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Meet Kyle Fickler: SEMA's Newest Chairman of the Board

The aftermarket veteran talks racing, regulations and the future of the industry.

By Douglas McColloch

Veterans of the specialty-equipment market will need little introduction to SEMA's newest Chairman of the Board, Kyle Fickler. A longtime SEMA Board member, he has served on the Board's executive committee and has chaired numerous Board task forces, including those assigned to select the association's Manufacturer of the Year. He has hosted SEMA town halls and education tracks and served on the PRI advisory committee.

Professionally, Fickler's more than 25 years of work experience includes senior leadership roles at several leading brands--Aeromotive, Weld Racing, Driven Racing Oil and, most recently, ProCharger, where he serves as director of business development. He also holds a law degree from the University of Montana School of Law, and he's licensed to practice in the states of Missouri and Montana.

Kyle FicklerIn his personal life, Fickler is active in racing, with an AHRA World Championship and two NHRA National event wins among his on-track achievements. His wife Debra and daughter Danika are also accomplished drag racers. He's also an avid off-roader who has piloted his JK Wrangler over some of Moab's and Colorado's toughest trails.

We spoke with Fickler recently about his experiences and his vision for the association looking forward. What follows has been edited for clarity and length.

SEMA News: What's your latest project? What's in your garage?

Kyle Fickler: I've raced for 30-some years now, but in the past few years, my focus has been more on my daughter Danika's racing. She's been racing since she was 9 or 10, starting in quarter midgets. Then she moved to junior dragsters, and last year she won the NHRA Division 5 high school championship in a little S-10 Blazer that we have a lot of family history with.

She stepped up to NHRA Super Street and Pro Eliminator at Heartland Motorsports Park, and she needed something faster and a little bit more racy this year, so I bought her an S-10 bracket truck. It's got a small-block Chevy 383 with the Powerglide--a true dedicated race vehicle, not a street-driven vehicle. She also went to Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School in May and got her Super Comp license, so now, she's been in my dragster once this year and she'll get in it again in mid-October. So that's been the focus of a lot of my attention.

I own a lot of cars, but we've become something of a Jeep family over the last 10 years with my JK and Danika's TJ. She is now in college in Colorado and one of these weekends, she's going to come home and take my JK back to school--which means I've been looking for a replacement because I've got wheels and tires and bumpers and winches and air compressors and all kinds of stuff to bolt onto a JK, so I'll need to find another JK to play with.

SN: When you found out that you'd been elected to the chairmanship, what was your reaction? What was going through your mind?

KF: You know, it's interesting because there's been a natural progression for me, through SEMA's councils and networks and then onto the Board and then as treasurer. But it wasn't an easy decision to even run for the chairmanship because it's a six-year commitment to begin with, and you need to be absolutely comfortable with the time commitment that SEMA requires at every volunteer level, but especially some of the Board positions and at the chairman's level. So, it was not an easy decision.

On the other hand, in 2008 I was asked to run for the MPMC select committee. I'd only served for six months when I was asked to run for MPMC chair. A couple of SEMA Hall of Famers literally twisted my arm behind my back, told me I really didn't have any choice; they were just asking to be polite. And not long after that, I was asked to run for the Board. So, there's been a level of continuity in that regard.

Kyle Fickler SEMA Gala backdrop

Kyle Fickler is thankful for his time volunteering on various SEMA councils and networks, and called his recent election to the SEMA Board of Directors his "call to duty."

[Former SEMA President and CEO] Chris Kersting used to use a phrase describing the 'avalanche over our head' to describe the many leg/reg battles we face. But where we stand now, the avalanche isn't over our head—we're shoulder-deep in the avalanche, with the EPA and CARB and California's EV mandate and the other 16 or 17 states that have followed California's lead on emissions legislation. All these things are gathering speed all at once, and I just started to get this sense that I needed to run for chairman because if I didn't do this, I'd never feel like I'd given it my all or was fully committed. So, in a way, it was a call to duty.

Honestly, though, I'm thankful for it. If I'd sat down 15 or 20 years ago before I was a volunteer, I don't think I would have mapped out my career this way because it wouldn't have seemed realistic.

SN: For those for folks who are maybe newer to the association, could you provide brief background on yourself, where you grew up, how you got into the industry in the first place, and when was the time you knew it going to be your career?

KF: Motorsports has always been a focus for me, and my first conscious thought was that I wanted to be the next Richard Petty. But as a kid in Montana, I didn't realize how unrealistic that was until I until I got a little bit older. But motorsports had always been the focus.

