The Builders Of SEMA: What It’s Like Contributing To A SEMA Build


There’s just no denying the power and prestige of a SEMA Show car. Not only are the vehicles that get the exclusive rights to sit on the SEMA Show floor every year some of the most amazing builds out, they are also compl products of some of the most amazing builders and painters in the industry.

So what’s it like to build a SEMA Show car? Well, we went straight to the many sources of this experience at this year’s show to find out exactly that!


Finding a legendary hot rod builder or painter on the SEMA Show floor is actually not all that difficult. Everywhere you look, there’s either a famous builder, well-known painter or an up-and-coming automotive artist of some sort. The real trick is actually getting one-on-one time with these men and women, even if it’s only a few minutes between signings and fan photographs.

Luckily, we were able to track down some of the amazing builders and painters at this year’s show, and while we were only able to speak to a fraction of the talent on the floor in our time there, we got a whole array of answers to the question “What is it like to build a SEMA Show car?”

John D’Agostino

Having grown up inspired by classic car creations by such names as Bailon, Barris, and Winfield, John D’Agostino of Celebrity Kustoms found his passion for designing and customizing cars at an early age.


But even after all those years customizing and 16 years of attending the annual SEMA Show, the novelty of contributing to the world of SEMA Show cars has not worn off. “It’s like going to the Grammies,” D’Agostino told us. “It’s almost like dying and going to heaven.”

Since his first SEMA Show in 1997, D’Agostino recalls having had about six of his personal designs on the SEMA Show floor. Of course, his cars have also been seen at more than 1,000 shows world wide. But even though his cars, like the 1940 Cadillac named Sophia and 1956 Packard Executive called Caribbean, have been showcased all over the world, SEMA still holds a very important place in D’Agostino’s heart to this very day.

“When you showcase at SEMA, people see it from all over the world,” D’Agostino told us, expressing the truly unique thrill that being a SEMA Show car creator has on him, both personally and professionally.


Jon Kosmoski

While House of Kolor creator and custom builder Jon Kosmoski can relate to the excitement of being a SEMA Show exhibitor, he expressed a different attitude towards being a SEMA Show car owner and designer.

Having completed the build of his 1941 Oldsmobile Club Coupe Model 68 just the Thursday before this year’s SEMA Show with his associate “Tebo,” Kosmoski told us that building at least this SEMA Show car was a “nightmare.”


“I’m just happy to be here,” Kosmoski explained after all the trials and tribulations throughout the build.

Having started the car less than a year ago, and moving shop just six weeks prior to the show, the crew worked until almost the very last minute to get the car ready to head to SEMA. Kosmoski explained that though it required tons of effort to get to this year’s event, he and his comrades knew it was an important one. Thus every late night, early morning, and last-minute scramble to get things perfect was justified.

One of the proudest accomplishments of this year’s successful SEMA sprint? Having drove the car into the show, an amazing feat considering the short build time, and it wasn’t lost on the many awe-struck admirers of the car in the House of Kolor booth.

DSCN8917Roger Burman

Also understanding the struggle and frustration that building a SEMA Show car can bring to the table is Lakeside Rods and Rides owner Roger Burman.

DSCN8934“I always use to fight it every year,” Burman told us, standing next to one of his latest projects, Dave and Karen Leisinger’s 1971 Camaro, which won the 2012 Mother’s Shine Award. “It’s truly brutal and wears on you.”

But even though it’s tough work building and prepping a car for the SEMA Show, Burman agreed that it’s always worth it in the end. That’s why he keeps coming back, having had six of his creations showcased on the SEMA floor in the last few years.

SEMA isn’t the only venue that Burman crushes! He’s also had some of his musclecar creations make a name for themselves and him on the Goodguys AutoCross circuit in recent years, like the ’70 Crusher Camaro also owned by the Leisingers.

DSCN8884Troy Trepanier

Another veteran of the SEMA Show car scene is Troy Trepanier of Rad Rides by Troy. Having first showcased a personal build at the 1990 SEMA Show at the age of just 19, Trepanier told us he’s had about 60 cars included in his number of decades attending the SEMA Show.

DSCN9292While over 20 years of shows and 60 custom vehicles may seem like it would wear on anyone, Trepanier expressed nothing but excitement in having been involved with the annual event for so long.

“It’s really cool,” he told us of getting to show off his creations at the SEMA Show. “All of our peers are here, so it’s nice to bring out the new stuff and show them what we can do.”

With custom creations like the 1969 Baracuda named Blowfish and 1970 Nova named Notorious to his name, Trepanier never disappoints and certainly didn’t this year with the ’69 Torino named the GPT Special showcased in the BASF booth and the 56 Buick named Nailed, which was named the 2013 Goodguys Vintage Air Custom Rod of the Year, showcased in the AM Hot Rod Glass booth. With creations like this, it’s no wonder Trepanier keeps getting invited back to showcase his work at the SEMA Show year after year.

