEMA a day early like we wanted to (part of that had to do with the unfinished nature of the show we did not want to photography), we decided to walk around and see what we could expect. It was in this upper floor that we saw two vehicles that would instantly grab our attention. These two vehicles looked a lot like a cross between an SUV and a military half-track. We had never seen anything like this before, and I knew we just had to stop. We were instantly intrigued by the flat black and brown paint and hardcore nature of the body styles. Even without knowing what it was, it was so cool that I just had to know more. It turns out that these two vehicles were called the Rhino GX and the Rhino XT and they are by a Southern California based company named US Specialty Vehicles. It sounds like a bit of a mouthful, but, seeing the booth set-up that day (which was easily one of the simplest that we had seen the entire time at SEMA) and the clean look of the vehicles it was a stunning display of might and metal. We just happened to be in an area we probably shouldn’t have been (well, at least not until the show would open the next day), but, if we wouldn’t have been daring that morning, then we would have never ended up having the opportunity to see these two vehicles, nor have had the opportunity to talk to the company reps themselves. It was nice getting to know a little bit about the backstory on them, and the next day, we would be treated to a one-on-one interview with the reps. Seeing these machines up close proved to be a real treat. And knowing that the company behind them stood mere miles from our headquarters, it made us even more interested. I could definitely see myself in one of these with all of the windows rolled down and wearing several fat LL Cool J gold chains. One would definitely feel important riding in one of these luxury utility vehicles.
As awesome as that was (and indeed it really was), this was only the first hall, on the first day, in the first hour of SEMA. There was a lot more to see. Just that small walk into the building provided us with glimpses of some of the most extreme builds that I had ever seen. Some of those cars were so extreme that it is hard to classify them as cars. With hollowed out shells of their former chassis and sometimes a bit of a mish-mosh of engine parts from any and all places, it is very easy to be distracted by the craziness all around you. That is why, at least for the moment, we were happy that the show would be starting the following day. SEMA is one of those shows that one should be eased into. I learned last year that there is no point in trying to do or experience all of it at once. There is so much to see that it is a bit of sensory overload. I had experienced it once before, but, for the new guys that were with me on this trip, it would be a new experience for them. Perhaps it would be better to take it easy that first day. After all, I knew what it was going to be the next day. Even writing this I feel as though I need a drink in order to sit back and get in the mindset that is SEMA. Not in a bad way of course. But, just thinking about how I could get through the show without my head spinning. Ah yes. Maybe that’s the reason this whole thing takes place in Vegas. After the chaos that is the show, maybe it is better to unwind the rest of the night. I’m not saying that I did (or am I? There’s no way I’m telling. haha), but, hosting this show in the city that never sleeps is in many ways a blessing. Besides, knowing that I can get some food at all hours of the night is one of the things that my fat body can’t pass up.
The next day would start out innocent enough. A simple breakfast at a Burger King near our hotel provided us with some needed food for the day. While it wasn’t my first choice of breakfast, it would be enough to get me through the first part of the morning. A little bit of caffeine injected into my blood supply would add that little bit of boost I would need as well. Instead of making the thirty mile walk from our hotel, we opted to park at the Venetian and take a shuttle over to the convention center. Just like last year, the AAPEX show would be taking place at the same time as SEMA, and because of their close relationship to each other, they are linked by a shuttle system and the people that move from one show to the next. The AAPEX show in case you were wondering, is a showcase for manufacturers of parts, services and technologies. It is a totally separate show from SEMA, but, because it is automotive related, the two shows have been run in parallel. While I could go on about it, the truth is, that it is a fantastic show, and having it run alongside SEMA, it is extremely convenient to attend both.
Whatever the case, for this first day, we decided we would head back SEMA and tackle that beast head on. I was fully expecting it, and I was not surprised by the sheer chaos that was taking place at the convention center. Holy cow, the sheer amount of people scuttling around that morning was a complete turn around from the day before. It kind of reminds me a little of the time I went to Manhattan. I remember heading there (my first time out that way ever) on a Sunday and I couldn’t believe how calm and peaceful it was. It was actually nice being able to walk around Grand Central Station and a whole host of landmarks and not be bothered by a lot of people. Well, that whole thing fell apart the next day when the entire world descended into Manhattan. The world there was kicked up by a hundred, and everywhere I looked there were people running their proverbial asses off. It is that image that reminded me of what it was like the opening day of SEMA. Everywhere I looked it was as if people where whizzing by me at light speed. It was incredible and something that has to be seen to be believed. The level of energy pulsing through the streets of Vegas that morning were nearly identical to what I saw in New York and boy was it awesome. The rat race that is SEMA had really begun, and just as in the day before, (but even moreso) the game was on.
The walk into the convention center became more and more crowded as we inched our way to it. All around us you could see more people with SEMA badges and with different colors underneath them. It’s pretty crazy, but, that is one of the things I enjoy doing. If you had never been to SEMA, or a trade show of this magnitude, then you can appreciate the amount of attendees that have made the trek from all over. SEMA (and AAPEX as well) both claim to be massive showcases for American products and tech, but, looking around you can easily see the effects of globalization. Walking through any hallway you are sure to see a person from Japan, Italy and Dubai at any given moment. How does one know that? Easy, the place they are coming from is displayed on their badge right under their name. It’s pretty awesome, and can make anyone fully appreciate the influence that this show has on the industry. So, walking to the show provides us with a glimpse of the people and personalities that are keymakers in their industries. It is awesome, and really what this show is all about. Knowing that in a few moments that one could talk to any of these powerhouses is a really nice feeling. It also helps that while as overwhelming as it may seem, this is only the first day of an entire week that people have to experience the event. With over a million square feet of showroom floor, even that entire week seems like not enough.
