Wade Kawasaki (right)
Eric Grant (right)
SEMA News—August 2013
Four Who Made a Difference
George Barris, Eric Grant, Wade Kawasaki and Joe Schubeck Enter SEMA’s Hall of Fame
Often, those who truly make a difference never really set out to do so. They’re simply pursuing a dream, a passion. And yet, through sheer perseverance, innovation, dedication and a high dose of excellence, they somehow suddenly find themselves changing everything, revolutionizing an industry and inspiring a legion of followers.
Since 1969, the SEMA Hall of Fame has celebrated outstanding people who have enhanced the stature of, or significantly contributed to, the industry and/or our trade association’s growth.
The bar for induction is deliberately set high. Candidates must have at least 10 years of experience with the specialty-equipment industry. Their influence must be at least national in scope. And finally, nominees must demonstrate technical achievement, unquestioned integrity and extraordinary leadership in advancing the industry.
This year’s inductees certainly fulfill all those criteria and more. George Barris, Eric Grant, Wade Kawasaki and Joe Schubeck have each in their own way made monumental impacts on not only the aftermarket but on the broader automotive culture as well. SEMA News is proud to present their stories and achievements in the following pages. It’s impossible to imagine what ourindustry would be like today without their many and varied contributions.
It’s one thing to be successful in the automotive specialty-equipment industry; it’s quite another to make a positive, lasting impact.
Legendary Vehicle Customizer
Is there a movie, television series or celebrity that George Barris hasn’t customized a car for?
That’s the question you have to ask when visiting his shop in North Hollywood, California. Every inch of the place is packed with photos and memorabilia from countless stars he has known and the Hollywood vehicles he has built for them over the course of his 60-plus-year career.
Remember K.I.T.T. from “Knight Rider?” The General Lee from “Dukes of Hazard?” The “Munsters” coach and the “Beverly Hillbillies” pickup? Those are just a few of his many iconic creations. Then there’s also one of six Batmobiles he built for the ’60s “Batman” television series still sitting in his showroom. (The first of the group, which Barris customized from a ’55 Lincoln Futura concept car, went for $4.62 million at auction earlier this year.)
But it’s not his cars that Barris is most proud of; it’s the relationships he’s forged.
“I’m a people guy,” he smiled. “People to me are more important.”
Indeed, Barris has known—and built cars for—an extensive roster of legendary customers: Clark Gable, James Dean, Elvis Presley, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and the entire Rat Pack. The names go on. Given all his achievements, it’s interesting that his high-school principal considered him least likely to succeed.
Barris was born in Chicago, but his mother died when he was only three, leading him and his brother to move in with an uncle in Sacramento, California.
“When I went to school, I wanted to do cars,” he recalled, “so I went to Roseville High where they regretfully sent me to the metal class to make drainpipes. I didn’t want to make drainpipes. So I quit. Next I went to San Juan High School. Same thing. I said I wanted to design and make cars. They said, ‘We’ll put you in cooking class.’ I quit. I went and hung around a body shop. They taught me how to weld with an acetylene torch….”
Barris quickly put his shop skills to work, customizing his first car at age 14—a ’32 Ford with cat’s-eye taillights. He did eventually make his way back to high school for his diploma. Then, after his brother completed military service, the two resettled in Lynwood, California, where Barris opened his first custom shop.
“I got really strong into aftermarket parts, but I did not only do car parts; I did toys,” he said, explaining that he designed and constructed model cars for Revell and other toymakers in advance of real-life vehicle debuts. “Then, when I got married, my dear wife, who has since passed away, was very energetic about marketing,” he said, “so I learned how to be a marketing wizard along with creating and designing cars.”
And what is George’s favorite all-time innovation?
“I really don’t have one, because each one was a different challenge,” he answered modestly. “And I love challenges.”
Moreover, Barris has always drawn heavily on specialty equipment to meet his challenges. In fact, if he faults today’s customizers for anything, it’s in forgetting their aftermarket roots.
“The custom industry is growing by leaps and bounds,” he said. “Every show I go to is expanding. But we’re losing aftermarket parts—and by that I mean bolt-ons. Most everyone nowadays is chopping tops and so forth. They’re not putting on a bolt-on bumper, a headlight or something like that. They make everything now. The industry and SEMA need to continue to make it easier for the enthusiast not only to home-build, but shop-build a vehicle.”
