SEMA General Counsel Russ Deane Retires

SEMA News—August 2018


SEMA General Counsel Russ Deane Retires

...And There Will Never Be Another Like Him

  Russ Deane
Emcee Dave McClelland (left) welcomed SEMA General Counsel Russ Deane to the 2007 SEMA Show Industry Awards Banquet stage as a recent SEMA Hall of Fame inductee. Deane, who has been center stage for many of SEMA’s major milestones over 40-plus years, is now retiring.

Ask industry veterans about longtime SEMA general counsel Russ Deane and you’d best prepare for scores of fascinating stories. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more eventful career than Deane’s, whose work has helped transform not only the automotive world but also literally millions of lives across the globe.

Since the mid-’70s, Deane was a central player in SEMA’s formation and growth, serving at the forefront of its legal and regulatory initiatives. Two years ago, however, he announced his retirement and assumed a transitional role, gradually handing off his duties to the association’s incoming general counsel, David P. Goch, of the Washington, D.C., firm of Webster, Chamberlain & Bean. Now, as Deane finally trades his legal pad for other pursuits, SEMA is expressing its appreciation for his extraordinary legacy.

Russ Deane
Best known for his legal drive on behalf of SEMA, Deane has a reputation among associates as a car and motorcycle racer in his own right. “Russ has been a land-speed racing enthusiast, racer and advocate for saving the historic Bonneville Salt Flat Raceway,” observed racing icon Rick Vesco. “I’m hoping that he will have even more time to devote to that effort in his retirement.”

“Few people have had an impact on the automotive specialty-equipment industry like Russ Deane,” said SEMA Chairman of the Board Wade Kawasaki. “As SEMA general counsel, he has helped steer the association from a legal-corporate angle and lent sage advice and counsel on virtually every important matter affecting us for nearly a generation. In working with local, state and federal governments and regulatory agencies to ensure a healthy and growing business environment—not to mention fighting to preserve the Bonneville Salt Flats—he has been a major legal force. His work promoting business development for young democracies has taken him all over the world, including nations such as Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia, Poland and Afghanistan, and his love of motorsports is also well known. Words can’t adequately describe his incredible career and achievements.”

  Russ Deane
Deane’s early ’70s SEMA work meant a significant presence (left) at California Air Quality meetings, the precursors to the California Air Resources Board. “With his interest, tireless effort and creativity, Russ Deane saved and sustained the hot-rod industry,” recalled General Motors motorsports legend Herb Fishel.
  Russ Deane
Deane was the lead counsel for the aftermarket’s early legal tugs with the U.S. Clean Air Act, and he led the efforts to create an exemption for parts that could prove, via testing, that they maintained a vehicle’s emission compliance—basically crafting the CARB Executive Order program.

As a speed enthusiast, Deane embodies the industry for which he has advocated. He has raced sports cars and piloted a Dodge SRT-4 across the Bonneville Salt Flats at 226.574 mph, joining the 200 MPH Club in 2012. He has raced motorcycles as well, and logged countless road hours on a Harley-Davidson. Friends further describe him as a skilled yachtsman, pilot, diver and cigar and wine connoisseur.

On the legal front, he is, of course, credited with spearheading SEMA’s early response to emissions regulations, including establishing working relationships with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and a regulatory schema that guaranteed a future for the aftermarket at a time of serious doubt. He served for more than two decades as general counsel to he National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and advised numerous other racing organizations during that time. He helped unite key industry associations to locate together in Las Vegas and form Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week (AAIW). He has been a major player in the drive to preserve the Bonneville Salt Flats, and he was a 2007 SEMA Hall of Fame inductee. Indeed, Deane seems to have seen and done it all, forging countless close and enduring friendships along the way, from early SEMA founders to today’s most recent newcomers. So profoundly personal has been his impact that many in the industry count Deane as their mentor, including SEMA President and CEO Chris Kersting.

