Two Decades of Political Horsepower

SEMA News—August 2017

LEGISLATIVE AND TECHNICAL AFFAIRS

By SEMA Government Affairs Staff

Two Decades of Political Horsepower

History of the SEMA Action Network

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The SEMA Action Network (SAN) was formed in 1997 to unite vehicle clubs, enthusiasts and members of the specialty auto parts industry as a political voice for the hobby. SAN efforts have resulted in positive outcomes on a wide range of issues, from vehicle scrappage laws to equipment standards, registration classifications, emissions-test exemptions and hobbyist rights.
   

A platinum anniversary is an occasion not to be taken lightly. Significant measures are required to craft a fresh concept from nothing and make it last for two decades. To remain relevant, a new program must be built with enough purpose, stamina and heart to hold ongoing relevance. Changes in technologies can render obsolete even the most well-intentioned projects. Thankfully for fans of cars and trucks, there is a dedicated legion that has steadily grown and positioned itself as a legislative force in advocating for fair automotive laws throughout the United States and Canada. For those who have followed its progress, it may come as a surprise that the accomplishments of the SEMA Action Network (SAN) now span 20 years.

Origin of the SAN

Like many ideas, the SAN’s journey to become the auto hobby’s national legislative voice began as a solution to a specific problem. The topic of vehicle scrappage (commonly known as “Cash for Clunkers”) was posing an imminent threat in the mid-’90s. A lot of good vehicles would likely end up in the crusher without really addressing the pollution problem. At the time, SEMA’s current President and CEO Chris Kersting was the head of SEMA’s government affairs office based in Washington, D.C. He remembers the moment of inspiration for starting the SAN vividly:

“I was on the phone discussing the crusher issue with staff from Year One Inc. They had been successful in opposing scrappage programs by putting out flyers at car shows and working with local car clubs. When I hung up the phone, I realized that SEMA’s resources could help create a grassroots enthusiast network to challenge unreasonable laws and regulations. It would be a ‘list of lists’ to energize clubs at the top level, who would then take our message outward. It was an idea that seemed to make sense. From that little start, we just built it and grew it.”

As an industry organization, SEMA has a membership comprised mostly of automotive businesses, which by themselves can have an impact on how laws are formed. However, Kersting noticed that “when you talk to hobbyists about taking away the things they enjoy on the weekend—such as cars and trucks—the reaction is strong and passionate. We realized how incredible the responses could be from the affected community of car guys and gals.”

The SAN was formed as an organization with the means to create a way for enthusiasts to participate in the process. That group would keep individuals informed on proposed laws and regulations and create a method to bring their collective voice to bear on those issues.

“Forming the SAN was a true grassroots, organic effort—there was no real e-mail yet!” Kersting remembered.

One Call at a Time

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The first SAN Director was Brian Caudill, pictured here with his ’71 Chevy SS El Camino.
 
   

Car clubs were an untapped group of enthusiasts at the time. Based on phone calls explaining the concept, car club leaders would agree to receive legislative information and disseminate it to their members. The first SAN Director, Brian Caudill, made dinner-time solicitation calls to club presidents.

“I grew up under a car, so I was readily familiar with the car nuts we were attempting to attract to this effort,” he recalled.

Caudill worked split days to get the plan moving by cold-calling car club leaders nationwide. Several hours in the morning spent sending solicitations introducing the program were followed by a longer night shift for contacting clubs from east to west by time zone. Internet information on the clubs was scarce, so some print publications such as Hemmings Motor News and Old Cars Weekly were invaluable in collecting leads.

The calls went well because there was a great message behind the conversation. The SAN was about giving enthusiasts the tools to protect the hobby they held dear. Some were wary of personal contact information being used as a marketing tool to sell the industry’s products. Thus, the promise was made to these club leaders that they would receive only legislative information from the SAN. This promise remains in effect to this day.

Driving Force’s Debut

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A founding member of the SEMA Action Network (SAN), Virginia’s Tom Cox has dedicated more than two decades of legislative service to the automotive community. He is shown here riding proudly with his Great Pyrenees in a ’64 Cadillac convertible.
   