Barris has promoted grassroots customizing with many how-to articles for Motor Trend, Hot Rod, Car Craft and related magazines. And he’s still pushing fresh design trends for new cars, including hybrids. Despite a long list of international accolades, Barris considered induction into the SEMA Hall of Fame a special honor.
“I’ve belonged to a lot of associations, and I’ve gotten a lot of awards from the movie industry, but SEMA is my world,” he said. “I’m a car guy.”
First SEMA Executive Director
At first glance, Eric Grant may seem an unlikely SEMA Hall of Fame candidate. He never owned a garage, never built a performance vehicle, never manufactured or even sold an automotive part. A lawyer by trade, he couldn’t be classified as a “car guy” per se. Yet his profound impact on the automotive aftermarket and SEMA’s earliest years cannot be disputed. After all, he was SEMA’s very first executive director—and how that came to be involved an incredible twist of fate.
In the ’50s and ’60s, local, state and federal governments were increasingly regulating emissions and vehicle performance parts to address air quality and safety concerns. The aftermarket felt threatened, and yet the industry surprisingly tapped one of the most ardent regulators to lead SEMA. That was Grant. He turned out to be the right man for the job at exactly the right time, ushering in a period of tremendous association growth.
“I got involved with government regulations at cabinet level for California’s then-governor Ronald Reagan,” recalled Grant. “I was with what is now known as the California Air Resources Board, but at that time it was the Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board. I got involved in 1960.
I had four years with the local air pollution control district in Los Angeles, which is now known as the South Coast Air Basin. I was selected by the county board of supervisors to represent Southern California at the state level.”
He also served under President Johnson at the federal level to help establish the precursor to what has now become the Environmental Protection Agency.
Grant, who has degrees in law and engineering, was a staunch advocate of air-quality standards. But he also believed in the specialty-equipment industry’s ability to meet those standards.
“Representatives of SEMA came to me sometime between 1963 and 1965,” he said. “They were most concerned that the laws that were being put together were going to restrict the ability of the aftermarket to produce parts for motor vehicles.
I sat down with Willie Garner, Dean Moon and a whole bunch of other people and said, ‘Look, I’ve already put in the law, but if you can build a better product, you’re going to be legal.”
Somehow, there was a meeting of the minds, with the industry representatives realizing they needed someone like Grant at SEMA’s helm and Grant realizing the good that SEMA could do for automotive issues. By 1968, he found himself leaving his government responsibilities to direct SEMA, which had only about 25 to 30 members at the time.
As executive director, he was instrumental in changing the name of what was then known as the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association to the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association. A bylaws change also opened SEMA to the entire range of aftermarket businesses, from manufacturers to distributors and from retailers to service providers. (That inclusiveness would eventually lead to the organization’s Specialty Equipment Market Association moniker, which is still in use today.)
“When we did that, it just opened the floodgates,” he stated proudly, noting that SEMA had grown to more than 500 member companies by the time he left. But the early years were not easy.
“We were faced with legal challenges by the California Highway Patrol, the Department of Transportation and a bunch of wackos in Pennsylvania,” he quipped. “The challenges we faced were keeping the aftermarket legal. Because I had the experience writing the laws, I was able to exercise knowledge.”
Detroit also proved less than friendly to the young trade association. “They didn’t want anyone messing around with their vehicles,” he remembered.
Under Grant, however, SEMA met those obstacles head on, setting best practices and product standards for its membership that met and often surpassed the automakers’ specifications. Meanwhile, the association also forged a strong alliance with the National Hot Rod Association, acting as a de facto safety arm for its
After his stint as executive director ended in 1973, Grant continued several years with SEMA as its legal council and governmental affairs officer. He is now retired and living in San Diego.
From Gas Jockey to Aftermarket Executive
Wade Kawasaki was pumping gas at the corner of Venice and Vermont in Downtown Los Angeles when he was just 10 years old. The year was 1970, and he was working at his father’s Shell gas station, which Kawasaki describes as a window into what was coming in his life. “Just filling up those musclecars of the day with gas, washing their windows and checking their oil—I got to look under their hoods,” he explained. “That was cool stuff!”
Fast forward to 1978, and Kawasaki was working as a counterman for the Retail Speed Shop and Accessories Centers chain. From this vantage point, he observed a steady influx of customers from overseas. Enthusiasts were walking into the store mainly from Scandinavia, searching for American musclecar parts. In an effort to better serve those customers, Kawasaki suggested that his employer start an export department, but his boss saw no need and thought that if people wanted to buy parts, they’d come into the stores.
