By Mike Imlay
SEMA Battle of the Builders
Watch the New Industry Star Vehicle Set to Air on March 8
Warm up your TV and mark your calendar for 8:00 p.m. EDT on Sunday, March 8. That’s the date and time set for the premiere airing of the one-hour SEMA Battle of the Builders program on the Velocity Network—an in-depth TV event promising to focus new consumer attention on the creativity, products and vehicle builds of the annual SEMA Show.
“We’re extremely excited about the upcoming debut airing of our very first SEMA Battle of the Builders competition,” said Chris Kersting, SEMA president and CEO. “A lot of thought and hard work went into both the competition and the television production.
“Our industry is continually looking for fresh new ways to share its passion with the public and ultimately get consumers excited about our car culture and products. When the television audience tunes in to the SEMA Battle of the Builders, they’ll not only get an inside glimpse of what happens at the trade-only SEMA Show, but they’ll also get a special up-close look at the very best of the Show’s hundreds of display vehicles designed to showcase industry innovation and product.”
Peter MacGillivray, SEMA vice president of communications and events, noted that there has always been a pent-up interest swirling around the SEMA Show among consumers because it’s closed to the general public.
“The SEMA Battle of the Builders is an unprecedented consumer-awareness initiative and a great touchpoint for our industry,” MacGillivray said. “It’s simultaneously a celebration of the creative minds behind our industry’s products and a way to communicate the SEMA Show magic to millions of consumers through television.”
More than 125 SEMA Show vehicle builders and car customizers were entered into the first-ever SEMA Battle of the Builders, which culminated on the SEMA Ignited stage at The LINQ on Friday, November 7, 2014. The builders represented an elite group of individuals who demonstrated extreme talent, creativity and craftsmanship in modifying cars, trucks and SUVs.
Pouring through the entries, the editors of three leading automotive magazines—Sam Du from Super Street, David Freiburger from Hot Rod and Fred Williams from Petersen’s 4-Wheel & Off-Road—selected the top 10 builders, who were announced at the SEMA Show on Tuesday, November 4. Those 10 finalists then went on to judge one another and vote together for the ultimate winner of the 2014 SEMA Battle of the Builders, announced at the SEMA Ignited afterparty before a live audience.
Throughout the competition, television producer Bud Brutsman, CEO of BCII-TV, was on hand with his crew to document nearly every phase of the contest for Velocity’s nationwide TV special.
The Making of the Show
Brutsman’s multi-media company has produced major-network automotive shows for more than 15 years, including such popular series as “Car Crazy,” “Hot Rod TV,” “Rides” and “Overhaulin’.” He told SEMA News that the annual trade-only SEMA Show has always figured prominently in his work.
“At any one time at the Show each year, we’re producing two to five hours of television,” he said. “This year was no exception. I was working very closely with the executives at SEMA to launch a bunch of my productions at the Show when I was approached by Discovery [parent company to Velocity] and asked what I thought of this SEMA Battle of the Builders idea and could I pull it off at the SEMA Ignited event? I said yes and immediately started planning.”
The logistics were tricky for the BCII-TV team. In addition to the company’s several other productions throughout Show week, an episode of “Overhaulin’” was already set to be filmed on the SEMA Ignited stage on Friday night. Coordinating between “Overhaulin’” and the SEMA Battle of the Builders required careful timing, stage management and a lot of camera turning.
“It was a good little dance for us,” quipped Brutsman, who noted that a great deal of time and attention went into the SEMA Battle of the Builders from start to finish. “The first night [of the SEMA Show], I had to sit down with the judges till 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning as they whittled down more than 100 of SEMA Battle of the Builders applications to the top 10.”
Moreover, Brutsman went on location in the months leading up to the Show to film several builders as they worked on project vehicles for the SEMA Show in their shops and garages, not knowing which, if any, would make the final-10 cut.
“I and my team had to guess which shops to go visit,” explained Brutsman. “There were hundreds of hours of footage, because we had multiple cameras going everywhere.”
One of Brutsman’s lucky guesses was Poison Spyder Customs, in Banning, California, where owner Larry McRae was at work on Crispy, a 3D CAD-designed Ultra4/King of the Hammers off-road racer. Based on a Jeep Wrangler platform, Crispy did ultimately make the judges’ cut for the top 10 finalists.
“We loved working with the film crew,” McRae said. “Some of them we knew from past projects, so it was like working with old friends. We’re very proud of what we do at Poison Spyder, so any time we can host a film crew or any sort of media people, we love having them here and showing off what we do.
“Crispy is a bit different from most of the SEMA Battle of the Builders entries because it was designed and built to perform a purpose, not primarily as a show vehicle. Of course, it turned out beautifully, and we’ve used it on our show circuit to promote Poison Spyder and the level of engineering and craftsmanship we are capable of. For us, the thrill was just in being included with such a high-caliber company.
