Meet James Lawrence
SEMA’s INCOMING Chairman of the Board Talks Goals, Challenges and Team Work
By Carr Winn
SEMA News recently caught up to incoming Chairman of the Board James Lawrence to talk shop. Specifically, Lawrence shared his excitement about the next 12 months, along with the challenges facing our membership now and in the future. In love with cars since his first remote-control model, Lawrence now wants to help protect and support the industry that brought him and his wife to the podium and the altar. For more on that story and his goals for the next year, here’s our interview with James Lawrence.
SEMA News: For anyone who isn’t familiar with you and your career, can you give us a little background on yourself, when you fell in love with the industry, and why you wanted to be Chairman of the Board at SEMA?
James Lawrence: I have been in love with cars since I was a little kid. I started with R/C cars and, at the age of 16, finally got the Ford Mustang I always wanted. I quickly took over my parents’ garage and never looked back. The last 30 years of my life, and those of my family and kids, have been intertwined with cars—from racing to motorsports to go-karts. When I met my wife Melissa 16 years ago, she drove a twin-turbo Mustang to work. We won two drag-racing championships together.
I really do believe in the magic of the automobile, and I’ve been blessed with an amazing career, professionally and as a racer, for more than 20 years. It’s time to give back to the industry, the hobby and the lifestyle that has given so much.
In our lives, we each have the opportunity to do things that make the world a better place. The opportunity to lead SEMA into the future is an area where I can offer a unique contribution to our community. I am committed and serious about the chairman role, especially when we find ourselves as an industry in a pretty pivotal timeframe.
Work-wise, I’m the CEO of Power Automedia—an automotive digital media company that was founded in 2006—and my family has a few businesses. I previously co-founded (with former SEMA Board Director Steve Wolcott) ProMedia—an automotive event production company.
SN: Since you began serving on the Board of Directors, you’ve been a strong advocate for racers and motorsports in general. Now that you are chairman, what do you hope to accomplish for that segment of the industry? What kind of priority should it receive?
JL: The motorsports community is extremely vibrant, and the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Trade Show is such an amazing event. It’s not a typical trade show to me, which is more business-to-business, but more an opportunity for racers, media, manufacturers and service providers to interact on a one-on-one personal basis to discuss everything about motorsports. It sets the table to get ready for the new year.
We have a huge opportunity to provide additional and valuable resources for the racing community—to help it grow and to defend it when necessary. It is my hope that we as a Board will be able to continue the work that we’ve already started with the PRI association, continue to expand resources that we are providing the motorsports community and the relocation of PRI to Indy—the heart of
Dr. Jamie Meyer, the new president of PRI, along with [SEMA President and CEO] Chris Kersting, [SEMA Senior Vice President of Operations] Bill Miller and the entire SEMA team have really prioritized motorsports and worked hand-in-hand with the SEMA Board of Directors to make this happen.
Eventually, off-highway activity, of which motorsports is going to be a big component, will become more vital for our industry. When you take a long-tail look at where we are heading with electrification and on-road automotive performance modifications, the reality is that we will need to eventually start thinking about motorsports and off-highway activities on a 30-plus-year roadmap for how we preserve the automotive aftermarket. That might be a difficult thing to come to terms with, but it’s why motorsports and off-highway activities have to be a core part of the developing strategy at SEMA and why we are putting such an effort into the PRI Trade Show and the PRI association.
SN: During the pandemic, some companies have struggled and others have found ways to thrive. What are you hearing from your colleagues? Is there anything SEMA can do to help members who need it most?
JL: It’s been a strange time. Many of our member companies have achieved record-setting sales. Other companies have struggled. It’s complicated to look at the automotive aftermarket industry’s health when you are dealing with the effects of stimulus checks, PPP loans, real estate records, and the stock market at all-time highs.
Overall, I believe that the automotive aftermarket continues to provide value to consumers who are looking to modify their cars, trucks, off-highway vehicles and race cars. The team at SEMA worked unbelievably hard to provide members with guidance through the last two years when there was no playbook to go off.
SN: For members who are relatively unfamiliar with SEMA beyond the SEMA Show, what are some of the benefits you are most proud of that the association provides?
JL: SEMA offers a really comprehensive suite of services for its members. There are really expansive member benefits, and one can find a full list on www.sema.org. SEMA is really mainly known to the public for being a trade show, and that is a real shame in my opinion. It’s really something that needs to change.
The Show is so good that many think that what we call “SEMA” is simply something that happens once a year, but SEMA makes a difference 24 hours a day every day, protecting our industry. We need the public to recognize what SEMA is and what SEMA does so they can help us fight to preserve our industry and to help it prosper. To do that, we need to make people more familiar with SEMA and our strategic priorities. There are millions of people who feel like we feel.
When people ask me why they should be SEMA members, the truth is that, in my eyes, it has nothing to do with member benefits. While it’s not a part of SEMA’s official mission statement, SEMA is in many ways the protector, the leader and the driver of innovation for the entire automotive aftermarket. We might not even have an automotive aftermarket if it weren’t for SEMA.