Although his effort was initially rejected, the idea eventually spawned a business plan. In 1987, Kawasaki and his wife Rose, started their own company—Exports International—in their two-bedroom house in Gardena, California.
Kawasaki remembers their humble beginnings. “We used one bedroom as an office, our front porch as a loading dock and the living room as a warehouse, and packed product on our dining room table,” said Kawasaki. “We literally had 4x8 plywood sheets that I used to make storage racks and little tunnels that I set up all around the house so we could walk through. Our home was filled to the top with automotive and marine products.
“In 1988, Rose joined our business full time, and we moved the business into our first warehouse. I fondly remember Rose typing invoices with our infant son in a Snugli on her lap, while I made numerous trips to the airport delivering freight in my Blazer.”
Hoping for advice on operating his small but rapidly growing business, Kawasaki joined SEMA. As a member of the association, he took advantage of every member benefit available, including global shipping incentives, marketing opportunities and the most important tool—networking. It was former SEMA Vice President Don Turney who encouraged him to get actively involved, beginning with an effort to try to organize SEMA’s younger professionals.
His volunteer work with the newly established Young Executives Network was only the beginning. Through these volunteer efforts he was selected by his peers as Young Executive of the Year, the Chairman’s Service Award and SEMA’s Person of the Year. In 1996, Kawasaki was elected to the SEMA Board of Directors. Suddenly, he wasn’t just networking with his peers at member companies; he was interacting with legends of our industry and future mentors Brian Appelgate, Harry Hibler and Corky Coker.
“Here’s a guy from Chattanooga, Tennessee, who I would probably never have met, in a segment of the industry that I knew very little about—vintage tires,” said Kawasaki. “And because of our work together in [SEMA] leadership—especially when I served as secretary/treasurer for the Board—it’s led to this opportunity to work with Corky.”
At present, Kawasaki is the executive vice president of Coker Group, which includes 11 different companies. And despite his success, he remains humble about his ongoing career, stating simply that it is a tremendous blessing. “Each day I get to enjoy my passion for performance vehicles, collaborate with people who I truly enjoy being with and whom I consider some of my closest friends,” he said. He even admits that he’s enjoying things far too much to consider retirement.
Kawasaki also remains as committed as ever to SEMA, insisting that there’s always a need to stay connected and tuned in to the industry. Whether he’s serving as a sponsor/organizer for the annual SEMA Show Prayer Breakfast, providing training for SEMA council leadership, facilitating the onboarding of newly elected members of SEMA’s Board of Directors or being called upon as a speaker during SEMA Show Education Day, he continues to generously donate his time to the association.
In addition to SEMA, Kawasaki also enjoys spending time with his family. They reside in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, where the entire family is active at Rolling Hills Covenant Church. His wife Rose runs their company and serves as the chair of the SEMA Businesswomen’s Network. They have two children, Timothy and Alyssa. Timothy also seems to have picked up the automotive bug and currently works as the materials manager at Wheel Vintiques. Alyssa also has a love for cars and was recently chosen to do a radio commercial for the Ford Focus. Based on the success of the radio spot, she was also featured in several TV commercials.
Even though his family is clearly no stranger to success, when SEMA President and CEO Chris Kersting contacted Kawasaki to announce that he had been selected to enter the Hall of Fame (HOF), the entire family was beyond proud. “I’ve heard HOF members speak about getting that call from Chris,” said Kawasaki. “It was pretty much a heart-stopping moment for me. I am rarely at a loss for words, but I was totally speechless,” laughed Kawasaki.
Certainly things have changed since he was pumping gas at that Shell station, but all of his success originates from a simple life lesson. It is advice he hopes future generations will take to heart: “Become a lifelong learner, commit to something you’re truly passionate about and you can accomplish some really amazing things.”
“Gentleman Joe” Schubeck
Innovator of the Lakewood Scattershield Bellhousing
Turning the pages of Petersen’s Hot Rod magazine, Joe Schubeck fell in love with drag racing. At age 13, he read all the articles written by Wally Parks, and those stories ignited a lifelong passion.
Still in high school, Schubeck learned of a speed shop that just opened in Lakewood, Ohio, and soon met the owner, fellow drag-racing enthusiast Jack Harris. Jack couldn’t find the time to finish a dragster he had started and ultimately Schubeck “inherited” the dragster and started working on it immediately. Just before his high-school graduation, Schubeck’s fantasy of being a drag racer was about to come true…and his maiden voyage down the quarter-mile strip in Akron, Ohio, was against the Arfons brothers.
