Unconventional: SEMA Unconventional: SEMA

What do a 7-foot-tall tire, a trunk with a fish tank, etc., and an alien-themed motorcycle have in common?

They are all part of the eclectic and creative mix of modified vehicles you'll find only at the annual SEMA Show at Las Vegas Convention Center. A bumper car turned into a real working car? Yep, there was one of those, too. There were shocks that looked like a complete chemistry set, tire rims that would look at home in any fine art gallery, and about everything else you could imagine. While these things seem unusual to find in an everyday setting, here at SEMA, they are as commonplace as the Vegas showgirl.

Every year, millions of people visit Las Vegas. Last year, the destination welcomed over 40 million visitors to be exact. Each one of these visitors comes for his or her own reasons. Some need a vacation, an adventure and a break from their everyday life, others are hoping to beat the odds in an effort make a few bucks, while another large majority are here for business rather than pleasure. 

According to P.J. Burchett, a Tennessee local, it was a six pack of beer, the potential he saw in an old Metro Van and a shed that brought him here – well, figuratively speaking of course. While these three things didn’t actually get him here, they are where his Vegas story begins.

“This is the biggest thing on the planet in the automotive industry in my mind. If you’re not here, you’re not in the clique.” - P.J. Burchett, SEMA attendee.

P.J. was just one of the 140,000 people who attended this year’s Specialty Equipment Market Association show, better known as SEMA. It’s a trade show built from the business of modifying all types of motor vehicles, which includes everything that runs on land, water, snow and dirt. The show draws in buyers, sellers and manufacturers from 130 different countries and features over 2,400 exhibitors. The international draw is so extensive that there are separate registration areas based on country and language spoken. This year marked the show’s 49th consecutive year and its 38th year in Las Vegas.

On the outside, SEMA may seem like a normal trade show but for those who attend, it’s the biggest thing to happen each year in the industry. If you’re not there, you’re considered an outsider − just like being in high school all over again. According to P.J., “This is the biggest thing on the planet in the automotive industry in my mind. If you’re not here, you’re not in the clique.”

This is seen as the ultimate showroom. Just as many people view Las Vegas as the destination where you can wear whatever you want, be whoever you want and act however you want – a red carpet of sorts for all those that visit. To the attendees, SEMA is their red carpet, but instead it’s the cars that are the stars.

It’s here where no paint job is too glitzy, no design is too over the top and no accessory is too gaudy. It’s because these people see their vehicles as an extension of themselves and they put it all on display during this week in true Las Vegas fashion.

Step outside the main doors of SEMA and you would find yourself greeted by Kellie DeFries, a woman who calls herself the Crystal Ninja. Kellie is known for producing the most outrageous crystal designs using all Swarovski Crystals. She has crystalized everything from a lift elevator in London, to 30 pairs of UGG Boots and even the roof of a Mini Cooper.

But it is here on this Vegas-style red carpet where she decided to show off one of her biggest designs to date, expressing her true creative nature − in the destination known for its creative freedom. Finishing the crystallization of a 1956 Porsche 356 Speedster, a car that, once completed, would showcase both her passion and artistry profession in life. A car rightfully meant to be on display in Las Vegas for its imaginative nature and over-the-top design.

For SEMA first-timers, the event can be quite overwhelming. Just imagine stepping off the monorail on the south end of the Las Vegas Convention Center, only to look down from the platform and see a welcoming committee of crowds, cars and monster trucks that fill 2 million square feet of convention space. Not to mention the first thing seen by most attendees − the custom-built speedway in the Silver Parking lot of the convention center, meant for professional riding, including a few drifting performances.

Ride down the escalator from the monorail platform to the convention center and you’ll find yourself engulfed in a mix of cars that look like they are straight off the set of The Fast and The Furious, or teleported out of the 1950s. In fact, it was rumored that the designer of the cars for The Fast and The Furious was at the show but he remained elusive.

What I did track down was a 7-foot-tall tire, a bumper car turned into a real working car, and an SUV with a fish tank in the trunk complete with actual fish. There were also shocks that looked like a complete chemistry set, tire rims that would look at home in any fine art gallery, and a green motorcycle with a black spiked chair and alien-themed front. While these things seem unusual to find in an everyday setting, at SEMA, they are as commonplace as the Vegas showgirl.

Gary Wales bought a 1915 La Bestioni fire engine that had been abandoned for 50 years and decided to rebuild the car. After 12 months of work, he completed “Rusty Two,” a replica of the previous 1917 La Bestioni he had remade, which he named “The Rusty One.” Upon seeing this car, you’ll realize instantly that there is nothing else out there quite like this. This car is one of a kind. It looked like a cross between an old fire engine, a farming tractor, a classic Jaguar and the Bat Mobile.

Yes, you heard that right.

This vehicle was stunning in design, but one of the most unique items on the car were the different types of badges adorning it.

According to Gary, “The badges are an extension of heraldry. I collect these badges. … It’s for clubs, it’s for countries (and) it’s for all sorts of things. (It) is to distinguish you from the other individuals, the mere mortals. I put them on the car because these are my ladies and this is their automotive jewelry.”

And what lady doesn’t want to show off her jewelry, especially in Las Vegas.

So you’re probably wondering, why did a six pack of beer, an old van and a shed bring P.J. here?

Put simply, to hand out ice cream out of his ice cream truck. Of course, that makes sense. It’s not like he came 1,500 miles or anything.

P.J. Burchett discovered an old, abandoned 1950 Metro Van in a field near his house. Unfortunately, for him, the yard belonged to a man who didn’t want to be bothered, owned a shotgun and had no desire to sell the old Metro Van. But P.J. heard a rumor that if he were to show up with a six pack of beer, then the man might listen to him and he might not chase him off his property with his shotgun. Knowing he needed that van, P.J. took the chance. After much hesitation and only a wave of the shotgun, it was agreed that if he built him a shed he could have the van.

P.J. showed up at SEMA to display his remodeled Metro Van that he decided to turn into a 1950’s-style ice cream truck, complete with a built-in working cooler with ice cream to serve.

Be it P.J., Kellie or Gary and the many others in attendance, it’s clear this event attracts people from all different parts of the world, each with a different background and reason for attending. It’s a trade show unlike any other trade show, where you can expect to find the strange and unusual. Where you can show off your creative nature in any fashion you want. We like to think there’s a reason SEMA never left Vegas after it moved here. Frankly, where else in the world can something like this be held?