As times passes and the years go by, we get many requests for the story of how the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show and Performance Racing Industry magazine came about. It's a unique and fascinating set of circumstances that came together all at once, and it's a fun and interesting story to share, especially when told with the help of its founder, Steve Lewis. So, for those new to the racing industry or veterans who have never heard the full story, here's how it all began.
First, the most important catalytic element in the birth of PRI is that there was a real need in the marketplace for this event to happen.
It was the mid-1980s, and the big SEMA Show out West was thriving. It was also evolving and expanding beyond its original premise of serving the racing market. "Speed" was removed from the organization's title (Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association) and replaced with "Specialty" (now the Specialty Equipment Market Association), as the organization embraced the opportunities in the broader automotive performance aftermarket.
The prime movers of the national racing industry felt there needed to be an annual event for all the people in the business of racing, with new hardcore racing equipment on display. No fans. No weekend racers. No mere enthusiasts. Just manufacturers of racing equipment as exhibitors, while the attendee make-up would include retailers of racing parts, race engine builders, race car fabricators, WD's and manufacturers reps active in racing, and professional race teams. Even in the beginning, it could be a small group of people, but it would be the right group of business people representing the 'hardcore' racing market.
In the winter of 1987, Steve Lewis, a race team owner in the USAC National Midget Series and a successful entrepreneur in publishing and trade shows (having previously 'grown' three highly successful trade shows in three separate industries), closed his second consumer racing show in Indianapolis, held the week of the Indy 500. The name of the show was the Indy Motorsports Expo, and for various reasons, it just didn't work. At the close of the second show, Lewis told the racing companies exhibiting that there would not be a third consumer show in Indianapolis, and asked if there was any important feedback that he should hear.
"It was unanimous. The exhibitors told us they did not need another consumer show, but really needed a true trade show specifically for racing, and they wanted us to produce it," said Lewis. Upon returning home, Lewis immediately met with eight or nine owners of hardcore racing businesses in Southern California at the Long Beach Marriott where further discussions of the proposed venture took place, and there was a unanimous decision at the Long Beach Meeting that there was a need in the marketplace for a racing trade show. "We launched PRI magazine, then nine months later, the first PRI Trade Show was held at the Kentucky Commonwealth Center, the first week of December, in Louisville."
According to PRI records, there were 169 companies exhibiting in the first PRI Trade Show in Louisville in 1988.
The racing industry embraced this new idea for a trade show specifically designed to meet the needs of the growing market. "Everybody got onboard quickly, and made it happen," continued Lewis. "It was magical."
As it turns out, the creation of the PRI Trade Show and PRI magazine helped the racing industry take advantage of what might be viewed as a 'golden age.' Several big trends were coming together to provide a major boost to racing component sales. Cable television came into its own and found the sport of racing made for great TV and came with its own advertisers in the form of race sponsors. All the TV hours of racing made heroes out of racers for millions of new fans, and racers were becoming ever more professional.
At the same time, racing was becoming safer. It wasn't just for the daredevils of the old days. Now, we have a whole new group that wanted to race, and they wanted to race badly. Lawyers, dentists, business owners, machinists and young kids were all finding ways to go racing all across the US at over 1300 race tracks, whether it be drag racing, oval track racing or road racing.
The Baby Boomers were coming to that phase in life where their children were raised, and they had disposable income to go racing. And parents finally felt comfortable helping their children to go racing, too, rather than pursue stick-and-ball sports.
Few of this new group entering racing were as savvy with machining and fabrication as their predecessors in the 1940s and 1950s, who were building all of their cars and components on their own. This new generation of racers wanted to purchase their cars and parts ready to race. Simultaneously, as there was a surge in racing parts, there was also a surge in the infrastructure to distribute them. Thousands of retail outlets for racing components started up all across the US to service this demand. These thousands of new retail outlets automatically became subscribers to PRI magazine.
During this time, NASCAR took off like an Apollo rocket. The number of grassroots racers in the country went through the roof. There were 1300 race tracks of all shapes and sizes, and they were busy every weekend, weather permitting. Race parts sales kept climbing the charts. New racing companies were born every minute, and now they had an event where they had an efficient way to get their new racing products distributed to the ultimate end-user, the racer.
"Hats off to the racing industry," said Lewis. "The doors of opportunity opened wide for the racing industry, and hundreds of companies jumped in and took advantage of a Golden Age in racing component sales."
The annual PRI Trade Show made it easy, convenient, affordable and efficient for this growing industry to meet once a year to conduct business face to face, and for the attendees to shop all the new racing product lines....all in one hall, all at one time.
As the racing industry continued to grow, so did the PRI Trade Show as it moved from its original host city of Louisville on to Cincinnati, Nashville, Columbus, Indianapolis and Orlando.
In 2012, PRI was purchased by SEMA. With its mission to serve the industry, SEMA then purchased the IMIS Show in Indianapolis to consolidate it into the PRI Trade Show, then return the PRI Trade Show to Indianapolis in 2013. The consolidation of the two shows was met with great enthusiasm throughout the racing industry, as was the return of the PRI Trade Show to the racing capitol of the world--Indianapolis.
The PRI Trade Show will continue to retain and build on its identity as a Show for the latest in new hardcore racing components.
"It's the annual epicenter of new racing technology," said John Kilroy, vice president and general manager of PRI. "You can't miss it!"