SEMA: 2,000 Vendors, but One Star
THE clock was rapidly approaching midnight last Monday when 50 members of the Brazilian news media arrived, unannounced, at the “Overhaulin’” television show’s set outside the 2007 Specialty Equipment Market Association trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. “We wish to see Chip Foose,” one of the members said to a security officer. The guard went inside the tent that housed the set, and a few minutes later Mr. Foose appeared and politely welcomed them inside. The amiable Mr. Foose admitted to having some trouble telling people no.
“How do you guys know me?” Mr. Foose asked.
“Subtitles,” shouted a man in the back of the scrum. “‘Overhaulin’’ runs on Sao Paolo television with subtitles.”
That’s nothing, said Peter McGillivray, SEMA’s vice president of marketing and communications. In Mexico, he said, the show, on which older cars are picked at random for a full-body makeover, features an actor dramatically over-dubbing Mr. Foose’s voice in Spanish. The program’s network, Discovery Channel, distributes it worldwide.
“Chip Foose, in a lot of ways, is our worldwide ambassador for this industry,” Mr. McGillivray said. “When I met with Emerson Fittipaldi, the Formula One champion, in Rio recently, the first thing he asked me — the very first thing — was, ‘Do you know Chip Foose?’ People ask about him everywhere we go.”
Mr. Foose is, arguably, the closest thing the auto industry has to a design superstar. Increasingly, he plays a major role in setting the tone at this annual extravaganza for aftermarket parts companies, industry executives, dealers, buyers and journalists.
The show has the attention of the mainstream auto industry, which has begun using SEMA to introduce production vehicles — for example, Toyota’s showing of its 2009 Corolla and Matrix models. SEMA officials estimated that more than 100,000 people would attend the show, where auto industry engineers, dreamers and backyard mechanics display new ideas, extreme creations and envelope-pushing customizations.
The SEMA show is an idea farm, and no one seems to have more fertile ideas than Mr. Foose. From a design standpoint, SEMA is very much “The Chip Foose Show.” AutoWeek magazine describes the million-plus square feet of show floor here as “Foosetopia.”
Google the words “Foose” and “SEMA” and you will get more than 193,000 hits.
Last year, Mr. Foose had at least 30 vehicles on display, which SEMA characterized as a record for a single individual. This year, organizers were unsure of the total number of Foose-designed vehicles here, but they conceded he had more than exhibitors with the next highest totals: the Ford Motor Company with 25 and General Motors with 28.
The show opened on Monday, as Mr. Foose and his sleep-deprived band of helpers started a marathon five-day, round-the-clock “live build” of a 1954 Ford in their combination tent, studio and theater. The car started as a dowdy four-door sedan and was destined to end up as a swank two-door convertible by the time the show closed on Friday.
When the show re-opened early Tuesday morning, after his midnight visit from the Brazilians, Mr. Foose presided over the introduction of a 1,000-horsepower propane-powered 1970 Chevelle street rod he had designed. Twenty minutes later, Mr. Foose was at the Ford pavilion showing his design of a Ford Flex concept car. Just a few feet behind Mr. Foose at the Ford display was a long line of life-size models of Hot Wheels toy cars come to life, including a far-out surf van designed by (are you spotting a trend here?) Mr. Foose.
Even vehicles on display here that have not been designed by Mr. Foose tend to look as if he had at least influenced them.
In addition to SEMA, Mr. Foose has also been working on nonautomotive industrial designs, including a Detroit hotel and casino complex.
So when does Mr. Foose sleep?
“I made a New Year’s resolution this year to get at least a little sleep each night,” he said in an interview. “I managed to do pretty well on that resolution, except for a couple of missed nights, until ‘Overhaulin’ ’ went back on the air last month.” He said that when he finally got some sleep last Saturday night, “I had been up since Tuesday.”
Mr. Foose’s “Overhaulin’,” which was a backdrop to the SEMA show, was just the show within the show. A record 2,000 vendors participated this year and more than 2,200 products were introduced.
“It has grown to truly international in scope,” Mr. McGillivray said. “Our first year, back in 1967, we had 98 vendors, and all of them came from the same ZIP code.”
At least 30 countries were represented this year and that includes more than 100 Chinese aftermarket vendors.
Nevertheless, SEMA retains its all-American character.
“I still maintain that our show is the largest collection of U.S. manufacturers you will find in any industry, at any trade show, anywhere in the world,” Mr. McGillivray said.
And, despite a widening presence at SEMA of the major automakers, and superstars like Mr. Foose, Carroll Shelby, and a variety of entertainers, like the rapper 50 Cent, Mr. McGillivray said, “SEMA is still about the little guys.”
Indeed, for a relatively modest amount of money, in some cases a few hundred dollars, just about anyone can rent booth space. Mr. McGillivray told a story about a man he met last year here. “He was down and out. He had lost everything in a divorce. He was living in his car. But then he got this idea, after seeing some motocross riders trying to load their bikes in the back of their pickups. And he built this ladder-type ramp. He rented a booth here last year, and this year he has contracted with Toyota for it, and his ramp is on display at the Toyota booth.”
There were more Horatio Alger stories in this still-young industry. Even Mr. Foose told how, when he was 14 years old, the movie director Ridley Scott saw some of his early sketches for futuristic vehicles.
“Mr. Scott said, ‘I want to use these,’ ” Mr. Foose recalled, “ ‘in a movie I’m making called “Blade Runner.” ’ ”