A method of communication was necessary in order to have a community that would thrive and grow. The team realized that there was enough information about what the state and federal governments were doing each month to fill a newsletter. The office’s receptionist, Tony Mills, expressed an interest in desktop publishing. He gathered up the information and put together the first issue of Driving Force.

“At first, it looked like a fraternity newsletter to me,” Caudill joked. A system for tapping into the group to influence legislative proposals was employed by the second year. As Caudill explained, “This method was ‘fully analog,’ about as pre-digital as it could get.”

Researcher Joe Hill would perform an intensive physical search through state proposals. SEMA Vice President of Government Affairs Steve McDonald, who was then directing the state advocacy effort, received those bills impacting the hobby, crafted an advocacy strategy, and then drafted concise Legislative Action Alert messages. Caudill then sent out the messages to the affected enthusiast communities, often by regular mail and fax.

“I didn’t have to worry about message reach, because they all went through,” he added. Good fortune over time allowed the SAN to become connected online and really take off. “Sure enough, folks contacted their lawmakers when asked and even showed up at the statehouse to testify,” Caudill said. “It was so gratifying to see it all beginning to work.”

A slew of challenges quickly consumed the SAN during its infancy. Before the group could begin making an impact on legislative efforts nationwide, it first had to prioritize the issues of the day. Identifying and understanding the threats and opportunities affecting the automotive hobby was vital to future success. The SAN began tracking those priority issues and responding throughout the legislative sessions in each of the 50 states. A unified voice was needed to spread the word about the effort. Individuals were recruited to engage local car clubs and relevant business interests. It was determined that reliable allies around the country could most effectively reach their communities and spread the word about SAN initiatives.

Call for Action—Cash for Clunkers

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Formed in 2005, the SAN-supported State Automotive Enthusiast Leadership Caucus is now made up of more than 650 legislators from around the country with a common goal to support the motor vehicle hobby. The caucus has been chaired by former Montana Senator Brueggeman (right), former New York Assemblyman Bill Reilich (left) and is currently lead by West Virginia Delegate Gary Howell (center).
 
   

Initially, fighting state and federal scrappage programs that target vintage cars and trucks struck a chord as the issue that united each niche segment of the hobby. Those Cash for Clunkers initiatives sought to accelerate the normal demise of vehicles through the immediate retirement of older models that were then typically crushed into blocks of scrap metal. Such programs relied on the premise that the state would realize increased emissions reductions by scrapping older rides.

“It was widely documented in state after state that the desired result was rarely achieved, and these programs were considered and then discarded as largely symbolic gestures,” said McDonald. “In the early days, the SAN united around the notion that America safeguards its artistic and architectural heritage against indiscriminate destruction, and our automotive heritage deserved the same protection.”

As auto enthusiasts learned of the struggle with “clunker” proposals, they began stepping up as advocates for the cause. In 1998, working with the SAN, Bill Buck and the Arizona Automobile Hobbyist Council educated Arizona legislators and regulators about the inefficiencies of scrappage programs and the comparative advantages of voluntary emissions-system repair and upgrade. As a result, the first-ever state legislation authorizing voluntary repair and retrofit was signed into law as an
alternative to crushing vehicles.

“The fact that government would crush vintage vehicles but continue to allow stationary-source polluters to go unchecked was an ineffective way to improve air quality,” explained antique aficionado Tom Cox. Currently president of the Antique Automobile Club of America, Cox came to the blossoming SAN force as a veteran combatant on the legislative battlefield.

“Even before the Driving Force newsletters had been sent out and the SAN’s name coined, I’d become involved in SEMA’s government affairs effort through the anti-scrappage efforts,” he recalled. “At first, I was a lone advocate. There were some individuals out there doing advocacy for the hobby at the time, but they were disorganized and few and far between.”

Cox helped form several car club councils in Virginia, which eventually covered the entirety of his home state. Soon enough, Cox, along with his contacts and cohorts Fred Fann and Hal Hartel, had lines of communication set up between regions, area car club councils and the SAN to ensure that their voices were heard by legislators.