Russ Deane
Bob Spar (left), his attorney Dick Howard (center, now deceased) and Deane on their first road trip together to Sturgis. “We were heading to Seattle Raceway for the drag races,” recounted Spar. “From Seattle, we headed east to Sturgis, North Dakota.”
Russ Deane
Again and again, the word that pops up among friends and associates to describe Deane is “tireless.” He officially came aboard as SEMA’s general counsel in 1976 and has been a tireless mover and shaker for the industry ever since. “Words simply can’t describe his incredible career and achievements,” said SEMA Chairman of the Board Wade Kawasaki.

“I’ve had the good fortune of working with Russ closely for almost 30 years, having gone to work for him fresh out of law school,” Kersting said. “He has been an invaluable mentor and friend. I could write a very entertaining book on my time with him. The things he’s accomplished have been amazing, both in our industry and beyond. Russ has a history in government working around high-level influencers, and in his later career, those contacts emerged as people working back channels on the world stage from a diplomatic and development standpoint. Many in our industry don’t realize the extent of his role in helping countries come out from under the former Soviet Union and return to established market economies based on democratic principles. Personally, it was a special privilage to be a part of just some of those efforts. His friendship—to me, the industry and to so many of its members—will always be special.”

“I’ve had the honor to work with Russ since 1983,” echoed Stuart Gosswein, SEMA senior director of federal government affairs. “He is a true Renaissance man, with interests and expertise in areas well outside the practice of law. He is addicted to speed and will race pretty much anything—on the ground, air or sea. He has served presidents and kings, and he has dined with Supreme Court justices, but his friends and colleagues come from all walks of life. For example, he would certainly be the only member of the Bonneville 200 MPH Club who also happen to be awarded the Order of the White Star, the highest honor granted a civilian by the Republic of Estonia. But above all, he has been a steadfast mentor to me and so many others.”

Fellow SEMA Hall of Fame member Herb Fishel, whose career with General Motors and motorsports is itself legendary, probably put his friend’s contributions to the industry the most succinctly: “With his interest, tireless effort and creativity, Russ Deane saved and sustained the hot-rod industry.”

And Fishel can tell you firsthand about Deane’s powers of persuasion. In 1984, Deane was instrumental in GM joining the SEMA Show as its first-ever OEM exhibitor, greatly expanding the trade event’s success.

  Russ Deane
Rob Fisher of E3 Spark Plugs (left) and Deane paid a visit to then-U.S. Representative Gwendolyn Graham (D-FL) during the 2017 SEMA Rally in Washington, D.C. “I believe the most important things in life are the relationships that I have and continue to make and the experiences that have made my life rich,” Deane reflected.

SO-CAL Speed Shop founder and hot-rodding legend Alex Xydias characterized Deane as a smart, insightful lawyer with a quick wit and steadfast enthusiasm for SEMA from the beginning. He said that the two have often traded friendly jabs over Deane’s business persona vis-a-vis SEMA’s more “casual” membership of racers and garage inventors, especially in the association’s younger years.

“I talked him into doing a brief presentation for our members, trying to get the SEMA Show to have more business talks beyond performance, especially legal topics,” Xydias recalled. “In those days, he was a pretty straight-laced guy in a tie and suit all the time. But he really knew what he was talking about and was very dedicated to SEMA and its growth. Once he went to work for SEMA and saw the problems we were facing and were going to face in the future—he could see that ahead of time—he went beyond his job description, putting together educational programs that were fun to be a part of.”

Chuck Blum, who served as SEMA’s president from 1980–2002, also remembered those early days in the trenches well, along with the high stakes of the times.

Russ Deane
Deane has often helped emerging nations to build their democracies and free-market reforms. “He’s the only member of the Bonneville 200 MPH Club who was also awarded the Order of White Star, the highest honor granted a civilian by the Republic of Estonia,” noted Stuart Gosswein, SEMA senior director of federal government affairs.

