2017 SEMA Hall Of Fame Inductee
Robert E. Petersen Foundation
“I was only doing my job.” That’s how 2017 Hall of Fame inductee GiGi Carleton described her 50-plus years of working for Petersen Publishing Company and, more recently, the Margie and Robert E. Petersen Foundation. But as the late Robert Petersen's executive assistant and special events coordinator and in later years party planner for trade show exhibitors and advertisers, she played a pivotal role in the marketing and promotion of motorsports across the United States, and her dedication and perseverance were instrumental in organizing and successfully launching the inaugural SEMA Show 50 years ago.
A native of Los Angeles, Carleton graduated from Immaculate Heart High School in Hollywood. Her father had recently passed away and with her mother supporting two younger siblings, she took a position working in the radio and TV division of a local advertising agency. Shortly thereafter, she moved to a company that offered an early version of pay TV known as subscription television. That company folded for lack of demand, but Carleton received a phone call shortly thereafter that would change the course of her life.
“I got a call from a person whom I had worked with in the advertising field who knew that I was good with detail, and he gave my name to a fellow called Patrick O’Rourke, who was working for Robert Petersen on a consultant basis and who needed some help putting on the Motor Trend/NASCAR 500 stock car race at Riverside International Raceway. It was a six-week contract position.”
“Here’s the thing,” she recalled: “At the time I didn’t even know what a stock car was. What’s NASCAR? What’s a stock car? I had no idea what Patrick was talking about! Patrick told me, ‘That’s okay, you’ll learn, and I know you’re good with details.’”
Eventually, the six-week contract turned into an offer of a full-time job in the special events department at Petersen Publishing Company.
“I went to work for six weeks,” Carleton noted, “and I never left.”
She served the Petersens in various executive capacities until Margie Petersen’s death in 2014, and she remains the president of the Margie and Robert E. Petersen Foundation.
Life in the early days at Petersen Publishing, with its legendary headquarters at 8490 Sunset Boulevard, could be fast and frantic, and event planning took place at a breakneck pace.
“Mr. Petersen was always coming up with ideas for new events,” Carleton remembered, “He’d say to Patrick, ‘I want this new event six weeks from now or two months from now,’ when normally you’d need six months to organize something like what he had in mind. Mind you, this was just Patrick and me doing this—we were the entire special events division! I don’t know how we managed to do it all, but we did put in a lot of 12-hour days.”
As she gained experience in special events, Carleton’s role in the company began to expand. Due to her background in radio and TV, she was also a production assistant for Robert E. Petersen Productions. Petersen appointed her executive secretary in 1967 and assistant to the chairman of the board some 10 years later.
Carleton’s roster of events was diverse and wide-ranging. Besides helping to organize the aforementioned Motor Trend race at Riverside, she worked on the Hot Rod East-West drag-race series, the 1965 Motorama car show at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, and on a mezzanine-level exhibit at the New York Auto Show at the old New York Colosseum.
After Petersen acquired the performance-industry trade journal Hot Rod Industry News in the mid-’60s, she was assigned to assist Alex Xydias for an event to build awareness of the publication: the inaugural Speed Equipment Manufacturer’s Association show. It was an industry-only trade exhibition held at Dodger Stadium in 1967, which is better known today simply as the SEMA Show. Fifty years on, Carleton still vividly remembered the event, which took place outdoors on the stadium’s club-level concourse.
“It was in January, and it was freezing cold that day,” she said. “There were 99 booths. The manufacturers came from all over the United States—some locally, some from as far away as the Midwest—and everyone stayed at the old Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. No one was sure how well a show like this would turn out, because no one had ever done anything like it before. And it was a huge success! We couldn’t believe it!”
Looking back, she surmised that “it was one of those things where the timing was right, the economy was good, people had money—and many of the exhibitors wrote so many orders at the first show that they could hardly wait for the second one,” which was relocated the following year to the recently opened Anaheim Convention Center.
When Carleton heard that she had been nominated to the SEMA Hall of Fame, she said that she was totally flabbergasted.
“I was thrilled to death, and I consider it a huge honor to be included with all of those people in the Hall of Fame, whether they have passed on or are still with us,” she said. “A lot of [the inductees] I’ve known for many years, so it’s really a thrill. Looking back on it, though, I was only doing my job!”
Carleton still maintains an active schedule. She continues to manage the Petersen estate, and her work for the Petersen Foundation keeps her “busier than I can tell you.” Among the foundation’s most noted acts of philanthropy in recent years have been a gift of $8.5 million to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and an overall $250 million gift to the Petersen Automotive Museum, which included all the Petersen collection of cars, building and founding costs, which she is still involved from time to time with consultant duties.
Her advice was particularly sought during the controversial remodel of the museum in 2015, and Carleton thinks that Bob Petersen would have likely approved of its final iconic design.
“If he were here, I’m sure he’d say something like, ‘You’ve got to change with the times. You can’t stay stuck in the mud and not be afraid to try new things.’ That’s the kind of person Mr. Petersen was.”