I was lucky enough through older cousin Todd Fickler to watch 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits race out in Spokane, Washington, somewhere around 1980. I knew from the first time I saw Big Daddy go down the race track that some portion of my life had just changed.

My dad was a mechanic and my grandfather was a mechanic. But my dad had a phrase he used: 'I hate horsepower and speed!' So, my love of racing obviously didn't come from him. On the other hand, my mom had actually raced Powder Puff snowmobile races and stuff like that. My older cousin Todd really got me hooked on motorsports, and I ended up working at an engine rebuild shop building my own street and, eventually, race engines. When I was in college and working summers in the oil field in Alaska, I sold just about everything I had to buy a rear-engine dragster. It was just a chassis that a local friend had built, and I found a 505ci wedge-head Dodge engine to put in there. I had never been down a dragstrip in my entire life; I had only been a spectator. I went back to Spokane, and my first quarter-mile pass went 8.99 and I was hooked.

Looking back, I now realize that I was lucky that I had college and a few other things to make me think about another career. But the reality was, racing was all that I thought about 24/7. I didn't know what a career path even really was. I just knew that I had scholarship money for college, and I was going to take full advantage of that.

Later I had the opportunity to go to law school at the University of Montana. The school would get about 350 to 375 applicants for 75 open spots. A big part of the school's focus was on educating lawyers who were going to stay in Montana and benefit their local communities. I'd known the dean from some of my undergraduate work, so he chose to conduct my entrance interview. He looked at me and asked, 'Why are you coming to law school?' And I said, 'To be a better drag racer.' He shook his head and said, 'You can't say that!' But he admitted me anyway.

I really enjoyed the education, no doubt, but in a way, I was looking for something to differentiate myself in the world of motorsports. I wanted to race and to make racing viable career path, but I started to realize that wasn't going to happen living in Montana--it was going to require some other life choices. As it happened, I met my wife Debra in law school and she had worked for McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis, and it became readily apparent that there were a lot more racing opportunities within a 600-mi. radius of St. Louis than there were in Missoula, Montana.

Anyway, after I graduated we loaded up and moved to the St. Louis area and Debra went back to work at McDonnell Douglas. Her background is in physics and she worked as a nondestructive testing engineer. She had a good understanding of mechanics. She worked on the F-4 Phantom and every AV-8B jump jet in the world. So, we were a good fit from a technology standpoint, and a love of motorsports. And, by the way, our friend Jim Pulliam, who built the first dragster we owned, moved to the St. Louis area as well, and built us a couple more cars, including the dragster we still race today.

So that got us to the Midwest, and that's when the industry stuff really started. We were getting ready to get married, and we had decided that our honeymoon was going to be at an NHRA National event in Topeka--but in the process of getting our car ready to race, I ended up cold-calling on Steve Matusek, who was working on the business plan that eventually became Aeromotive. We met the second week of May of 1993, Aeromotive was founded in August of 1994 and from that day forward, my career path became clearer.

The funny thing was that Steve's motivation was the same as mine. He wanted to race. His dad John had an incredible racing career, but Steve had stayed focused on the business, but our long, late-night conversations about business would eventually shift to a discussion about racing. That was the springboard that really started things going.

As an aside, Debra and I went to our first PRI Show in Cincinnati, and there was a skywalk that kind of split the convention center in half. And I remember standing up there, looking out both sides and thinking, 'That's the entire industry right there,' you know? And now I laugh about it because I'm not even sure there were 400 exhibitors there. But there are a handful of people I met that day who are still in the industry and who I'm still engaged with at some level.

When I look back, I guess I could say that I'd found my career path, or it found me. Even so, I marvel at the number of times when I've been confronted with choices and options and have been very, very fortunate that so many doors have opened to me over the years. I'm one of those people who believes--and I know it sounds like a cliché--that you'll never work a day in your life if you do what you love. And I mean that describes my last 30-odd years to a 'T.' I don't know why I've been so lucky, but I have been.

SN: On the subject of motorsports, now that you are chairman, what amount of emphasis do you think SEMA should place on racing? Does it need to assume a higher priority, and if so, what can the association do that it's not doing now?

KF: I think it does need to be a higher priority.

Kyle Fickler headshot

New chairman of the Board, Kyle Fickler, wants to put more emphasis on racing and motorsports, a segment that showcases the innovations and technology coming to the aftermarket down the line.