DSCN9099Dave Kindig

A seasoned veteran in his own right, Dave Kindig of the famed Kindig It Design may just be one of the most laid back car builders you’ll find on the floor of the annual SEMA Show. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take his custom car creations and the honor of showcasing them at the SEMA Show seriously.

“To me and the shop, SEMA is so important because everyone and their dog is going to see it,” Kindig explained. “It’s always great to impress other accomplished builders.”

DSCN8903Kindig, who was at the show for his 18th year this year, is up to between 22 and 25 cars showcased at SEMA. This year, four of Kindig’s creations made the grade to hit the show floor, including next year’s Goodguys Giveaway Car, the ’65 Galaxie we first saw at the 2013 Goodguys Colorado Nationals, a gorgeous ’65 GTO in Kindig It’s company booth and a ’47 Cadillac convertible, featured on the Meguiar’s Car Crazy stage during the show, which Kindig described as “Driving Ms. Daisy on steroids.”

Not bad for a man with a dream who took his business from his own garage with two employees to a facility measuring 27,000 sq-ft with 26 employees, something that Kindig accredits to their practice of putting all the money that their business earns back into the business and their customer’s show cars.

“Any car has potential to be the coolest one at the show,” Kindig explained to us, recognizing his own creative works that have stretched the boundaries of what’s cool in the industry. It’s thanks to such an outlook like that Kindig has been granted such honors as the GM Design Award at the 2007 SEMA Show and the HRIA Trend Setter Award just last year.

DSCN8864Charley Hutton

While Charley Hutton and his Color Studio have put out some amazing work over the years, the work that everyone was talking about at this year’s SEMA Show was the ’32 “Magnitude” Ford roadster and the ’40 Ford coupe known as Checkered Past, both of which Hutton painted. Magnitude, a Chip Foose designed car owned by Jerry Magnuson  proudly displayed Hutton’s multi-tone talent in the BASF paint booth this year, while Checkered Past, the 2013 Ridler Award winner owned by Ron Cizek, showcased what Hutton’s talents can do with just one paint tone in the Ford display.

DSCN9196So what’s it like to have such high-profile cars like these at the SEMA Show? Well, the excitement certainly wasn’t lost on Hutton. “It’s very cool,” Hutton told us of contributing to these SEMA Show cars. “It’s a great interaction with other builders year after year.”

It’s been 14 years now since Hutton had his first show car on the SEMA Show floor, but even 15 cars later and three Ridler Awards under his name, he’s still taking the honor of showcasing at the SEMA Show in stride.

Hutton’s wife Teri was on hand as Hutton prepared to sign autographs at the PPG booth, so we asked her what it was like being married to such an iconic hot rod contributor. In addition to the response of “it’s really great,” she also told us that she gets asked a lot if Hutton is really as nice as he seems. To this, she told us, she responds with “Yes, he really is THAT nice.” That’s always nice to hear about a fellow rodder and enthusiast, even with his name as high-profile as it is.

DSCN9284Tom & Mitch Kelly

Last but certainly not least on our list of SEMA Show builders are Tom and Mitch Kelly of Kelly & Son the Crazy Painters. A jovial father-son duo, the Kellys once again represent the very important part that exceptional painters play in the SEMA Show car scene.

DSCN9268Having gotten the paint bug from his grandfather, Tom Kelly has worked with famed artists like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch, and continues to showcase his pinstriping and painting talents to this day. Having learned from his father, Mitch too showcases his amazing painting talents on projects with his father and on his own, something he’s very proud of when it comes to attending the annual SEMA Show.

“It’s nice to be recognized for my designs,” Mitch Kelly told us.

Since 2005, Mitch Kelly has been responsible for the finish of 14 SEMA Show cars, including the 1957 Chevy showcased in this year’s Danchuk booth. Kelly attributes his number of SEMA Show cars to the trust he’s gained in the industry over the years.

DSCN9269“It’s a great feeling to know that they trust me, when you’ve built so much that you’re trusted,” Kelly explained of those choosing his work to showcase at the annual SEMA Show. “I was moved from the North Hall to the Center Hall. I was even asked to bring a car back,” Kelly told us, explaining his personal journey from a first-time SEMA attendee to a well-known, trusted personality in the SEMA Show car circuit.

Every builder and painter’s story is unique and different – just like their builds, but the one thing all these guys share is the novelty of being SEMA Show car contributors, an honor like no other in our industry. It was truly an honor on our part to be able to speak to each and every one of these amazing builders, and we thank them for taking their time to chat with Rod Authority and for their contributions to the world of rods!

About the author

Lindsey Fisher

Lindsey is a freelance writer and lover of anything with a rumble. Hot rods, muscle cars, motorcycles - she's owned and driven it all. When she's not busy writing about them, she's out in her garage wrenching away. Who doesn't love a tech-savy gal that knows her way around a garage?
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