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I just spent the last couple of days at the SEMA International Auto Salon at the LA Convention Center. SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) is the organization that helps to regulate and promote the automotive aftermarket industry. The annual SEMA show in Las Vegas in the fall is a huge show that encompasses everything from fuzzy dice to superchargers. Over the past 5-6 years, the presence of sport compact cars at SEMA has grown. A few years ago SEMA, recognizing the importance of this market, started the IAS, originally in Long Beach. This year the show moved to LA because it had outgrown the Long Beach convention center.

The IAS is strictly for sport compact cars. Thankfully, there are no lift kits, bed liners, winches, or brush guards. There is some fluff, but there is an amazing array of hard core parts. There is also an impressive array of show cars and of course the requisite plethora of long legged, scantily clad female models.

As for racing, this market is being dominated by drag racing. There are no fewer than 4 major sanctioning bodies that each run 10-12 professional events a year. Every manufacturer seems to have at least one factory supported drag racing team now. Drag cars were everywhere in the show. And NHRA had a very nice booth set up. NOPI, who has their own drag race series now, had a big booth as well. I did not see any SCCA booth, although there were some brochures about SCCA club road racing in the SEMA booth.

As for rally show cars, HKS had Laughlin O'Sullivan's new Open Class EVO on display. Very nicely presented. The car was immaculate. Too bad the tinting on the windows is so dark that you can't see inside very well.

Ford had a huge display and is obviously embracing the sport compact car crowd with their Focus. They had a show car version of Tim O'Neil's Air Force Reserve sponsored Focus. I think the fact that Ford spent the time and money to build a show car is a good sign that they are gaining interest in ProRally. Perhaps some Ford money will flow to the deserving AV Sport and Tim. The Ford booth had some large graphics on top that featured a WRC Focus among other cars. Missing was the huge video screen showing breathtaking WRC footage that they had at the SEMA show in Vegas last year. Too bad.

Another thing Ford had was a mock up of a WRC Focus (older body style) with a large plasma flat panel display in front of it and a integrated rally video game (sorry I don't know which one). Ford was letting people jump behind the wheel for a virtual stab at rally racing. It was incredibly popular. I stood back and watched for a while, and this show car was by far attracting a bigger crown than just about anything else, save for the anorexic oriental models attempting to wear small bits of cloth in some of the neighboring booths.

I first saw this Ford simulator (or one very similar) at the Autosport International show in Birmingham in 2002. (If you have never been to this show, you must go. It is the holy grail of racing shows. "Honey I have a surprise for you. We are going on vacation to England in January") The car attracted a lot of attention there as well. Anyone planning on building a show car for their sponsors would be wise to incorporate some sort of video game into it.

There were some other privateer rally cars back in the show car area, but none of them were significant ProRally competitors. Mazda had a big booth, but no rally cars. Dodge was heavily promoting the SRT-4 all over the place, but again, no rally cars. Toyota did not attend (they can't figure out why their buyer demographic is aging) but their new youth brand, Scion, was there. Scion has no interest in motor sports at this point, not even drag racing. They instead prefer to promote their product by having artists paint murals on the side of a stretched xB. Definitely the fly ride for wannabe hip hop artists or pimps. Hyundai had a nice display, but sadly all signs of rally participation have disappeared. GM had a big booth, but it was just a disorganized collection of show cars. Subaru was curiously absent from the show, as was Mitsubishi (other than the car in the HKS booth). Honda had a small half-hearted display and I heard some grumbling among the drag racing crowd that Honda was reducing their involvement in racing.

Rallying and Touring Car are perfect fits for the sport compact car movement. The people who drive these cars can really relate to this type of racing. Of course drag racing is always going to be more popular from a participation standpoint, because the cost of entry is so low. But from a spectator standpoint, rally and touring car have huge potential. The SCCA just needs to turn up the wick on the promotional end.

Certainly, a large factor in the growing popularity of pro compact drag racing is because the promoters are making them lifestyle events, not just racing. Even NHRA is adding things like live bands, DJs, bikini contests, model searches, car shows and foam pits to their events. NHRA says their 5 year plan is for them to raise attendance at the compact races to the level of their traditional series (Top Fuel, Funny Cars, etc.). John Force may have to wedge himself into a Honda civic here pretty soon.

Now I'm not saying that rally promoters need to add mud wrestling to attract more spectators, but the rally community (promoters, sanctioning bodies and competitors) need to be more creative and think outside the box if they want the sport to grow. People want more than just good racing, they want an event. Look at the Long Beach Grand Prix. I think they would attract 200K people even if the premier event was lawnmower racing. It is a major happening, not just a race.

Sorry, no pics yet (I took my 35mm), but as soon as they get developed I will post a few.

- Jeff Tezer
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