The world-famous Specialty Equipment Market Association Show in Las Vegas, better known as the SEMA Show, is a bucket list event for any petrolhead. It’s a giant celebration of all things automotive, as well as a showcase for auto manufacturers, tuners, and parts makers of all sorts. There is a catch: SEMA is not open to the public. You have to be a certified automotive industry professional to get access to show passes. In my case, I was invited by Brembo, thanks to my business relationship with them. If you can get invites, you just have to pay a $25 fee and book your flight and hotel. Best to do this several months in advance, because the closer you get to the show, hotels fill up quick and rooms (and flights) get more and more expensive!
Of course, the show itself is the main attraction, but there is a lot more to the SEMA experience than just going to the Las Vegas Convention Center and seeing a bunch of cars. With that in mind, I planned out a special itinerary to make the most of this amazing opportunity.
I touched down in San Francisco two days before the show, and instead of flying to Las Vegas, I decided to take a road trip, along with my business partner, Albert, and my wife. The usual route to Vegas is a pretty boring drive, so we decided to drive through Yosemite National Park for some beautiful roads and spectacular views. To make the voyage even more special, we took a very special car – a 2012 Mercedes Benz S550 Sport 4Matic. We felt this was the perfect car for the job – comfortable, spacious enough for us and our bags, four wheel drive (for the potentially snowy roads of Yosemite), and very fast: 429bhp, 512lb-ft of torque, and 0-60 mph in just 5.6 seconds. Yeah, that should cover it.
We left San Francisco at 6:30am on Monday, and after a quick breakfast, we hit the road going East to Yosemite (check out the full itinerary and route after the article). We were in luck – the Tioga Pass was snowing hard the night before, but the road was opened to the public right around the time we got there. The scenery was magnificent, and we ended up stopping over at some of the more picturesque spots to take in the scenery. The highlight, however, was the drive through the Sierra Nevada mountains, which had a combination of crystal clear lakes, vast mountain ranges, long tunnels, and pristine forest land, partially covered with fresh snow.
Our original plan was to cross the fearsome Death Valley desert after exiting Yosemite. Unfortunately, the winter season means shorter daylight hours, and we had taken more time in Yosemite than we initially anticipated. Instead, we opted to take a short-cut through little-used Highway 168, which would cut our travel time by two hours. And it was a good thing we did, because what we uncovered there was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Highway 168 connects Interstate 395 (after exiting Yosemite) to the Interstate 95, which leads to Las Vegas. It’s a narrow ribbon of amazing asphalt, cutting through a completely uninhabited stretch of rocky desert. It has everything anyone could ask for – tight twisties, sudden crests and elevation changes, sweeping turns, and long, clear straights, all with a gorgeous backdrop of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Engaging sport mode, the S550 changed character from a comfortable luxury saloon to, well, a comfortable luxury saloon with a stiffer suspension and sharper steering and throttle response. The S-Class is so heavy and big that it’s still a boat, but at least it’s become a speed boat!
After an hour of driving heaven, highway 168 merged onto the long, seemingly endless straights of highway 266 and Interstate 95. these roads actually drive past the infamous Area 51, but with the sun long gone and the darkness of night upon us, we couldn’t see anything of the storied military installation.
As we cruised into Las Vegas, we played the theme song to Ocean’s 11, Elvis Presley’s remixed “A Little Less Conversation.” It was the perfect soundtrack as we took one last excursion to drive past the Las Vegas Strip and the landmark “Welcome to Las Vegas” before hitting the hotel. Which brings me to here and now. A quick bite to eat, a shower, and then it’s off to sleep. I have another long and exciting day tomorrow. SEMA, here we come!
Depart San Francisco
Enter Yosemite National Park
120 North-East via Tioga Pass (check road conditions before going)
Enter Las Vegas
Total travel time: 14 hours (with a lot of stops)