Cobo 'final-hours frenzy' in high gear

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The display for Ram industrial trucks has a three-story, black-and-white backdrop that shows a guy on a ladder working.

In one of those cases of life imitating art, and maybe getting it a bit dusty, there were real guys on real ladders close by the other day, doing real work.

Lots of real work.

"You might have a month away from it when it's over," said Sam Tanari, who runs the company that runs the North American International Auto Show. "But then you're back at it," because it takes a lot of planning and effort even to get to the brink of a final-hours frenzy.

The auto show begins with press previews Monday morning at Cobo Center. Less than 90 hours before liftoff, the exhibit hall still looked like a great place to shop for forklifts, but not much else.

There were crates and trunks and tarps from wall to wall. There were hundreds of thick extension cords, coiled in midair but ready to drop from ceiling to floor.

There were 100 hi-los, 70 scissor lifts, 150 electricians, 200 Teamsters, 100 ironworkers, 250 carpenters and 150 stagehands.

In the middle of it all, dodging heavy equipment as he strolled the cluttered aisles, was a Chevrolet dealer in a pinstriped suit who didn't look remotely ruffled.

"No way on God's green Earth does it seem like it'll be done," said Auto Show chairman Scott LaRiche. "Then Monday comes, and it is. It's like a magic trick."

LaRiche's father founded Lou LaRiche Chevrolet in Plymouth 45 years ago. Lou, who still shows up every day at age 83, co-chaired the show in 1985.

Before 'International'

Back then it was the Detroit Auto Show — before it added "International" to the name, before a global competition among shows to attract the splashiest new car reveals, and before it grew so large and lavish that construction had to start in October.

Building the nation's most important auto show is like building a city, only with no potholes and better carpet. Also unlike a city, it's created from the top down.

The project starts with 50 or 60 people setting up lights in the heavily fortified rafters. It ends these last few days, Tanari said, with crews working around the clock.

Tanari is vice president of Convention and Show Services, founded by his father, Fred, in 1983. Essentially, their company is the construction foreman.

Strong ceiling

Strolling toward the back of the hall toward the open bays, moving from fair to frigid, Tanari pointed at the ceiling where steelwork holds up a parking deck.

"We can hold more weight" than other convention centers, he said, and in one of those blessings disguised as curses, Cobo isn't as busy as the halls in a lot of other major cities, so it can devote 21/2 months to crafting an automotive Oz.

The automakers can put maximum effort into their Detroit exhibits, he said, so the media show up, so the automakers will do 40 worldwide reveals here, so the media keep coming and they're followed by 700,000 paying customers, so the automakers keep commissioning dazzling displays — all of which squeeze through Chuck Moses' loading dock.

He's been on the dock for 35 years, though it's his first auto show as supervisor. "Yeah, yeah," he said into his cellphone. "Dock 26."

Through set-up and tear-down, 3,500 trucks will angle for space at 44 bays and ramps. In an era where a car might have dozens of computers, Moses doesn't even use one.

It's all memory and teamwork, he said.

"You know what trucks can fit in what dock," and who's there now, and what the Buick exhibit is desperate for and what it won't need until tomorrow.

Maybe five dozen of the 700 show cars were in place Thursday afternoon. The carpet started being laid that night. Come Monday morning, the plastic covering that kept the carpet from harm will fill a 40-cubic-yard dumpster behind the Toyotas.

Until then, Mike Dancu of Hazel Park will be at the throttle of a forklift with his lunch bag hanging from the blue back-up beacon.

20-hour workday

The other day Dancu worked 20 hours, the last eight of it helping to transport a 30,000-pound 3-D printer that will ultimately spit out a dune-buggy-sized electric car, minus the engine and tires.

"I'm in the field all year long," he said. "It's a big plus for me to get inside and do this for two months."

His girlfriend has seen so little of him lately that he's renting them a room for the weekend at the Crowne Plaza Detroit across the street.

Chances are she'll be the only one in it. But this is the Auto Show, and that's how it rolls.


Detroit Auto Show

■Monday-Tuesday: Press preview days

■Wednesday, Thursday: Industry days

■Friday: Charity Preview: $400 per person, black tie

■Jan. 17-24 public days (9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Jan. 17-24; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Jan. 25.

■Tickets: Adults: $13; seniors 65 and older: $7; children 7-12: $7: children 6 and under free with a parent or guardian