Next Issue—Exhaust Noise

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The SEMA-model Street Rod/Custom Vehicle Bill was developed by the SAN staff to simplify the titling and registration of these vehicles and remedy common troubles. It has since become law in 22 states to date.
   

Unfair exhaust-noise violations for aftermarket exhaust systems also plagued the automotive community for years. Fueled by The Fast & The Furious franchise, young enthusiasts were targeted at the height of the import “tuner” craze in the early ’00s.

“Law enforcement officers would pull me over and tell me my pipes were too loud,” said Caudill. “Of course, they could never tell me what the stock muffler sounded like.”

The growing problem made it clear that a fair and reasonable exhaust-noise standard would need to be created to combat the subjective policies being enforced in a number of jurisdictions. SEMA’s McDonald worked with the California legislature and the California Highway Patrol to draft and pass such a proposal.

“For years, the enforcement policy used by the police deemed nearly all exhaust system modifications illegal, even where the noise levels were not excessive or unusual,” McDonald explained. “That policy left exhaust system manufacturers, dealers and their customers without recourse.”

Well-deserved credibility was earned by the SAN when California adopted the new exhaust system law in 2002. The state’s legal noise limit was set at 95 decibels under a fair test standard. Maine enacted the law in 2003, followed by Montana in 2007. Through the approved testing procedure, motorists in those states could finally fight citations issued by law enforcement officers by proving that their vehicles complied with state noise standards. The law also allowed courts to dismiss citations for exhaust systems that had been tested and for which a certificate of compliance had been issued.

“By establishing this evenhanded testing process, the program served to benefit consumers who favor state-of-the-art products, the aftermarket industry that markets them, and even police officers who are charged with enforcing the law,” McDonald added.

Ultimately, the program results certified that approximately 90% of tested vehicles were in compliance with the law. Those types of legislative triumphs early on bred a successful reputation for SEMA’s grassroots initiative.

“The SAN represented a great opportunity to reach a wider scope of enthusiasts and synergize the interests of hobbyists with the automotive industry,” Cox recalled. “However, the group had to prove itself to communities like mine. There was suspicion about corporate influence over hobby groups that would favor new revenue streams rather than the people.”

Thankfully, those fears were quickly
dispersed and made way for real progress. In fact, SEMA-member businesses began trusting that their active involvement—coupled with consumer involvement—would expand opportunities for both. In particular, the SEMA-supported Automotive Restoration Market Organization took a keen interest in the SAN and actively promoted its growth and development. People such as Jeff Moses, Steve Ames, Corky Coker, Jim Wirth, Matt Agosta and Kathy Bybee-Hartzell were among those who fully supported the group’s advocacy mission. They acted as program mentors by challenging the SAN staff to find unique solutions to long-standing problems.

It didn’t take long for the SAN to begin seeing a transition away from fighting the government to proactively creating mutually beneficial relationships with lawmakers and regulators. As unresolved legislative issues were discovered throughout the auto hobby, fair solutions were pursued. With the ever-growing popularity of street rods and customs—especially the replica and kit-car varieties—the need for unique licensing designations became critical.

Success Breeds Success—Titling/Registration

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Always a champion of the hobby, SEMA Board Member and car collector Doug Evans gave the SAN invaluable exposure through his position with Hot Rod in the early ’00s.
clunker
In its earliest years, the SAN’s struggle with “clunker” proposals helped unite a growing force in seeking alternatives to crushing vehicles.

   

Modified vintage and reproduction vehicles did not fall under many existing state classifications. In these states, outdated and convoluted registration rules created confusion among motorists and those charged with applying the laws at the ground level. Thus began the task of designing and implementing reasonable titling, registration, emissions and equipment standards nationwide.