“The other builders are legends in building beautiful, show-stopping hot rods and show cars. That the organizers of the SEMA Battle of the Builders felt Crispy was worthy of consideration among such amazing talent was a huge highlight to us.”
McRae sees the upcoming airing of the SEMA Battle of the Builders as a boost not only for his shop but also for the overall specialty-equipment market.
“Obviously, we hope to gain publicity for Poison Spyder, our products and the racing and custom fabrication side of our business,” he said. “But the bigger picture is that our inclusion in the SEMA Battle of the Builders will help raise the profile of off-road motorsports, off-road recreation, Jeeps and 4x4 aftermarket products in general. This show will help bring our sport and hobby to a wider audience, which will be helpful to our entire industry, not just Poison Spyder.”
Battle of the Builders Top 10
This car has been chopped and smoothed and features a Corvette-styled interior. The motor is a rare McLaren/Chevrolet big-block with a stack injection. The coupe was built on an Art Morrison chassis and equipped with one-off billet wheels.
The Evolution features a full tube chassis with a Triton V10 under the hood hooked to a Z06 Corvette drivetrain. Aram is currently upgrading the V10 with better-flowing heads. At Detroit Autorama, the car won “Best Street Car” and “Outstanding Engineering” awards.
Constructed from the ground up as a prerunner, no expense was spared to combine the raw power of a trophy truck with the modern comforts of a luxury make. Dondel has best described the truck as a “sports car for the dirt.”
This Black Pearl’s body was completely built from scratch by hand. The interior and exterior trim is made of brass and all interior panels and seats were custom built then wrapped in leather. It’s powered by a 302 engine with C4 transmission.
Kinsey’s four-door sedan features a 312 Y block Hilborn injection, which was converted to electronic. The car has a custom frame with no B pillar between the doors, providing a wide-open interior, which was achieved by integrating the B-pillar structure into the leading edge of the rear suicide doors. A multi-award winner, this car features many handmade components.
Ladd’s ’32 Ford Roadster was built in the pre-war European style of Brooklands race cars. This car is completely hand-built with many Bugatti design elements. The right-hand-drive car features a completely fabricated body; a sectioned, lengthened, wood deck; a re-shaped grille; handmade chassis; and Bugatti headlights and taillights. It’s powered by a Ford Flathead with rare Elco twin plug heads.
Nicknamed Crispy, this Jeep began its life using only a frame left over from a fire that destroyed the once-stock JK. The Jeep is built to compete at the King of the Hammers, and every part was designed and crafted by the engineers and staff at Poison Spyder Customs.
Mike and Jim Ring
The Ringbrothers’ Chevelle blends the raw power of a race car with the style and sleekness of show car. Custom aluminum paneling makes the car light, and the Whipple-supercharged Wegner Motorsports LS7 engine cranks out an impressive 980 hp. The highly detailed finish is provided by BASF Glasurit 90-Line Waterborne paint combined with custom carbon-fiber panels and trim pieces.
The Ford Black Ops Fairlane was originally designed to push the limits of engine and racing components in ways that would otherwise be illegal in competition. Today, the car’s upgrades include an aluminum engine built by Ed Pink, custom intake by Pure Vision, custom headers and exhaust by Aron Cranford, Global West A-arms and adjustable strut rods, and “anti-dive” shocks from JRi Shocks.
The ’69 Camaro’s hood features functional air inlets that push airflow to the custom intake that’s feeds a MAST supercharged LS7 engine. Inside, the interior was fabricated with aluminum panels and then wrapped in leather. Stopping power is provided by Baer Brakes and a custom ABS unit from Bosch Motorsports, which can be tuned for better performance on the road or at the track.
The inclusion of a hard-core Jeep underscores a major point of the SEMA Battle of the Builders: The competition was deliberately designed to showcase the breadth and variety of the industry.
“We wanted to encourage broad participation,” emphasized MacGillivray. “While there can be only one winner, we celebrate everybody. The judges were encouraged to go beyond who simply did the best restoration and pick winners who were forward-looking and unique. It was all about innovation in showcasing product.”
According to Brutsman, the entire competition makes for compelling television.
“That’s the beauty of SEMA Battle of the Builders,” he said. “It didn’t just do vintage hot rods. We had Camaros in there, vintage hot rods, off-road racing trucks, and we had tuner cars. I think we’re going to get a really good audience mix, because people are going to want to see who won because we are involving the different facets of our sport. It’s
Brutsman said that the television special is designed to take viewers on a journey through the SEMA Show in search of their own dream cars.
“Vendors do it, attendees do it, and now our audience—the general public—gets to pick their favorite car of SEMA,” he said. “Plus, you get to see these guys in their garages.
“Some of them have small garages. They’re just like you and me. Some have extraordinary talents and extraordinary clients, but they’re just regular guys. I think anytime you do these halo vehicles, it really inspires. Anything that is going to spark personalization and customization of a vehicle is going to help consumers.”
Window Into Car Culture
Beyond the excitement of following a competition, Brutsman believes the SEMA Battle of the Builders offers viewers a fresh window into the car culture.