While it’s true that SEMA exists to support our membership and produce world-class trade shows, there is something bigger. I call it almost a stewardship of this automotive life that so many of us love so dearly. When my wife and I look at our kids and their budding love of cars, we want SEMA to be there for them, to make sure that they’ll get to enjoy the same opportunities so many of us have had.
SN: You have participated in SEMA’s Washington Rally, advocating on behalf of the industry on legislative and regulatory issues. Can you share your perspective on the current legislative/regulatory situation and challenges that our members are facing?
JL: We are facing a tremendous uphill battle. I’d rather just tell it how it is. It’s easy to talk about how awesome everything is and how we are having record sales, but the reality is that electrification is coming, autonomous is coming, Uber is expanding, and most of our members don’t make very many parts for electric vehicles right now.
The aftermarket for electrics is very new and likely to be heavily regulated. We are also in the midst of some absolutely horrendous overreach when it comes to regulating our members’ ability to manufacture racing parts and to create emissions-legal components. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the position that essentially 75% of race cars are illegal. Their argument is that no vehicle originally produced as a production vehicle can ever be converted into a race car. This was a position they took several years ago that they backed off due to tremendous public pressure, but they’ve never actually changed their perspective. They simply backed off on enforcement.
Via that stance, the EPA is taking the position that racing in the United States is practically illegal, despite the fact that the amount of emissions produced by motorsports vehicles is so infinitesimally small that it probably cannot be measured. The EPA is trying to target non-compliant parts, which I think is a very valid and understandable position for the agency to take, but we aren’t willing to let racing be the collateral damage in that mission. Reasonable and pragmatic solutions are available. We’re ready and committed to participate in the process of developing pathways to emissions reduction and compliance, but it takes a true willingness to do so on behalf of all parties involved.
We understand that there are some bad actors when it comes to emissions. As an association, we recognize that we have to be better at creating compliance with our members, providing them better and more proactive guidance, including even non-member manufacturers. But that doesn’t mean that we have to allow the EPA to take a position that destroys an entire industry and almost 100 years of motorsports legacy.
SN: SEMA is expanding its Garage services by opening a second location in Detroit. What do you think that will mean for our members?
JL: SEMA is very committed to creating a legal pathway for emissions-legal parts. That’s why we invested in Detroit and are continuing to create and facilitate ways to create emissions-legal components. Detroit does a lot of things for the industry and SEMA, ranging from advanced driver-
assistance systems capabilities to OEM relationships. Detroit is also much more centrally located and allows us to connect with a large group of manufacturers in Michigan and in the middle of the country. With the addition of the Indy offices for PRI, SEMA as a whole will have a much better footprint to service its members, racers and manufacturers.
SN: What do you see as the association’s top priorities over the next 12 months?
JL: The SEMA Board and SEMA leadership have been working very hard over the past several years under [Immediate Past Chairman of the Board] Tim Martin and Chris Kersting to take a fresh look at all SEMA programs. There has been a lot of optimization during the pandemic.
We are really preparing the association for some transformative changes, to get more nimble and operate in a more tech-centric and digitally focused way. Top priorities for the next year include facilitating and working on the EPA and emissions/regulatory issues, continuing to develop the PRI motorsports road map and association, SEMA Garage Detroit, and looking at ways for us to improve the association’s capabilities and modernize its marketing and communications approach. I’ve really been surprised in a good way by how much heart the SEMA team has. It’s not just a job for the staff.
Looking forward, we’ve got to drive better alignment with our networks and councils, SEMA’s leadership and the SEMA Board of Directors. We have to pull together on the rope to grow this industry. We each can’t have the end of a rope. No matter how hard we pull, we need the collective force.
SN: Connecting with consumers has been a Board-level strategic initiative for years. What is your opinion of SEMA’s progress in that area, and where do you see additional opportunities for
JL: There’s a lot of opportunity for growth there, and it is one of the Board’s top priorities for the next two years. I think you’ll see this at the SEMA and PRI Shows this year, with some upcoming announcements and an expansion in enthusiast access and events in 2022 and beyond. SEMA will do a much better job of speaking to consumers and enthusiasts and creating more touch points for them.
SN: What are you looking forward to most at the 2021 SEMA Show? Any traditions, any must-see, can’t-miss plans? How will you know you’re back at the SEMA Show?
JL: I walked into my first SEMA Show when I was 18 years old and marveled at the world I’d walked into. Losing the Show last year really showed me what magic we all missed. I just want to hear the crowd, see the cars and witness the amazing West Hall. It will feel like my first time at the Show all over again.
SN: Anything else you’d like to add?
My commitment to SEMA, PRI, the SEMA members and our industry is to lead with passion and kindness. Change isn’t easy, and there are many big projects ahead of us. Only by working together for a common goal will we achieve. There are tough decisions that need to
I am looking forward to working together with the SEMA Board of Directors, the SEMA leadership team, the SEMA staff, SEMA members and automotive enthusiasts everywhere to collaborate on this mission. We need you. This isn’t something that can be done alone.
For more information on SEMA, PRI, legislative and regulatory advocacy, and the association’s upcoming trade shows, visit: