Featured Story

Industry Voice Kevin Oeste on Celebrating Automotive Excellence

By Laura Pitts

The specialty-equipment market industry is abuzz as we near the SEMA Leaders & Legends Gala, set for Friday, July 19, at the Anaheim Marriott in Southern California. (Secure your tickets or a 10-seat table here).

This event is not just another industry gathering; it's a celebration of our finest, a tribute to those who have made significant contributions, and an exciting opportunity for professionals of all levels to network and honor the best in the business. Attendees can expect an evening of cocktails, networking and dinner set against the backdrop of honoring incoming and outgoing SEMA Board members alongside this year's SEMA Hall of Fame inductees, including the former SEMA CEO and President Chris Kersting; the late electrical engineer and founder of MSD Ignition Jack Priegel; former SEMA Board of Directors Treasurer and Chair-Elect and Bob Cook Sales President Les Rudd; and SEMA icon Jon Wyly, who formed what is now known as SEMA Data. He served for six years on the SEMA Board of Directors and was named "SEMA Person of the Year" in 2005.­

SEMA Leaders & Legends Gala host Kevin Oeste

Industry emcee Kevin Oeste of V8TV Productions will return to the SEMA Gala Leaders & Legends stage on Friday, July 19, in Southern California to help usher in a new era of SEMA Hall of Fame inductees.

In anticipation of this year's event, SEMA News had the privilege of sitting down with Kevin Oeste, the esteemed industry voice tabbed to host the SEMA Leaders & Legends Gala. Oeste--a longtime broadcaster, producer, emcee and current owner of V8 Speed & Resto Shop and V8TV Productions in Red Bud, Illinois--has extensive experience in the industry. His passion for storytelling makes him the perfect host for an evening dedicated to honoring industry icons, and you may have seen him on the SEMA Central stage, the SEMA Industry Awards Banquet or the New Products Breakfast at the SEMA Show.

In this SEMA News exclusive, Oeste shares insights into his journey in the automotive specialty-equipment world, the significance of the Gala, and his thoughts on this year's Hall of Fame inductees. This interview, just like the SEMA Leaders & Legends Gala, is not one to be missed, so read his insights below and purchase tickets to the SEMA Leaders & Legends Gala here.

SEMA News: How did you get your start in the industry? What first sparked your interest in automotive?

Kevin Oeste: That's a loaded question for many of us in the industry. Interestingly enough, I find myself recalling something one of this year's inductees said. Chris Kersting, many years ago, was giving a keynote where he pointed out that many of us can attribute our introduction to the industry to an experience they had involving motion, right? So, being a little kid and someone taking you for a ride in a fast car or experiencing a rock crawl in a Jeep for the first time--whatever it is, it sticks with you. That resonated with me and brought me back to when I was very young. My dad was a police officer, and I vividly remember the first time I got a ride in his cruiser, at speed, en route to something. But what I remember most is--it was at night and the police car had the rolling lights on--going down the residential side streets in a Chicago suburb; just how narrow the street got when you were going 85 miles an hour, and seeing these beams of light going around in circles, reflecting off the houses. I still can feel how cool that was for me. And it changed how I looked at my dad; I thought he was a race car driver! From there, you couple that experience with me playing Hot Wheels and toy cars, plus reading magazines and building models--that sparked my interest in this industry.

SN: Tell me about your rise to your current career, including an on-camera and event host; podcaster; television producer; and owner of a successful restoration and performance shop V8 Speed & Resto Shop and television production company, V8TV, both based in Red Bud, Illinois.

Oeste: For a long time, I was a hobbyist like many of us in SEMA, working on cars for fun, reading magazines, and whatnot. I was fortunate to go to a high school with production and radio equipment, and after that, I got a degree in broadcasting. In 1996, with my college career coming to an end, I went on the Hot Rod Power Tour. Back then, there were less than 20 cars running the full event; there weren't that many. I ended up meeting a bunch of people at Petersen Publishing Company [publishers of Hot Rod magazine], and to shorten a very long story, I ended up going to work for Hot Rod as my first real professional automotive media job. I had some mechanic roles spinning wrenches in the past, but it all came together when I started with Hot Rod, first producing a show for them on [TV network] Speed. That company was a melting pot of professionals in this industry, and many of them went on to other esteemed companies, including SEMA, which was my introduction to working with the people at SEMA, hosting events at the SEMA Show and events like the Gala.

SN: What is your dream car? Have you owned it before?