A couple of things have happened in this regard. Over the last few election cycles, we've had a greater motorsports presence on the SEMA Board maybe than at any time in recent memory. I say that recalling a time in the '90s when I was at the SEMA Show and talking with Fred Crow, who at the time was president of Simpson Safety Equipment. And Fred, for whatever reason, had kind of taken me under his wing and became something of a mentor to me, and he said, 'This is our last SEMA Show.' And I'm like, 'Really? Why?' And he said that the association had lost sight of motorsports and it wasn't a good ROI for him.

The following year, the association divided the Show as you see it now, with Central Hall dedicated to Racing and Performance, along with Hot Rod Alley, which brought everybody who was motorsports-oriented into the same hall, which was a big step. So, I've lived and witnessed some of the history when motorsports wasn't as well represented as it needed to be, and in a way I'm a product of that experience.

That being said, I've been very fortunate to have served as a SEMA volunteer when the association had strong motorsports representation, going back to when Scooter Brothers was chairman and SEMA bought PRI, which turned out to be a brilliant move.

One of the things that's becoming clearer in my mind is the need for motorsports in terms of where we go with the new technologies.

What I mean is this: When we talk about hybrid technologies, a lot of development of it starts out in motorsports. Even when I was working for a fuel systems company, I really admired what Porsche and Audi and some other companies were doing in terms of hybrid technology, and they weren't doing that to sell more race cars. They were doing it to sell more road-going cars. Take a look at what has happened in the motorsports world with synthetic fuels and biofuels and things like that. It's pretty obvious that both the aftermarket and the OEMs have found that motorsports is a better platform to develop alternative, forward-thinking technologies. Put another way: If you want to solve range anxiety, make the Baja 1000 an EV race.

SN: What do you see as the Association's top priorities for over the next 12 months or so? What would you like them to be?

KF: I think we break that into two buckets--emissions on one hand and non-emissions on the other. That would include ADAS technologies, and that's an area where I think there's going to be opportunity. And frankly, the opportunity probably parallels what we are seeing on the repair side.

Being something of a Jeep guy, my JK doesn't have all that technology, but let's face it--most other Jeep platforms do and almost every other vehicle does. Most modern vehicles, if you hang a bumper on it or you give it a vehicle wrap or you install different wheels and tires, it can trigger trouble codes by taking sensors out of their range of operation. These modifications are central to the aftermarket, they're done on a daily basis, and that's where we start to run afoul of all the nanny systems in the vehicle--and up to now, there's been no knowledge out there of how to do all this right, proved by the challenges faced by body and repair shops.

This is an area where we need to have a united front, because if we're able to do this correctly on a repaired vehicle, then we ought to be able to do it correctly on a modified vehicle.

That's why I'm so thankful for what we're doing in Detroit with the Detroit Garage. It's giving us an understanding of what's out there, what's possible, what's realistic--and as part of that, being able to pull the OEs into that conversation as well.

I think there's some point in the future where we're going to have the opportunity to demonstrate the aftermarket's positive impact on existing technology and the aftermarket's ability to develop new technologies. We need to be seen as the leaders in that. And frankly, whether we're dealing with insurance companies, or policy makers or the regulatory agencies, you know at some point we're going to need to demonstrate that we're the leaders, and the association has done that previously with its relationship with CARB.

SN: You mentioned you've become more of a Jeep guy in recent years and that sort of leads to the subject of public land access. What more can SEMA be doing on that front? The association had a big win this year at Oceano Dunes, but what other battles still need to be fought?

KF: I think among our membership we would find unquestionably overarching support for land-use rights in general. And it's easy to get behind, but then we end up finding out that a lot of the battles are very local. One of the neatest experiences I've had the last 12 months is hearing a state senator from West Virginia tell one of our Board members that when the Oceano Dunes issue erupted, he fired off a letter on his letterhead and got some other state legislators from other states that he had relationships with to fire off letters in support of it too. And I thought, wow, that's really cool. I asked him, why did you do it? And his answer was, 'We can't allow these fights to only be local.' He knew if we lose this fight in California, it makes it that more difficult to win the next fight.

SN: Over the last couple years SEMA has become a more public-facing organization. We admit the public to the Show on Fridays now, and this year we have SEMA Fest, which seems to envision a series of events that will go on throughout Show Week. What's your outlook on that? Do you see SEMA possibly expanding its public outreach, perhaps including other branded events? (Editor's note: This interview took place before SEMA Show Week.)

KF: I really do. The reality is, there are two separate events there. It's really two separate topics, but they do intersect. One topic is the B2B aspect of the SEMA Show, and preserving that. And let's face it, the SEMA Show is the mothership, and without the mothership, we don't own PRI. Without the mothership, we don't have all these other programs, an office in DC or a garage in Detroit. So, the mothership is going to remain the mothership.