“I was serving on the SEMA Board in 1978 when I first met Russ Deane,” Blum said. “This man had a profound impact on my career at SEMA, and I will always be indebted to him for that. From 1984 when Russ took on the California regulatory issues to his historic lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency to reverse onerous regulations aimed at our industry, this man has kept our industry viable. His many accomplishments in both the legislative and regulatory arenas would take up the bulk of this magazine to enumerate.”

Famed Hot Rod editor/publisher and Edelbrock designer Jim McFarland was also a supporter of Deane’s early work at California Air Quality meetings—the ’70s forerunners to CARB. While acknowledging the controversy such efforts aroused among speed manufacturers, McFarland praised Deane’s foresight in getting the aftermarket out in front of the emissions issues before it was too late.

“We were criticized by some in the industry for going to the CARB people and trying to work with them, but Russ was in the middle of all of that and continued to be, because there were so many legal implications to what was going on,” McFarland recalled. “He really developed into a valuable resource from a technical perspective of what it took to comply with emissions regulations as they changed and grew. He worked with CARB to develop the program that became the Executive Order program for compliance that we know today. I don’t know how many people realize the importance of that. It was a lifesaver.”

B&M founder Bob Spar, who was among SEMA’s 13 founding members and has known Deane for 42 years, agreed with McFarland.

“By 1976, the emissions issue began to raise its ugly head, and that’s when we hired Russ Deane,” Spar said. “Had we not had somebody like Russ and his tenacity, who knows where we might be today.”

  Russ Deane
Deane has lived in the Washington, D.C., area most of his life. He received his B.A. degree from American University in Washington, D.C., and a Juris Doctor degree from the Georgetown University Law Center. Early on, he worked as a legislative assistant to a congressman and also as a staff assistant to a president of the United States. It was during his years at the White House that he was introduced to the automotive aftermarket and SEMA.

Sooner or later, virtually everyone uses the word “tireless” to describe Deane, and Spar quickly came to appreciate Deane’s nonstop enthusiasm for mixing work with adventure.

“He’s a 24/7 type of guy,” Spar explained. “He talked me into getting a street bike and going with him and others on long, several-day rides and trips to Sturgis. We would land in a town, find a motel and register. Then he would call in to his office and they would fax him an inch-thick batch of pages. We would all go to dinner, come back, go to bed, and in the morning when we met for breakfast, he would bring that inch stack of paper down with notes written all over it that he’d been up half the night reading and marking for us to review. That went on every single day.”

Most of Deane’s comrades can’t imagine their friend slowing down in retirement. Just the opposite, they expect him to continue making his mark.

“Russ has been a land-speed racing enthusiast, racer and advocate for saving the historic Bonneville Salt Flat Raceway,” noted legendary racer Rick Vesco, who entered the 200 MPH Club in 1976 and the 300 MPH Club in 2009. “His tireless efforts, support and encouragement have helped to shape the Save the Salt movement toward our goal [of preserving and restoring the flats]. I’m hoping that he will have even more time to devote to that effort in his retirement. After all, I promised him that he can have a ride in my #444 streamliner at 300-plus mph if the track improves!”

So what does the man entering retirement think of the many tributes he’s receiving? And how has more than 40 years of service to the industry impacted his life?

“If you ask, ‘Who is Russ Deane?,’ clearly it will be SEMA—a major part of my life is devoted to SEMA,” Deane said. “But many people wouldn’t know I’m into bikes and car racing or that I’m a collector of cars and motorcycles. They wouldn’t know about my nation-building activities.

“I didn’t do it alone, though. Others were there with me. One thing I said when I was inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame is just as true today: I believe that the most important things in life are the relationships that I have and continue to make and the experiences that have made my life rich. There’s no better way to describe my relationship with SEMA than that.”

And while those relationships will surely continue in some way throughout Deane’s retirement years, his official presence as SEMA’s general counsel will just as certainly be missed. As McFarland concluded: “There will never be another Russ Deane.” 

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