A SEMA-model street rod/custom vehicle bill was developed by SAN staff to simplify the titling and registration of those vehicles and remedy common troubles. That effort was the product of consultation with the industry, state agencies, regulators and hobbyists. The model bill defines a street rod as an altered vehicle manufactured before 1949 and a custom car as an altered vehicle at least 25 years old and manufactured after 1948. Under the bill, kit cars and replica vehicles are issued certificates of title bearing the same model-year designations as the production vehicles they most closely resemble, are exempted from emissions inspections, and are required to carry only the safety equipment applicable to the designated model year.

In 1999, Washington was the first state to enact portions of the street rod/custom vehicle model into law. Original SAN member Scott Cedergreen of the Washington Car Club Council played a critical role in its enactment into law.

“That bill allowed reproduction-bodied street rods to finally be titled as street rods,” he said. “The National Street Rod Association does not acknowledge any difference in reproduction or original bodies, and based on our law, Washington state doesn’t either.”

Illinois adopted the full version of SEMA’s model bill in 2002. The model has since become law in a total of 22 states to date.

As the enactment of street-rod/custom-vehicle laws demonstrated widespread success, the SAN had proof that positive, proactive legislation could serve to create new opportunities for the growth of the auto hobby. As a result, additional SEMA-model legislation was designed specifically to create reasonable and practical solutions for specific issues in the automotive community, including those for inoperable project cars, exhaust-noise enforcement and use of nitrous-oxide systems.

An agreement was reached that building bridges with legislators rather than demonizing them offered a much better chance to arrive at hobby-friendly outcomes. Virginia Delegate Jim Dillard was one of the first lawmakers to help the SAN enact pro-hobby vehicle legislation into law. After a great deal of effort by SAN clubs and contacts in 2000, Dillard’s bill to exempt vehicles 25 years old and older from Virginia’s mandatory emissions inspections was signed into law. In the past, the state exempted only vehicles manufactured prior to the ’68 model year.

Friends in High Places

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In 2000, the SAN awarded Virginia Delegate Jim Dillard (right) with a framed certificate of appreciation on behalf of the collector car community in Virginia for his leadership in enacting pro-hobby classic vehicle legislation into law. He is pictured here with SEMA’s Steve McDonald and SAN Director Brian Caudill’s unrestored ’71 Chevy SS El Camino.
   

“The perseverance exhibited by State Delegate Jim Dillard in shepherding this initiative through both the House and Senate proved to be the determining factor in the bill’s passage,” said McDonald. “Through his efforts, Delegate Dillard showed himself to be a true friend of the vehicle hobby. We will always be grateful.”

Close ties with elected officials would yield invaluable results for the SAN. Uniting lawmakers in a common cause made even more sense as the American auto industry celebrated its centennial in 1996. To mark the milestone, SEMA helped form the Congressional Automotive Performance Caucus to raise the auto hobby’s profile on Capitol Hill and in the eyes of the public. Twenty years later, it counts 80 congressional leaders from both the House and Senate among its ranks, and a number of them have proven to be valuable allies. Federal proposals benefitting motorsports, turnkey replicas, off-road recreation and other topics have been successfully supported by those in the caucus.

In 2005, the concept of creating an alliance with legislators was taken a step further with the formation of the State Automotive Enthusiast Leadership Caucus. As with the federal caucus, the SAN sought to partner with state lawmakers from across the country through a nonpartisan effort. This group has since proven to be a vital tool for advocacy efforts in state houses nationwide. As many laws concerning vehicles are governed at the state level, caucus members help safeguard and advance the rights of enthusiasts.

The SAN-supported State Automotive Enthusiast Leadership Caucus is now comprised of more than 650 members and is represented in each of the 50 states. Through the caucus, the SAN has established direct access to those officials on the issues that matter most to the community.

“The creation of the SAN-supported caucuses has been a tremendous help to this hobby,” Cox explained. “We’re no longer cold-calling a lawmaker’s office. Instead, it’s possible to visit those already identified as hobby-friendly and immediately begin working with their staffs. Finding a sympathetic ear used to be much more difficult for getting anything started or stopped.”

Former Montana Senator John Brueggeman said that being named the first caucus chairman was among the greatest honors of his legislative service.

