A Rookie’s Take: Tips For Seeing The SEMA Show For The First Time

Congrats there, weary traveler! You’ve made it to SEMA for the very first time. Behold the Mecca of automotive culture, where enthusiasts of all species converge to witness the debut of the latest and greatest in aftermarket ingenuity. The sights and sounds leave you starstruck, flooding your senses and affirming that it’s every bit as epic as your favorite magazine or influencer has led you to believe. But even the greatest of parties can be a real shit show without the proper preparation, with a couple of wrong moves turning you from “Wow,” to “Whoa, what now?”

Fret not, traveler, for you have journeyed too far to be cast into the void, dazed and seeking direction. So, after scrambling to attend my first SEMA this past week, I’m confidently here to tell you the dos and don’ts for a first-timer’s pilgrimage! 

But seriously, here are some neat tips worth considering. 

Bring Friends, Duh!

This bit of advice should go without saying, but attending any event alone is lame and dull. I’d rather have stayed home continuing my Skyrim binge than go to any big show as a loner. Why should anyone?

Friends bring entertainment and a like-minded companion with whom to comment (or loudly argue) on each and every piece of machinery on display. Oh, and friends can help you split parking costs because the parking garage’s toll is insultingly expensive. More on that later. But if I could have corrected one hiccup beforehand, it would be to plan things out more in advance to gather a larger posse of companions, but I’m still grateful for being able to attend with my crew of two. 

In short, don’t be a loner. SEMA is supposed to be a party just as much as a trade show. So make your trip a party too. 

Buy Early, Arrive Early

By an order of magnitude, SEMA is the most expensive car show and the priciest con I’ve ever attended. Like, holy hell. Tickets for the Friday experience, the only day that permits the general audience, is $100 a pop if pre-ordered within that month, so do yourself a favor by ordering far in advance. And don’t forget the atrocious line that damn near wraps around the entire West Hall of the convention center when you get there.

Take the same early bird approach to pick up your pass because there’s no quick scan-and-go procedure, even if you’ve pre-ordered and received your QR code. The line to get in, chock-full of patrons also simply wanting the passes they prepaid for, is an hour-long wait once the show starts rolling, so arrive within the first minutes of the check-in desks opening. 

Use A Taxi Or Ride Share If You Can

Yes, tickets for SEMA are expensive. But what’s more heart-stopping than paying for a pass mere days in advance is the parking situation should you choose to drive there.

What do you figure is a reasonable toll for using a parking garage? $20 per hour during a special event? Try an eyewatering $50. 

Granted, that’s $50 for the whole day, which probably sounds like a smoking-hot deal of a lifetime for urbanites where parking is more of a privilege than a right. But I’m a Vegas local, dammit! We don’t pay for parking! Paid parking is the Devil’s side hustle, and I am on a holy journey to see badass cars. 

Nothing says, “Fuck it, we ball,” more than dilly-dallying over to SEMA, but be a little miserly on this one tidbit and spend some coin on an Uber or Lyft. Then use whatever you’ve saved on some drinks and snacks when you get there.

Oh, and for a pinch of added spice, have yourself dropped off at any miscellaneous corner of the convention center and ride The Boring Company’s Teslas around the Vegas Loop to get where you need to go. It’s a free commodity to event attendees and undoubtedly the most gimmicky yet charming way to waste five minutes of your life.

You’re welcome.

See Everything, Appreciate Everything

SEMA is a melting pot of various industries, personalities, and subcultures showcasing the best of what they have to offer. Some are mirrorlike impressions of one another, while others couldn’t be any more alien, even if they tried. So don’t be an ignorant twit walking past half the show only to see what you usually like or know. Instead, take a good stroll around all the halls and see what else exists in this vast, multi-billion dollar industry. 

Check out what’s new in tools or car detailing. See styles of builds you’ve never even considered with parts and techniques you never thought possible. I’m not the biggest off-road guy, but damn, was the overlanding hall loaded with treasures to behold. I’ve never seen a more unique and ingenious assortment of trucks, campers, and Jeeps under one roof, and you know there’s a league of fans clamoring at these very vehicles, even if it may not be you or anyone you know. You can’t help but appreciate the craftsmanship, no matter the car. 

I bet you’ve never seen a nicer fleet of donks and lowriders, either. Even the most outrageous and gaudiest styles arrive at SEMA with pride and passion, sporting the best work in their respective fields. And hey, even if you still can’t get behind certain genres of builds, you have to agree every build has a level of charm that’s tough to beat. That alone deserves a round of applause. 

Dare I say that even some of those glitzy brodozers parked outside were, uh, pretty neat.

