In the late 19th century, “The Greatest Show on Earth” was a name given to the must-see spectacle of P.T. Barnum’s three-ring circus, and it truly lived up to its name, both in terms of size and substance. When it comes to the automotive world, the honor of greatest show belongs to SEMA, the Specialty Equipment Market Association. Held every Fall in Las Vegas, this show is not open to the public, yet still manages to bring in over 160,000 people for a four-day extravaganza containing the latest and greatest automotive parts and builds. Whether it be European or Japanese imports, exotic Italian supercars, traditional hot-rods or muscle cars, or our favorite diesel trucks, you’ll find what you’re looking for in the 1.2 million square feet of exhibition space. Inside are over 1,500 featured vehicles, 3,000 NEW products, and 2,400 manufactures showing off their wares.
Unless you work directly in the industry, you’re not going to get permission to walk the crowded halls, but it’s not necessarily a top-secret event, as there are over 3,000 media representatives in attendance who help spread the word almost instantly, but that’s a lot of pictures and content to sift through on a lot of different websites and social media pages. As far as the diesel segment is concerned, we don’t get an entire hall to ourselves, but if you know where to look, you can find some cool new products and trucks, as well as a few things which make you scratch your head in disbelief.
Partly due to their prominent position in the front parking lot, and partly due to their size, the “Bro Truck” is what SEMA is most known for in the pickup world. This year to make bro club high honors, your wheels better be at least 26” in diameter, but this year several sets 30” 8-lug wheels were seen, raising the bar even higher. To lift the truck, you’ll need at least 12-inches of suspension lift, but ideally, you’ll have an adjustable airbag or hydraulic suspension system so you can raise and lower the truck several times throughout the day. It’s also a requirement to have brightly powdercoated suspension links, LED lights which shine under the truck towards the ground, and a drop hitch and step combo which will likely never tow anything heavier than a Yeti cooler. One of the reasons why the bro-truck gets such a bad rap is the suspension: in order to achieve such an extreme amount of lift, ideal steering and driveline geometry is sometimes ignored, and the trucks look like a small breeze might topple them over. The “Bluetooth driveshaft” is a hidden Easter Egg which is great to find, and performance modifications are usually limited to an oversized exhaust tip and maybe a cold air intake.
As much as we love to hate these oversized show vehicles, in all honesty the poor engineering is usually the exception rather than the rule, and most of the trucks at the show are perfectly safe to drive down any highway in America, but these over-the-top show trucks do leave you wondering if they’ll ever be driven at all. If they’re not your cup of tea, there are plenty of less flashy and more practical trucks at the show, and some even will see duty as a daily driver or a tow rig.
Part of the appeal of the show is being the first to modify a brand new model, and this year the truck to watch for was the 2020 Sierra and Silverado 2500HD. GM released their newest heavy-duty body style earlier this year, and the first models hit the showroom floor in June, but the roll-out was a bit slower than usual this fall. Despite the short time frame, there were several examples at the show, from mild to wild.
The one which caught my eye first was the 2020 GMC AT4 HD in the Truck Hero booth. It would look a bit out of place when comparted to the “donk trucks” outside, but it checks all the boxes for me. It’s sitting on a Black Diamond suspension system with King remote reservoir shocks, is rolling on 37-inch Mickey Thompson tires, and its exterior modifications are subtle, with an emphasis on utility. For me, this truck represents how most truck owners will actually modify their trucks, as its usable every day, and you don’t lose any of the functionality you are buying when you get a heavy-duty pickup.
The crew at BDS took things a little more off-road with their “Baja HD” Silverado built by Ernie’s Auto and Truck Center. It was sitting on a prototype BDS 2.5 coil-over conversion system up front, and had a full bed-cage out back complete with two spare tires and some Fox 2.5 reservoir shocks to soak up the roughest terrain with ease. It was rolling on more conservative 35-inch-tall tires but had a host of exterior upgrades to make it capable in the desert or on the trails, and all that made it one of the best executed off-road build of GMs newest truck at the show.
Of course, there were several new HD’s which received the bro-truck treatment as well, complete with deep-dish wheels and spacers, but that just goes to show how strong the truck market is. Regardless of how you want to build your truck, the parts are already available, even though the trucks are only a few months old.