“It was rewarding to work with the SAN to help recruit legislators from across the United States and organize them into a political juggernaut for the rights of enthusiasts,” he said. “Unchecked, creeping regulation will take us off America’s roads. The bottom line is that there are people who don’t understand us, may not like us, and wouldn’t miss us if we were gone. Building a vigilant core of legislators who have a passion and understanding for our way of life was and remains critical to preserving our rights in a changing world.”

The caucus would go on to be chaired by former New York Assemblyman Bill Reilich and is currently led by West Virginia Delegate Gary Howell.

Within a few years of its founding, the SAN had earned an ability to influence laws nationwide and arrived at a turning point. An increasing number of people wanted to join the network as individuals. It became clear to the staff that this strictly grassroots effort needed to identify ways to promote further growth. SEMA’s California-based headquarters was enlisted to improve the Driving Force newsletter’s production value—a move that relieved the office in D.C. from duties as a makeshift mailing house. It has since become a longtime award-winning publication.

Branding the SAN

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Colby Martin, the SAN director since 2011, is pictured with the ’31 Ford Model A that he and his dad restored. The car was displayed at the 2015 SEMA Show. During their spare time, Martin and his dad spent 13 years collecting parts and refinishing the coupe.
 
   

An official logo was designed and implemented by early 2003 to give the SAN a visual identity, followed by additional marketing materials and promotional items. Development of a modest website became necessary as well. At first, it was populated with legislative material and a contact e-mail address to request information. Soon, exposure exploded and the data management quickly became unwieldy.

Much of the credit for that additional exposure can go to Doug Evans, who has been a consistent champion of the hobby not only as an industry veteran and member of the SEMA Board of Directors but also as a car collector himself. His prominent position with Hot Rod magazine in the early ’00s was leveraged to help get the word out about the SAN in a big way. First, he invited staff to secure a spot on the Hot Rod Power Tour to mix with the crowd and promote the program.

“My mentor, Hot Rod’s founder Bob Petersen, helped open the SEMA office in Washington, D.C., because he recognized that the whole industry was threatened without a top-notch government watchdog,” Evans recalled. “It occurred to me one day that we could be running ads for the SAN in all of our 40 monthly magazines at no cost so that readers knew what the SAN was and how to get involved. It worked, and the phone started ringing off the hook, which was very gratifying. A public-service campaign of that scale was a first for my company to take on.”

By working with Evans and his staff, Hot Rod and its sister publications stirred activity on legislative topics quickly, especially as the affiliated websites took hold and could post content immediately.

“My ability to continue Mr. Petersen’s legacy and help the cause has been a real pleasure,” Evans added.

After 10 years, it became obvious that those north of the border faced nearly identical challenges when it comes to vehicle laws. Thus, the SAN broadened its legislative advocacy efforts to include the Canadian Parliament and provincial governments. Expansion into Canada took place in 2007, when a working relationship with the National Association of Automobile Clubs of Canada (NAACC) was established.

“The NAACC values the work SEMA does and gives the organization full support,” said NAACC president and CEO John Carlson. “We urged all collector-car enthusiasts across Canada to join the SAN, and a number of groups have since invested in supporting the SAN’s initiatives, such as the Specialty Vehicle Association and Manitoba Association of Auto Clubs, among others.”

Celebrating Collector Cars & the Supporting Industry

The SAN earned a special day of celebration for the auto hobby with the first national Collector Car Appreciation Day (CCAD) in 2010. Intended to celebrate classics of the past and the future, the U.S. Senate first helped launch CCAD by passing a resolution at the SAN’s request. This holiday acknowledged that the collection and restoration of historic and classic cars is an important part of preserving the technological achievements and cultural heritage of the United States. Every July since, a wide range of car shows and other events have been held to commemorate
the occasion.

“The Coachmen have held a cruise each year on CCAD to heighten awareness of collector cars, not only to hobbyists and the general public but also to legislators at all levels,” said devoted SAN member William “Skeeter” Rader.