“The SEMA Show gets covered by thousands and thousands of press people throughout the world, and you get videos online and TV shows that kind of glance through it,” he asserted. “This is the only show that I’ve ever been involved with where you actually get to sit down and look at the top 10 cars of the Show. We’ve gone through hundreds of them, and we’ve visited builders at their shops, seen what’s gone into the cars, actually broken things down and watched what they put into them. You really get to understand what a SEMA build is.”
Plus, he said, the television special also has an educational component.
“What was unique to me was the process,” he said. “We had three basic fields of cars coming together—the tuner cars, the four-wheel-drive cars and the custom hot rod cars. We had three distinct judges, David Freiburger from Hot Rod magazine, Fred Williams from Petersen’s 4-Wheel & Off-Road, and Sam Du from Super Street magazine.
“But here’s what happened—which I thought was incredibly unique for our audience: When we’d go up to an off-road vehicle, our hot rod and tuner guys would take a step back, and our four-wheel guy would step forward and take center stage. Each individual with his different interests would take the lead in explaining why a vehicle [in his niche] was super cool or why it was not so super cool and just normal. Each individual guy was teaching the other two guys the different disciplines. The reason why that’s important for me is that my audience is learning also, while they’re telling each other those things.
“The hard part in television—any type of television—is to teach people in a way that’s not forceful. In the SEMA Battle of the Builders, we get to deliver really good information to people, educate them on our sport and the uniqueness of it, without being heavy handed or sounding cocky. You’re learning something without having the information shoved down your throat.”
The SEMA Battle of the Builders documentary even offers viewers a few interesting twists as it builds up to the naming of the competition’s winner. After seeing some of the builders in their shops, we next watch the judges labor through their piles of photos and entries in search of the SEMA Show’s 10 best vehicles, then visit each of the 10 finalists to let them know they’ve made the cut to appear at the SEMA Ignited event for final judging.
“All of a sudden, we take a left turn,” said Brutsman. “Now we have 10 cars that our judges think are the best cars entered at the SEMA Show. We take those 10 cars, throw them out there, and give those same 10 builders clipboards and tell them, ‘You guys pick the winners.’ They had 10 minutes to tell the other nine judges—who are their competitors—why their car was unique, why it should win. These builders took it so seriously. It was so interesting to watch the whole judging process.”
Join the 2015 Battle
The SEMA Battle of the Builders is open exclusively to project vehicles displayed by SEMA Show exhibitors, who are highly encouraged to enter the competition. The contest is specially designed to showcase the endless variety of vehicles, concepts and products that shape the aftermarket industry, so all types of vehicle builds are welcome. Go to the SEMA Ignited website for further details.
Detroit Speed president Kyle Tucker, who saw his ’69 Camaro project vehicle rise to the top 10, recalled the intense scramble of the final judging.
“A lot of my hot-rodding heroes were in that final 10,” he said. “I just get goosebumps still talking about it. We were crawling under the cars like any gearhead would do—inside the cars, under the cars, in the engine compartments.”
Built for customer Angelo Vespi of St. Augustine, Florida, the Camaro featured numerous complicated modifications, including a supercharged, 800hp Mast LS-7 engine, extensive front hood and sheetmetal work, LED lighting, a high-end AMG-style interior and sound makeover, and a full rollcage integrating Bluetooth technology for phone and stereo. The package was rounded out with navigation and climate-control systems, Recarro seats and fiber-optic lighting in the door panels. In the end, Tucker found his vehicle sharing center stage among the competition’s final three with a ’32 Ford four-door sedan by Jeff Kinsey and a ’66 Chevy Chevelle by Mike and Jim Ring.
“Being up there with Jeff Kinsey and Mike Ring—everything they bring out is so high end,” said Tucker. “Just to be in the mix there on stage with those two—again, I didn’t think it could get any better than that.”
But it did, and viewers of the television special will get to share his excitement at being crowned the winner of the first SEMA Battle of the Builders after an incredible journey that began with the simple desire for greater exposure at the SEMA Show.
“Being an engineering and parts manufacturer and also a car builder, every time you go to the SEMA Show, you like to highlight whatever your latest parts are with your latest car build for a customer, and it’s always the cream of the crop at SEMA, so it’s hard to stand out among all the great cars and everything that people bring,” Tucker explained. “When I heard about the SEMA Battle of the Builders, I thought that was a way to have some extra emphasis and showcase a customer’s car, which we were really excited about bringing out this year.”
He said that the chance to excite consumers through the upcoming television special is like icing on the cake.
“There’s usually all types of trade-only people at SEMA,” he said. “But then, when you take it outside of SEMA and you give the public a peek behind the curtains and allow them to come into that huge afterparty of SEMA Ignited, to have it all culminate with the winner of the SEMA Battle of the Builders—as a manufacturer and a car builder, those are people we probably haven’t reached before. It was neat to have that opportunity.”