Cars are core to our culture. Their beauty, performance, history, and how they express innovation and creativity: they’re an art form unto themselves. 

When SEMAShow – the Specialty Equipment Market Association Show, one of the biggest enthusiast gatherings in the world, all centered around specialty cars and aftermarket modifications – opens in Las Vegas next month, it will showcase the most coveted, cutting-edge innovations the extended car design community has to offer.

This week and next I’ll write about the SEMA conference. In “Throwback Thursday” tradition, we’ll look at the past – but also to the future as IoT, wearable technology, data (big and small), driverless vehicles, and other innovations rewire what “customization” will mean to us as drivers and to the automotive industry.

Today, we’ll tour a bit of SEMA history; next Thursday we’ll look at recent shows and the rise of digital innovation. Hope you enjoy.

– John Spar

I grew up immersed in motorsports, at close range to the violent thunder of Top Fuel engines and the thrill of all performance automobiles. Both of my parents were active in the racing world, so drag racing , hot rods, stock cars, motorcycles, and even open wheel Indy cars are practically in my DNA.

SEMA was a part of my history from the early days. My father’s early role in catalyzing the organization, which ultimately earned him one of SEMA’s first “Hall of Fame” inductions, pointed him squarely at a core purpose of the organization: supporting the culture and excitement around enhancing performance in all types of cars while keeping the racers, racetracks and most importantly the public roads safe for everyone – including the driver behind the wheel.

Like many startups, SEMA’s roots were humble. My dad talked about small gatherings in LA or Anaheim hotel meeting rooms or whatever space they could get their hands on. Back then (as cars were suddenly moving faster and more perilously than ever before) SEMA was the “Speed Equipment Market Association,” formed to build trust in the automotive and racing industries. A key to this was setting safety standards for material, specs and processes for many of the performance components, making aftermarket add-ons and performance equipment safer, higher quality and more standardized than it would have otherwise been.

Early roots.

The early meetings were noisy ones, filled with differing opinions and bickering shout-outs, my father recalls. All those manufacturing pioneers, competitors and renegade “fabricators” in one room? Trying to agree on standards and guidelines when all they wanted to do was make cars faster, quicker, higher-performing, and better looking? Imagine today’s tech entrepreneurs all in one room trying to agree to a short list of standards, on the fly and as the machinery is running, and you’ll get the idea.



An early SEMA vendor. Gotta love that racegear in the back of the booth.
A trade show look you’d never see today. 
1971-sema-show-linda-v-dick-otte (1)
More racegear and old-school SEMA style.
Good times, retro style. So much has changed.

Colorful times (even in b & w).

Back then, racing was even more risky than it is today. Driver protection was virtually non-existent, and we didn’t have digital prototyping, simulation, or testing technologies that let us de-risk performance innovations before the rubber met the road. SEMA emerged as a way for the automotive industry, motorsports, and forward thinking inovators who wanted to safely customize as a hobby or for specialized purposes to find a common ground and follow an industry safety spec set by the leading minds of the day.

With time, the “safety” focused moved into other forms of customization – hence the name change to “Specialty Equipment Market Association,” as SEMA is known today.

From humble roots to the bustling gathering of industry shapers from more than 100 countries that gather today, the 2014 SEMA Show drew more than 60,000 domestic and international buyers.  As Vegas’ second-largest gathering, topped only by CES, the SEMA conversation continues to rise in relevance.

This year, SEMA will meet again at the Las Vegas Convention Center in early November, and I think many of SEMA’s most visionary founders would agree: once more, the show will focus on an industry at a crossroads. Whereas yesterday’s eye-openers focused on physical add-ons, this year the show will usher in yet another wave of digital changes, and raise questions about user customization, open platforms, privacy, and other issues that echo the conversations across the digital and IoT world.

More on that next week. For now, I hope you’ll enjoy these images and recollections from SEMA’s past – and tweet us at you’ll tweet us at @replayxd or @aernow1 if you’ll be at the show – or if you have memories of your own to share.

Admiring from afar? Follow the fun at hashtag #SEMA2015 and view some awesome innovations on Instagram at @semashow.

John Spar

John Spar

EVP, Hardware Engineering at AerNow
Long-standing motorsports aficionado (and competitor); founder and product visionary for action camera innovator Replay XD. Proud to be part of the AerNow family.
John Spar

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