Just as I did last year, I decided to head to the South Hall. While I started there last year, primarily because it was closes to where media registration was, it only seemed fitting to go to the place we knew and loved. Not to mention that there were going to be people in that hall that I knew and would love to see. One of those people was our team member Hanna. While she was there with another company (I know, it’s always sad to see her go with another company, but, a girl has got to eat, and it was nice to see a familiar face. Especially one of our incredible teammates), we stopped for a minute and chatted with her. Since I was accompanied by two of our incredible video guys, we decided to do a quick interview. Now, sadly this will be the only time you hear of this interview. I don’t normally like to call people out (and I won’t by name), it was the company whom she was working with that said a few things to us that didn’t really sit well with us. Not to mention that out of at least twenty reps, not a single person wanted to go on camera. It was weird to say the least, but, probably one of the biggest bummers of the show. To be honest, now that I think about it, it was the only irksome moment of the entire show.
It was okay though, and moving on from that moment opened up what became one of the best showgoing experiences that I have ever had. Just in that South Hall alone we were witness to some of the most incredible cars I had ever seen. Some of those were straight up concept cars with missing guts, but, boy, the amount of work that had gone into them was unbelievable. One of those experiences was talking to rotary car builder Rob Dahm. Seeing the insane 4-rotor RX-7 show car at the Garett Turbo booth was one of those highlighted cars. With just a simple question, we were given an opportunity to talk to Rob and the lead builder on the car. It’s one thing to see the videos on the internet, but, seeing it in person and talking to the people behind the scenes opens up a lot of excitement. Not even two seconds from that, we turned around and had a chance to talk to model, car builder and driver, Bear Dellinger. We had no idea it was her, but, when a beautiful girl is sitting there wanting to talk to you about turbos (I mean, who doesn’t want to hear about turbos?), you take it upon yourself to listen. I was stunned to see her work. She was made for the cameras. Just seeing her talk about the products and show to us the knowledge she had about that turbo line really impressed us. More than just a pretty face, Bear really showed us how versatile she was. If we were located closer to the East Coast where she is located, I would do anything to bring her into the team. That is a real personality that shines the more you hear her speak. Just awesome.
One of the interviews that we were fortunate enough to be a part of was one that we did not expect. While talking to a vendor about one of the crazy vehicles by slingshot, we were invited to a media only event for Prestone. Prestone is a company that produces coolant and coolant related products. While I did not know what the event was about, I and my other companions that day decided to make the trek over to their booth when the time hit. Little did we know that celebrity host Rutledge Wood would be there as well as legendary car builders, the Ring Brothers. We are always open to learning about the newest products and what they do, but, being able to be the few amongst our contemporaries to be at that meeting, we were very honored. I took a shot in the dark after the presentation to ask the Ring Brothers for an interview, and we were lucky enough to be granted one. Not only would we be able to chat with them on camera, but, we would do so inside of the sweet Winnebago that they had just built. It was an enormous honor, and getting to know those guys first hand really made us respect them. As with any of the interviews and meetings we had throughout the show, I had to look up these people afterwards. Not only because I needed to know a little bit about them when writing this article, but, because I really wanted to know about who they were. It’s not often at a lot of events that I go to that the people behind the scenes want to sit back and take time out of their busy days to chat with us at the expense of other media members. It was during those moments and afterwards that I was most appreciative of the opportunities afforded to us at the show. Kudos also to the publicists that aided us in working out those interviews.
Every hall after the South was awash in both talent and beautiful machinery. It is a show that I enjoy going to more and more every time that I have gone, and one that makes me lust after so many of the car parts on display. Whether it is the newest set of coilovers by KW, or the newest line of paints by House of Kolor, there are so many parts to see and want to know more about. As a huge fan of cars and pretty much anything automotive related, this show is something that needs to be exactly what it is. If there isn’t something there that you absolutely positively have to covet, then, you are at the wrong show. Everything on display at this show is made by car lovers, for car lovers. It’s easy to see that all of the items, cars and products on display are here to make their future shipment to someone’s house. SEMA is a place where the world comes to see all of the new things that they know you want. There could be no better show, and walking around those packed halls day after day, no better people to be around. If you love cars and anything related to it, then this show is for you. Going to an event such as this as a reporter, it’s easy to get lost in all of the chaos that goes on. But, if you sit back and take each thing that is happening one by one, then SEMA can become one of the best experiences you will ever be a part of. As incredible as last year was, I was totally unprepared for how much better this year would be. Taking a page from the advice I gave myself, I decided to take this show a little easier and appreciate it part by part. As you can see by some of the pictures, it is easier to admire all of the things taking place on that crazy week in Las Vegas. This past show marked the 50th anniversary of SEMA. If this last event was any indication to us, then I can easily see it going for another 50. What a show SEMA. What a show!
Be sure to check out our new Youtube Channel to see some of the interviews and things that we saw during the 50th anniversary of SEMA. One of the most insane shows that we went to back in 2016!
Words and Photos By Daniel Navarrete
For more information on SEMA and the SEMA Show check out their website at https://www.semashow.com/
This article was prepared or accomplished by Daniel Navarrete in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spektrum Magazine, or its affiliates.