Oeste: That's another loaded question for me since there are far more than one! I'm a muscle car guy, so the '70 Buick GSX Stage 1 4-speed in Saturn Yellow would be the one car. And I have not owned it before. I tried to create a tribute and build my own version over the years, but [it fizzled out for one reason or another]. Maybe someday. But I've been fortunate enough to have the chance to get behind the wheel of a few of them as part of my video features. Another dream car of mine is a custom car, the '48 Cadillac called CadZZilla, which was built by Boyd Coddington and was commissioned (and still owned) by Billy Gibbons and features metalwork by Craig Naff. I remember Hot Rod magazine coming in the mail with CadZZilla on the cover in the late '80s, and that changed my life.

Kevin Oeste at SEMA Central with Mike Spagnola

Kevin Oeste is often a favorite emcee at special SEMA events, including the bustling SEMA Central stage at the SEMA Show. Oeste is pictured here (left) at the 2023 Show with current SEMA President and CEO Mike Spagnola (right).

SN: What is your biggest takeaway from this year's Hall of Famers? How do they compare to years past? 

Oeste: I'm in a very lucky position where I'm trusted to interview people, including talking to Hall of Fame inductees at the Gala and in video production ahead of time, which we've already filmed. This year, I spent several hours with each inductee, and in Jack's case, his wife Sharon and colleague Russell Stephens, who nominated him to the Hall. Anybody entering the SEMA Hall of Fame has made an impact in the automotive space. Maybe they're a record-setter, or they've created something that changed the industry, but, if you're inducted, you're also a great citizen. The rest of your life interests me [and thousands of others in the industry]. And let me tell you, the inductees this year are on another level.

You'll hear more at the Gala, but I'll start with Jack Priegel. He started MSD with one mission: engineering excellence. He came from a military background and was building high-tech electronic pieces, surrounding himself with excellent engineers setting out to make amazing, next-level products. By keeping that quality standard up, the entire company shared the vision of "No, we're here to be the best, and Jack is going to be our leader. And we won't settle for less." That fostered this fantastic culture. Yes, some people could look at Jack's [entry into the SEMA Hall of Fame] as him being the guy who invented the MSD box, but there's so much more to it. His wife Sharon told beautiful stories about what it was like to be on that team in the beginning and how they took the company from six people to more than 550. To be able to absorb that information and brush with greatness is unmatched.

And yesterday, we interviewed Jon Wyly. He started off basically as a counter guy at an auto parts store. He memorized all the product lines, knew where everything was on the shelves, and over the course of 35 to 40 years, ended up helping revolutionize how part info is managed digitally. He eventually helped create what is now known today as SEMA Data [the one-stop source for all manufacturer product information, new product announcements, digital assets, fitment info and more]. All the people who are selling products online owe him a debt of gratitude for his work with the SEMA Data team. Not only that, he also had interesting life lessons to share. When a company tabbed him to develop an e-commerce catalog in the late '90s, he confessed he really didn't know how to do it. He knew the parts side but had to step out of his comfort zone to make it happen [on the digital side]. A huge takeaway is that if you're going to excel, sometimes you have to get out of that comfort zone and try something new. Let the aspiration of success outweigh the fear of failure.

Les Rudd is another inductee I've known for many years. But Les' world is all about the people and learning how to build relationships to find out what they need. As a professional manufacturer representative and salesperson, he was able to connect manufacturers and parts makers with retailers who were trying to satisfy their customers' needs. He's been able to help build these empires--and he's done very well at it--but he's also just a great guy. There's so much to learn from him; you could spend all day if you get the opportunity. In the sales and marketing world, it's so much cooler if you can do it around a topic you're passionate about. Les could've been very successful selling, I don't know, table lamps, but because he has a passion for cars, he's had success creating deep connections. And that's the beauty of this industry: everybody in it is passionate about cars, trucks, racing, you name it.

Finally, Chris Kersting is someone I met while shooting an episode of "Hot Rod Magazine TV" in Southern California at the time. My boss, Ira Gabriel [former vice president of marketing at SEMA], showed up and asked if I could lend a favor real fast. He introduced me to Chris as the SEMA president, and told me he needed a hand with a short promotional video he was working on. We sat down, re-lit the scene, put a mic on him, turned the cameras on, and chatted like friends. We ended up creating this little promo video out of thin air, had it edited and sent back to the Diamond Bar office later that day. So, the first thing I did with Chris was actually work with him, which is cool. Later, I would see him at the SEMA Show and industry events, but when it came time to do this recent Hall of Fame interview, it was clear that growing up in a big family is a key element of his success. Starting as a lawyer and being exposed to the cool things in the automotive world got him started in this industry. He has this unbelievable ability to connect people, and when you look at the structure of the Association, you have the SEMA Board, which plots SEMA's future and figures out present challenges to work on. Then, you have the Association staff, the people in Diamond Bar, who do the work all week long to drive SEMA forward. Then, you've got the SEMA Membership, who have their voice of needs, plus ancillary arms of SEMA like its office of legal specialists in Washington, D.C. And Chris? He has this incredible ability to level-headedly connect and respond to each of these groups to move the industry forward. In a role like that, you have to be able to listen, hear, analyze and be a wonderful communicator. And I asked him, "What do you attribute that success to?" He responded that it was probably because he grew up alongside nine brothers and sisters, you know, all fighting for resources in the house. It's like he had no other choice but to be a good communicator.

