The first thing you notice when you step off the escalator into the main show floor at the Orange County Convention Center is Jim Stout's Plum Crazy Viper. You really can't miss it. It's a blinding purple, an arresting entry that was among the leaders this year in the North American Road Racing Association. Like moths to a flame, people step off the escalator and behold the shiny sports car.
What you notice next, of course, are those people. CV Products has the prime piece of real estate in the exhibition hall, and the guys in the “CV: Everything Racing” shirts were working the room. The purple Viper is the magnet for the message. And the listeners are all in the business of racing.
It's rare that race fans get a chance to look behind the scenes at a racing trade show. PRI is open to the public today, but the days leading up to Saturday's final hours are reserved for people inside racing – either with a race team, a company that does business in racing, or an organization that oversees racing. Not just automotive stuff. Racing stuff. People have to prove their connections to get in the door.
PRI stands for Performance Racing Industry, and its annual trade show is one part market, one part engineering and one part show. It officially opened Thursday (but vendors were on site long before) with a breakfast appearance by John Force and a special morning edition of SPEED's “Wind Tunnel” with Dave Despain and Robin Miller. It continued Friday and concludes today.
I can hear some of you groaning. Trade show? I'd rather have my teeth pulled with a pair of pliers and no anesthetic. But it's far from teeth-pulling. In fact, it's the opposite. A trade show as expansive yet specific as PRI is like Disney World for those who know what GOJO is. In a short period Friday, I talked to people about firesuits, helmets, late-model frames, brakes and brake parts, and (totally serious here) Cannonball Run.
I looked at generators, aluminum trailers, racing gloves, headers and manifolds. I sat in on a lecture about camshafts that included the Theory of Camshaftivity, which is, according to my notes, E = 1/2MV2. Or something like that. I'm having trouble reading it. My notes about cams are overrun by “I AM NOT AS SMART AS THE SPORT I COVER” over and over in the margins. If you want a reminder of the coolness of racing, listen to a lecture about camshafts. You'll question your intelligence while appreciating the sport more than ever.
That wasn't all. I dropped by a Business and Marketing 101 course for racers hosted by John Doonan and Dean Case from Mazda. Later, I sat in on a lecture about alternative fuels. Other lecture options including engineering developments in racing safety.
The map for the exhibit floor looks like a schematic for an air filter. There are hundreds of vendors in more than half a million square feet. Did I mention the size of the place? They could land a small plane if they could open the roof. (Don't ask. Someone on the property will tell you how it can be done.)
Try to pick what's hot and what's not on the floor. People swarm around some booths, while others with equipment just as innovative and marketable receive a quieter response. “A trade show in many ways is like a blind man trying to figure out what an elephant is,” says John Kilroy, PRI's vice president and general manager. “One man will grab a leg and say it's a tree. Another man will grab the tail and say it's a rope. A trade show varies according to who you talk to. Some things are hotter one year than they are another year, and some companies are better at promoting what they do and the fact that they're going to be here.”
Yet as expansive and impressive as it is, PRI is not what it used to be. When it moved from Indianapolis to Orlando a few years ago, the show needed more than 900,000 square feet – serious plane-landing space – for all the exhibitors. The economy has been especially crushing on motorsports, but those who compete against each other on the track have come together to fight the circumstances that have become the sport's drag chute.
“It's good to see people get together in the racing business as we're all fighting the same battle with an economy that hasn't come back yet,” said Humpy Wheeler, who visited PRI on Thursday. “That's when the real promoters come out and you have to do things different. Creativity comes from the exchange of ideas you have at a conference like this. It's great setting with PRI, which is just a tremendous show. You can sense how big the racing industry is when you come down here.”
No kidding. The place had strong and steady traffic throughout the day Friday, and Saturday is always the heaviest day. It's racers talking to other racers about racing. It's like a giant candy store filled with people who can't get enough candy.
“Within the first couple of hours in the first day you get your money's worth,” said Jon Kaase of Jon Kaase Racing Engines in Winder, Ga. “Even at 60, you're still learning. All you have to do is listen. In the first hour or two somebody's going to say something that sparks the thought, ‘I can use that in my everyday business.' You have 10 or 11 speakers and every one of those speakers you're going to learn something – and some of them, you're going to learn a lot.
"The other thing is you'll eat five or six meals where you're eating at a 10-person table where you can learn almost as during the presentations. Where else are you going to go and eat lunch with Tony Stewart's crew chief or Lake Speed Jr.? It's a lot of information packed into two days that you're just not going to get anywhere else.”
While business isn't technically being done – you don't hear cash registers beeping or see credit cards being swiped -- vendors are arranging business deals. Some are simple and basic – a new set of gloves for a motocross racer – others are big-money, groundbreaking deals.
“It's a trade show, so it's not like a swap-meet environment,” Kilroy says. “It's a professional trade-show atmosphere. What they do is line up business deals. People line up orders, and there's a lot of follow-up business that happens as a result of the show. It's a massive undertaking. Last year we had 38,000 people. The size and scope of the event is truly international, too. People come from all 50 states and 70 countries. This is the epicenter of where new racing products are introduced.”
This is also where they're sold, cash registers be damned. This is where racers meet with racers to see and touch what's new, renew old acquaintances, make new friends, and – above all – buy and sell the latest go-faster pieces. This is what PRIers refer to as a “hardcore” trade show – racing only, not custom cars or aftermarket tricks for production vehicles. Racing stuff for racers only.
“We came to buy,” said Hank Moore of Advanced Auto Fabrications in Spokane, Wash. “We'll spend the whole time here, look at everything and try to get our hands around what's here, what's coming and what we need to work with. We found stuff that we didn't know was around didn't know existed.
"This is our first time here at the PRI Show. We spent time on machinery and time with some engine management companies. We've met with suppliers we've spent lots of time on the phone interacting, but had never actually met, so it's nice to be able to get face-to-face interaction.
But here's the best part, except perhaps for racers based in central Florida: It's all coming back to Indianapolis, which is where PRI should be. SEMA – the giant annual automotive trade show held earlier this month in Vegas – has arranged the merger of PRI with IMIS, which takes place next week in Indy. The new PRI trade show will be held in December 2013 at the convention center in downtown Indy, its previous home. No palm trees, perhaps some snow, but it will for a few days be the center of the racing universe during the offseason.
“It's going to be a barnburner,” Kilroy says. “We always loved Indianapolis. It was great when we were there, so we're happy to return. The city of Indianapolis is happy as well, because we're going to pack that town.”
Bring the shiny purple Viper. It's going to draw a crowd of hardcores.