“They lined me up for what I thought was going to be a solo run, but then held me there while they brought up the Arfons’ ‘Bologna Slicer’ in the left lane, I was nervous, to put it mildly,” said Schubeck. “Arfons had a really big engine, and it looked like a locomotive next to me. When I looked over, all I saw were the blades of his propellers spinning next to my head, and I thought, ‘If I don’t get away first and stay way over to the right, I’m going to be the sliced bologna they’re talking about.’”
Schubeck failed to shift his two-speed transmission into high gear and ultimately lost his first race. Afterward, he met the entire Arfons family and realized two things: Drag racing was incredibly fun, and he needed to swap out his flathead engine.
By his third year racing, Schubeck met Joe Scarpelli, an expert on Chrysler Hemi engines from Cleveland, Ohio. The two decided to build a Double A gas dragster with a blown Chrysler Hemi, and that’s when things took off.
“I built my own tubular chassis in 1958 explained Schubeck. “Our success created sales, so in 1959 I found myself in business. I called it Lakewood Chassis Company.”
One of the most difficult pieces to construct for the chassis was the aluminum Direct Drive bellhousing. So he went in search of a better way that would eliminate all the welding it took to produce the part. While visiting a fabrication shop in Cleveland, he learned about a new metal fabrication process called Hydroforming.
Through persistence, he found open time on a machine that would make the part that he had designed. Using a special die and some circular flat aluminum plate, Schubeck was holding a gorgeous, seamless, aluminum bellhousing, just 24 seconds after the operator had hit the button. It was a tremendous product, and his old friend Jack Harris, now running “Rush Sales,” knew what it might mean to the industry. Across the country, drag racing was plagued with flywheel and clutch explosions. Chunks of cast iron were flying into grandstands, sometimes proving fatal for drivers and spectators.
Harris theorized that if the housing would contain a flywheel explosion, then Schubeck would be sitting on a multi-million dollar product. Turns out he was right. Making the housing using ductile ¼-in. steel in place of aluminum proved to be the secret, and in-house testing proved that it held the shrapnel from an exploding flywheel.
The catch to developing such a coveted product was that Schubeck was going to have to retire as a driver. He reluctantly stepped away from the cockpit, and the move paid off. Before long, he and his partner Bill Steiskal had two shifts going seven days a week, putting skid loads of the new steel bellhousings on trucks. Lakewood Chassis Company had now transitioned into Lakewood Industries.
“All the manufacturers that I read about through Petersen’s magazines, i.e., Iskenderian, Edelbrock, now, I was a player with them,” Schubeck said. “Going to trade shows and setting up distributors to sell merchandise and all the challenges that go with producing and selling a product—that was a life changer for me.”
In addition to his business success, he also found a way to stay in touch with the dragstrip crowd. Much to his surprise, George Hurst reached out to Schubeck with a unique opportunity to pilot a special Exhibition Funny Car they built and named the Hurst Hairy Oldsmobile. It featured two blown nitro-burning engines, slicks on all four corners and boasted at least 5,000 hp. Initially, Schubeck was not interested in piloting the vehicle, but George had a trick up his sleeve.
“George laid a few photographs down on the table and said, ‘I want you to see the new girl I’ve hired for Miss Golden Shifter,’” Schubeck said. “She was the most gorgeous woman I’d ever seen. And then George said, ‘Her name is Linda Vaughn, and as part of your pit crew, she’ll be there to take your top hat and white gloves as you get into the car.’”
Schubeck was sold on the project, and Jim Dietz agreed to craft a fire suit befitting of the nickname “Gentleman Joe.” The tuxedo-like suit included formal long tails and even the bow tie was fireproof. For two final seasons, Joe Schubeck was back where he started, rocketing down local dragstrips.
As a former member of the SEMA Board of Directors and a pioneer of the SEMA Safety Committee, Schubeck’s dedication to drag racing is truly inspiring. It is the association’s privilege to now invite him to take his place in the Hall of Fame alongside fellow legends in the specialty-equipment industry. He always wanted to sit behind the wheel of a dragster but was willing to sacrifice his racing career. As a result, after 50 years, his Lakewood Bellhousing innovation is still saving lives at tracks all across the country.