Having been involved since the celebration’s inaugural year, the Coachmen group’s annual tradition has steadily grown into an impressive event that attracts hundreds of show vehicles, and CCAD has grown worldwide, inspiring a number of states, provinces, counties and cities to follow suit with their own recognition. In fact, many of the Canadian provinces have added to the spirit by officially declaring Collector Car Appreciation Month and Automotive Heritage Day/Month.

Social Media and New Age Communications

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The Coachmen’s Collector Car Appreciation Day event at Simi Valley Town Center, California. Promoter Skeeter Rader (right) and co-chair Paul Dryman (left) received certificates of recognition from the administrative assistant to former state Senator Tony Strickland for the club’s effort to promote the hobby.
   

The SAN’s present form began to take shape at age 15. A strong emphasis was placed on incorporating emerging technologies more closely to affect public policy. Printing presses and land lines had made way for instant communication via the internet, with less cost attached. Electronic messages, social media and mobile devices had significantly shifted the world’s attention. Targeted, effective branding was never more crucial to attracting untapped audiences.

“With such a successful approach to advocacy already developed, my goal from the beginning was to shift the SAN’s operational focus from outdated methods to further maximize our reach,” explained current SAN Director Colby Martin. “Rallying support quickly by utilizing the most direct path was the order of the day. There were new opportunities to attract and unite the hobby by producing streamlined, visual-heavy messages. I also felt that a fresh look, feel and voice might resonate greater with all facets of a diverse community and attract each to our cause.”

Thus the “Ignited We Stand” promotional campaign and other elements were put in place.

Martin took the lead of the SAN from his home at SEMA’s headquarters in late 2011 after having established a career with the association. He was hired by SEMA while still attending college, with a lifelong interest in cars and trucks behind him. Unlike those who had previously held the SAN director position, Martin had no background in government affairs. His days of supporting the SAN on the road and his role in the creation of the successful “Protect Your Passion” campaign helped pave the way.

“Honestly, I’d never had much of an interest in politics nor any career aspirations in the legislative realm,” he said. “But the notion of gearheads like me uniting to protect the hobby we love has had a pure appeal since my earliest days with the organization. I’ve found answering the challenge to be incredibly rewarding in ways I couldn’t have predicted.”

With tens of thousands of individual members representing each state in the U.S. and the Canadian provinces, the SAN has become a formidable policy-influencing powerhouse, with ever-growing influence throughout the legislatures. Impressive legislative victories have subsequently been achieved at the state and federal levels.

Significant strides have been made in the areas of titling and emissions requirements for collector vehicles, limiting vehicle and property tax increases, protecting backyard restoration projects, expanding registration plate options, increasing recreational access to public land, and limiting federal and state-level ethanol-fuel mandates.

In 2009, the U.S. Congress was persuaded to spare cars 25 years old and older from the scrappage heap and expand parts recycling opportunities under the Cash for Clunkers program. Replica fans will soon be able to purchase turnkey vehicles, thanks to a SAN-supported law. Most recently, a grassroots movement to “Save Our Race Cars” from government threat has gone viral.

An army of SAN allies has spread throughout North America in the last 20 years and continues to cover the spectrum of four-wheeled interests. Despite the membership’s widely varying differences in region, personality and vehicular taste, this combined force is more connected than ever.

“Peak performance happens when each component of a machine is operating in perfect concert under optimal conditions,” Martin remarked. “Just this year alone, bills threatening the hobby in a couple of states were killed in under 24 hours. Results like that don’t come without a massive amount of experience and fine-tuning.”

Kersting added that the most important thing to note about the success of the SAN is that it succeeds because enthusiasts take part.

“It’s been dynamite to see how the SAN enthusiasts get up and go when they’re asked,” he said. “The group is nothing without that great community taking action when opportunities or threats to their hobby are pointed out. However, it’s getting tougher to keep the hobby alive. Vehicles are getting more complicated. Laws and regulations are becoming more burdensome. We’re going to need to be more active and vigilant than ever before. Thankfully, there is such an ingrained tradition and history in this country of enjoying automobiles.”

For everyone who comprises the SAN, thank you for your dedication and vigilance over the last two decades. May the coming years bring even greater triumphs!

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