SEMA Leaders & Legends Gala Kevin Fickler

The SEMA Leaders & Legends Gala is an opportunity to honor incoming and outgoing SEMA Board members. Last year, Kyle Fickler was honored as the SEMA Board Chairman, a term that is active through July 2025.

SN: I love that insight into each inductee's unique background. That brings us to the SEMA Leaders & Legends Gala set for Friday, July 19, in Southern California. What does this event mean to you, and why is it important to uplift leaders in the automotive specialty-equipment industry?

Oeste: As a professional emcee, if you're going to do a presentation or show or event, it really relies on having great content--and the stories of this year's Hall of Fame inductees can't be beaten. So, already, it's engaging, compelling and entertaining on its own. But one of the best parts is that all of the inductees have this sense of denial that they're being inducted! I've heard that they immediately say, "No, that can't be right; it must be somebody else." And those are the people you want in a Hall of Fame. They have the humility, and they're not like, "You're damn right, I'm the greatest there is." You don't have that in this industry. So, for some of the inductees, the honor doesn't sink in until it's reinforced at the Gala.

Having an event like the SEMA Leaders & Legends Gala is 100% necessary. These people have dedicated their lives to improvement, improving people around them and building teams of excellence. You could minimize it by mailing a plaque, which would have value, but nothing compares to an in-person event with the energy of the entire room. It helps put the proper weight on what they've accomplished. Plus, it's just pure fun.

If you get the opportunity to go to the Gala and chat with the new inductees or even inductees of years past (look for the Hall of Fame badge), go up and introduce yourself. It doesn’t matter what you’re struggling with; they’ve probably been through it or even mastered it. And if you greet them, introduce yourself and ask a question, they're almost always happy to share their experience. And that's precisely why they were inducted into the Hall of Fame.  

SN: That's a great point, but a reader might want to one day find themselves among the likes of the industry's most excellent. What advice do you have for those who are trying to leave their mark on the industry? 

Oeste: A common thread among Hall of Famers and industry greats I've worked with is that nobody has ever set out to be in the SEMA Hall of Fame. It's a massive achievement but not up to you in many ways. Now, it is up to you to build a career and life worthy of honoring. My advice is to do the absolute best you can with what you have and work with people to help them realize their full potential. And if you can do that, that's a big part of the recipe for success in business. And if you have a successful business, then the people who work in it can feed their families and live fulfilling lives, and suddenly, you've carved out a small universe that is doing okay. When it's doing okay, you get the bandwidth to innovate products, go faster, and do new things because you're no longer worrying about the survival of the business; you can focus on success and growth, year after year. Before you know it, you're thought of as somebody who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

SN: That's great advice, Kevin. Thank you so much for your time, but before we leave, I'd be remiss if we didn't touch on one of your newest projects, hosting the brand-new SEMA Hot Rod Industry Alliance (HRIA) podcast called "Hammer Down," available to listen to for free on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Oeste: Yes, the new "Hammer Down" podcast was created to help anybody in the hot-rodding world: builders, people who make parts, people who run events, and people who make media around hot rodding. And there are a ton of places to go for entertainment in the hot-rod space, for example, watching hot rods being built or raced on YouTube, but we felt there wasn't a resource for the business and support side of hot rodding.

There are a lot of passion-driven businesses in this industry. You might have a car builder, for example, who is really great at building cars, so good that they end up starting a business. However, they might not have signed up to be a business owner; their training is in building engines, welding and fabricating. But now it's time to do taxes, acquire insurance and build a human resources department. That's where the "Hammer Down" podcast comes in. It's a new resource where people with experience overcoming challenges in the hot-rod industry, whether that be on the business side, marketing side, or anything professional-related--could share their stories and experiences.

The first episode is live and features guest Jerry Slover of Pete & Jakes Hot Rod Parts, a legacy institution and a cornerstone in the industry. Our other guest was Bill Ganahl, and in contrast to Jerry, Bill represents the newer generation of hot rodders who own shops and build cars. We had the two of them talking about their unique challenges, the differences between what it was like in the past versus now, and where things in the industry are going. It's a riveting episode. [Editors' note: Be sure to follow the HRIA "Hammer Down" podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify to be notified when new episodes air.]

Be part of automotive history in the making and secure tickets to the SEMA Leaders & Legends Gala here. You might be able to connect with industry legends like Oeste and this year's inductees!