Sure, the more serious builds of top-dollar shops are still the industry benchmarks that continuously get invited to Battle of The Builders year after year, but they’re merely a sliver of what’s to offer. The bulk of SEMA’s character lies scattered across the halls and in each and every car, no matter its purpose or origin. Goofy becomes fun, and kitsch becomes cool, so don’t be a sourpuss. Come to SEMA with open eyes and an open mind.

Don’t Be Afraid To Say Hi To Anyone

Automotive personalities from all over the world gather to showcase their work or the work of others, from acclaimed builders to media personalities and even racing drivers. This year had no shortage of faces that have become household names among gearheads. 

I had the privilege of talking with David Patterson (ThatDudeInBlue), who I had no idea would be in attendance, but I wasn’t surprised. I mean, come on. It was SEMA. We chatted away regarding how we met at a YouTube event a few years prior, our personal experiences with our respective 2013 Mustangs, and our unwavering love for America’s flat-plane heroes such as the GT350 and C8 Z06.

Accompanying him was content creator and builder, Rob Dahm, whose booth we were in as he showcased his finished RX-7, along with fellow creators, Rob Ferretti and Freddy “Tavarish” Hernandez. And earlier that morning, my friend and I had the privilege of watching Adam LZ and Vaughn Gittin Jr. put up a show in their Formula D Mustangs, the former of which my friend was especially keen to meet later that day, being a longtime fan of his YouTube antics.

Of course, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to casually disrupt the work of drivers and content creators, but it doesn’t hurt to say hi to your favorite superstar once they’ve caught their breath. Just don’t be that dunce who bombs a photo or interrupts a recording. There’s your friendly reminder to be courteous to those there to make a living.

Now, if only I could’ve greeted Larry Chen as well. Maybe next year. 

Watch The Outdoor Shows

Arguably the best part about SEMA has to be the special events that go on before you even set foot inside the convention center. Outside, parking lots become impromptu drift courses, burnout yards, and car shows for machines that are just merely there to enjoy the party. Off to the side, Vaughn and the RTR team added clouds to the sky as their Aluminator V8s wailed and screamed. Front and center, Toyota was hosting a drift ride-along with a fleet of Supras while the Hoonigan crew did what they do best in their faux burnyard mere feet from the Toyota gang. There was an auction of Hoonigan trinkets from past projects and a presentation with ChrisFix, but guess what?

 We saw almost none of it. Big. Fail.

My second biggest regret with this first go at SEMA, second to not beating the check-in line, was not spending enough time enjoying the weather. Aside from catching a glimpse of the RTR Funhaver Tour on our way in, my friend and I didn’t get to see much of anything. We were so enamored with every new part and all the popular builds stowed indoors that the second face of SEMA beyond the walls completely slipped our minds.

Regarding the random assortment of miscellaneous metal, it was pretty much the dream Forza garage. Brodozers lined up at the front, flanked by various tuner cars on either side. The Built By Legends R32 GT-R was tucked away in the back of an outdoor booth near a Millenium Jade GR 86 that had my friend foaming at the mouth with dopamine and unchewed hot dogs. Parked near the Hoonigans corner was a camouflaged prototype for some Mk8 Golf race car, and across the way near the RTR trailer were all the track-built corner carvers for the Optima Ultimate Street Car event. 

If you can only attend one day, take the initiative to catch some rays and enjoy the shows. Place an auction bid on Ken Block’s garbage or take a joy ride. What’s better than a car show? A car show where you can smell race gas perfume the air and hear the thu’um of an engine rattle off the convention center walls all day long.

Just because my friend and I failed to see what was literally half of SEMA doesn’t mean you have to. Definitely take the time to see all of it.


Just don’t. Do not. 

Popcorn stands are everywhere, along with a cafeteria with legitimate restaurants and pop-up vendors for pizza and barbecue sandwiches; you have a smorgasbord of fine-ish dining to choose from. Just please, for the love of Senna, do not eat the convention center glizzies. You will be fumigating the HKS booth as I was.

My apologies to any HKS staff caught in my inadvertent gas attack. And as for the Las Vegas Convention Center, start counting your days. 

Uh, Have Fun, Obviously!

Do you have to be reminded? Enjoy yourself! Take your pals, meet new ones, and see anything and everything, both under the sun and the indoor fluorescent lighting. 

You’ve made it to one of the world’s largest trade shows and one of the most famous car events on the face of the planet. That’s not something to wander around aimlessly and unenthusiastically, not assuming you or anyone with their head screwed on correctly ever would. Both the price and the ceaseless hype reflect that. So take it by the throat and milk it for all it’s worth, and I promise you’ll be itching to come back year after year. I sure as hell am.

Published in Car Shows

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