But we need to do everything we can to not only protect the mothership but to grow it. SEMA Fest, at some level, is an outgrowth of what we saw with SEMA Ignited with relatively limited attendance. Frankly, I've always enjoyed the argument that too many consumers were already getting into the Show to begin with. I find it fascinating because at some point during the SEMA Show, I become a consumer too. I might only be looking for bumpers for my Jeep, but at that moment I'm not there to increase inventory in my warehouse.

I have to give a huge amount of credit to Immediate Past Chairman James Lawrence, for pushing me and pushing others to roll out the SEMA Fest concept as quickly as it did. It's a huge undertaking, and you've got to give a tip of the cap to James's experience as an event promoter, which gave him a level of comfort that I certainly didn't have. That being said, the first year is going to be exciting. I think some people are probably too worried that it's going to negatively alter their SEMA experience. And I do admire that kind of SEMA purist. I love that because that's our B2B guy or girl, and they are absolutely core to the Association. So, I think what you'll see, if nothing else, is the focus on that individual. How do we protect their B2B experience at the Show?

SEMA Fest will expand, if not in that two-day format, to offshoots of other SEMA Fest-branded activities a little bit further removed from the Show. Hopefully, two years down the road, the naysayers will stop and look back and at least think, 'Oh, now I get it.' I think this year the perception that it's got a bit too much focused on entertainment and it's a little bit light on automotive is probably accurate. In future years, will we see more activation on the on the automotive side, on the industry side? Absolutely. And I think that will give a lot of our member base the comfort level to support the concept even more.

SN: Looking ahead, what's your outlook for the future? Are you still optimistic? Do you think we can look forward to growth in the coming years, despite the headwinds we face?

KF: I really am optimistic. And I'll tell you, there's a couple of things that are driving that. We've made some internal changes at all levels: human resources, financial resources, initiatives and the like. I’ve become really proud of where the Association's gone in the last year or two in terms of how we're going to fight the fight and the different tools we have. I think we're starting to understand how we always have to have at the ready a multi-pronged approach. We're going to have to fight this battle on a lot of fronts, whether it's on policy, whether it's on politics, on messaging or on technology. Even though our adversaries are larger and more numerous than we are, I think we're starting to understand how we can create alliances to increase our bandwidth, and I think we're starting to better understand the resources we need.

If I looked back 30 years ago and realized that if there was a noise regulation at a local dragstrip, where the decibel level had to be 'X' and you had to run mufflers, at that time it felt like the only people who engaged in that fight were the engine builders, the local racers and, to the extent they wanted a reasonable performance specification, the exhaust manufacturers. It was just a mano-a-mano-type deal. Now, when we get in these battles, it's greatly benefited by the work of SAN [SEMA Action Network] and the rest of the Association, our DC office and even our marketing team.

We've come to understand that even when the quote-unquote 'adversary' is focused on an individual technology or component or even ICE, as broad and all-encompassing as that is, we really have to look at it from an industry standpoint. All manufacturers have started to understand that, for instance, if you're a wheel guy, it's way easier to sell wheels to somebody who's also able to buy performance parts and vice versa. Back to my JK example, most performance upgrades to a Jeep happen because of the 1,000 lbs. of other aftermarket parts added onto that platform. All of the components coexist. Certainly the OEs have seen that as they introduced technologies where you make any little change in the platform, and it throws all kinds of trouble codes. And I think that the aftermarket needs to have a similar philosophy or a similar understanding that we need to be united in this, even if it's not necessarily going to take bread out of your basket in the immediate term--but in the long term it might take all of it away. I think we need to feel good about the direction we're pointed in. We've had some successes here lately, getting pulled off the NAIC [National Association of Insurance Commissioners] list--or 'excused' might be a better way of putting it. That's a big deal, but that's not the end of it. We could just as easily be back on it in five years. I honestly don't expect the EPA's behavior to change much, but we need to do a better job of educating our members and those outside of our membership on how we need to put our best foot forward, solve issues with harder work and better technology to be the good neighbor. That being said, I think that where we stand today, we're in as good a position as we can be, given everything on the table.

The first and foremost thing on my mind right now is preserving our right to modify our vehicles, preserving our right to have a place to enjoy them, and preserving our right to repair them. Yet when I hear the word 'preserving' come out of my mouth, I think, 'Most of us are Type-A personalities, and we never settle for preserving something, right?' But yet, thinking back on my daughter's age (19), if 50 years from now she's enjoying the same rights you and I are enjoying today--the right to modify, the right to repair, the right to enjoy, and the list is longer than that--if she's able to do that, that is a huge victory.