SEMA is not just about showing off vehicles, its main purpose is to show the newest parts which are needed to build the trucks and cars, and this year the big diesel names did not disappoint. Banks Power had two new offerings which were making a buzz, and the most anticipated was their new differential cover. About a year ago, they started a research project documented as a YouTube Series, and its focus was to learn how aftermarket differential covers would live up to their claims of lower fluid temperature in a rear axle. As the months ticked by and the data came in, it was evident the competition didn’t deliver on their claims, and they decided to do something about it. After a year of R&D, Banks Power showed the world their patented version of a differential cover. Its unique design uses a scoop to direct air over the back of the cover’s aluminum fins and pull heat away from the rear end, and the additional airflow was combined with a curved-back design which allowed for smoother fluid movement inside the axle. Altogether, this means cooler running temperatures and a better lubricated gearset, which gives you a longer lasting differential, and of course some style points as well.
A major complaint amongst owners of late model trucks is the “dead pedal” which is simply a delay in time between your right foot pressing the accelerator and the response of the engine. There are several throttle sensitivity boosters on the market which can address the problem, and they all plug into your accelerator pedal harness under the dash, but the major design flaw can be found when the unit fails internally and loses power. When this happens, the truck will go into limp mode and no throttle signal will be sent to the ECM, and you won’t be able to go anywhere unless you reach down under the dash and disconnect the module, which would be a major hassle and safety concern on a busy highway.
Another new offering from Banks Power found at SEMA this year was their Pedal Monster throttle sensitivity booster. Much like the other brands, it will make your truck more responsive, but in the event of a module failure, it bypasses the electronics altogether allowing you to drive your truck like normal, instead of leaving you stranded on the side of the road in a dangerous situation trying to disconnect some wiring. Its these small but important differences that sets Banks apart from the crowd.
One new product which was particularly exciting for the Duramax crowd is the EDGE Pulsar. Because the encryption on the 2017 and newer L5P ECM is so high-tech, a traditional computer reflash to add horsepower is impossible. While you can swap the stock ECM for a modified version which can be flashed, this is a very expensive process. EDGE found a much more affordable way to accomplish the same thing with their Pulsar in-line computer. Instead of re-flashing the stock ECM, you install the Pulsar between the stock computer and the engine wiring harness. It intercepts the control information traveling between the L5P and the computer, and modifies the signals to increase injection timing, rail pressure, turbo boost, and will add 90 horsepower and 156 pounds of torque to your L5P. Probably the coolest feature of the Pulsar is you can switch power levels on the fly using the cruise control buttons on your steering wheel, so no drilling holes or running wiring is required.
In other L5P news, PPE has released a new oil pan which will help keep your engine much cleaner, simply by allowing you to drain all the oil out of the engine whenever you perform a service. The stock pan has a stamped ridge along the bottom, and whenever you pull the plug it traps about ¾ of a quart of dirty oil inside the engine. The new pan is cast from aluminum and has a flat bottom which allows all the old lube to be completely drained, but it also will add an additional quart of capacity over the stock parts and matches well with their transmission pans.
Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last few years is well aware of the ever-tightening regulations associated with emissions compliance, and the old-school method of modifying a truck with the backspace button is a thing of the past. While you can tune a truck and make very impressive power gains without ever turning a wrench, there are some new ways to add even more power while still keeping tailpipe emissions clean.
While at the Bullydog booth, I was impressed by a shiny piece of stainless steel which looked like it belongs on the lunar rover. It won’t travel through outer space, but actually is the first emissions compliant high-flow DPF which can be installed on your road legal truck. According to the information posted, it will flow 21% more air than stock and increase horsepower and torque, which is a very promising development for the diesel performance industry as a whole.
All in all, there were many positive trends in the performance side of things at SEMA 2019. Rather than taking a “doom and gloom” approach, many manufacturers are excited for the new challenges of working hand in hand with the EPA and making big power while remaining compliant. Several reps I spoke with hinted at some exciting new products in the works, and in the next year we’ll see lots of new parts being released. In addition to developing new parts, there is also a push by manufacturers to get existing parts C.A.R.B. certified, because once you can meet California’s standards, your parts are pretty much legal everywhere in the US, because a CARB E.O. number is like a golden ticket.
Just like the latest and greatest fashions get their start on the runways of Paris and then trickle down to the store shelves for the masses to purchase, the trends we see first at SEMA always wind up on the trucks driven by you and me. Yeah, there are a lot of outlandish show trucks whose purpose is to simply draw eyeballs to a vendor’s booth, but there are also a lot of great innovation and inspiring builds to be found. Whether it’s a part which adds horsepower, improves ride quality, helps with fuel mileage or just makes your truck a lot more fun to drive every day, you can find it every fall in Las Vegas at the SEMA show.