Auto Shows May Be Dying, But SEMA Is Picking Up the Pieces

SEMA is continuing to connect with enthusiasts and branching out into public events in the face of auto shows' slow downward spiral.

The 2023 SEMA show is long in the mirror, but I’m still thinking about it. For years, it’s been an interesting fixture in our funny little business, and often the originator of memes like the Overfender Nationals and Bluetooth Driveshafts. But for all the years I’ve been following the show, and the few that I’ve gotten to attend, there is no doubt: This year was pivotal. And it made the future of the aftermarket look brighter than ever.

Yes, despite the pockets of hysteria surrounding tuners getting nabbed for emissions violations and the inevitable takeover of EVs and hybrids, it honestly feels like there’s been no better time to be a car enthusiast with a desire to tinker. The parts have never been better, the support and knowledge are endless, and even the crop of cars to choose from are some of the strongest of any era. Where the likes of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru WRX STI have departed, there’s still the Toyota GR Corolla and Supra, Subaru BRZ, and Hyundai Elantra N. And if new cars aren’t your bag, companies are still developing parts for the old stuff, too.

The packed show floor at SEMA 2023. SEMA

All of that came together at SEMA. It was packed full of people and parts, more than any one person could process. In the three days I spent, I couldn’t cover everything despite the 25,000 steps I walked per day. But it was truly a modder’s paradise. Anything and everything you could think of was on display, ready to be played with, with reps from each company ready to answer questions and walk you through the process of designing and manufacturing the part. The sheer scale of the aftermarket in 2023 is a sight to behold, and the numbers reflect it.

No Taxation Without Representation

According to SEMA, the American automotive aftermarket is a $336 billion business. SEMA member companies collectively contribute 1.3 million jobs, pay over $40 billion in taxes, and dole out $104 billion in wages and benefits. It’s a business similar in size to the colossal gaming industry, and according to SEMA President and CEO Mike Spagnola, bigger than the aircraft, motion picture, and wine industries, and “nearly as big as the beer industry.”

The assembled aftermarket at the SEMA Awards Banquet. SEMA

Despite this, the aftermarket’s relationship with legislative bodies has been adversarial and difficult up until recently. SEMA has been taking steps to change that, including forming political action committees (PACs), lobbying legislators, and working more closely with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to give the aftermarket more of a voice.

The result is the aftermarket being treated as less of a nuisance and more of a serious contributor to the American economy. Spagnola put it bluntly: “Money talks. And what we are to the total economy is important. We’re big.”

Alive and Well

The show floor at SEMA is always overwhelming to behold. The sheer scale of the show is one thing, and the amount of people crowding the show is another. The hum of human occupation is the background noise. Then bright lights, the sparkle of a chromed bumper, and beckoning of new parts make up the eye candy. But the true allure of the SEMA show floor is wandering, drunk on caffeine and exhaustion, and accidentally bumping shoulders with legends like Gale Banks.

And despite the turbulence of in-person car culture since the pandemic, SEMA is still the place where the best builders in the country go to show their cars. Central Hall, the true heart of the show, has no shortage of incredible cars from all genres. The Ringbrothers brought no less than three cars, while Industry Garage brought an incredible EV-swapped fully carbon-bodied S30-generation Nissan Z styled by modern Batmobile designer Ash Thorp.

Projects were alive and well, too. Apex’i brought a Toyota GR86 to the show floor that it then shipped directly to Global Time Attack for racing drivers Hana Burton and Maaya Orido to campaign the weekend after SEMA. YouTuber Tavarish brought his once-flooded McLaren P1 in semi-finished state, while Toyo Tires hosted a grouping of ridiculous cars, including a rebodied Ferrari 612 Scaglietti made to look like a 250 Testa Rossa and a widebody Merkur XR4Ti. Still, the overall vibe is leaning towards the track-ready and motorsport aesthetic.

Dan Reynolds and Imagine Dragons perform at SEMA Fest in Las Vegas on Nov. 4, 2023. Sam Morris/Getty Images

It was an incredible show that didn’t disappoint. And it’s evolving, quickly. SEMA Fest is aiming directly at fans and consumers who can’t get access to the industry-only show floor, while outside displays are getting replaced with drifting and burnout exhibitions.

For the time SEMA is in Vegas, it is the true center of the automotive universe. Even in its 60th anniversary as an organization, it has managed to stay relevant, important, and pivotal to the future of car enthusiasm. And when the show is over, SEMA’s work doesn’t stop.

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