They say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. When it comes to the SEMA show however, nothing could be further from the truth. Every year in early November, the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) holds its annual trade show in Las Vegas at the Las Vegas Convention Center-the crossroads when it comes to all things performance and automotive aftermarket. Vendors, buyers, and automotive media occupy this jewel in the desert for an entire week, catching up on what's hot for the coming year. To show off their wares, companies entice the best car builders with the most creative chops to display their masterpieces under the spotlight. It is indeed a spectacle like no other, and in spite of SEMA being a trade-only affair, you can't blame us or anyone else for telling the world. Nope, the secrets of SEMA are not stayin' in Vegas!

Right smack dab in this trifecta of manufacturers, retailers, and media is a richly diverse group of cars and builders-many of them who specialize in crafting classic muscle machinery. Competition for the limited floor space is fierce, particularly in "hot rod alley," and shops negotiate with vendors all year long to secure one of those elusive spots. You can bet your bottom dollar that if a car is displayed on the SEMA floor, it is either the best of its breed or a unique animal unto itself.

While high-profile national car shows certainly attract their share of top cars, none of them can quite equal the allure and prestige of being in the SEMA show. As builders try to outdo each other -as well as their own attempts from previous years-it supercharges the evolution of the breed. Where it comes to emerging car-building trends, the SEMA show floor has no equal in the car show world. It is the place where new hot rodding ideas are born, realized, and refined.

These 15 cars (as well as those found in "The Best of the Rest" on p. 46) represent the best of what you'll be seeing on the circuit in 2013, and we found them all on the SEMA floor. Some are refinements or combinations of existing build styles, while others strike out on their own. Some have styles that will flourish and mature, while others will be a flash in the pan. All of these cars, however, are worthy of being called the best of 2013!

"Apollo"

1968 Chevy Camaro

Builder: Pratt & Miller Restorations
Trend: Race teams building hot rods

If you have even the most passing interest in motorsports, you know the name Pratt & Miller (P&M), or at the very least you know their infamous yellow C6R Corvettes that have dominated the sport. The Pratt & Miller team has captured eight consecutive GT1 manufacturer and team championships for Chevrolet and Corvette Racing in the American Le Mans Series and scored 72 victories in 102 races, including an overall win in the 2001 Daytona 24-hour race and five GT titles in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. They were also behind Cadillac's factory race program in the SCCA World Challenge GT that delivered manufacturers' and drivers' championships and their Pontiacs earned team, manufacturer, and drivers' championships in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series. That's why we were stopped in our tracks when we saw their name listed as the builder of this '68 Camaro.

Only very recently branching out into the hot rod and restoration market, P&M wants to bring their philosophy of precise engineering and balanced handling and horsepower to the street. This particular car, dubbed Apollo, was built as a surprise for John Hendricks, founder and chairman of Discovery Communications. Hendricks is a notorious space race enthusiast and you might assume the project name comes from the moondust color, but it's actually named for the shifter, which is a joystick from an Apollo mission. There's only two of them in existence, and the other one is on the moon.

By The Numbers

Engine: LS9RS (LS7 with an LS9 supercharger) built by Thompson Automotive, 760 hp and 840 lb-ft of torque
Trans: Tremec T6060-T6 six-speed
Rearend: Heidts IRS with 3.55 gears
Suspension/Chassis: Detroit Speed & Engineering (DSE) complete front subframe with tubular control arms and DSE/JRi shocks, Heidts independent rear suspension
Brakes: Wilwood discs
Wheels & Tires: 18-inch Coys wheels with 235/40R18 and 295/35R18 BFGoodrich KDW tires
Contact: Pratt & Miller Restorations & Specialty Vehicles; 248-446-9800; PrattMillerRestorations.com

"Kardiac"

1967 Shelby GT500

Builder: JF Kustoms
Trend: Muscle cars competing for the Ridler

"This real GT500 found in a junkyard not only competed in the 2012 Ridler competition, it made it to the Great Eight"

There's an entire side of the automotive community that focuses exclusively on perfection of form before all else, and for the past few years we've been taking note of muscle cars creeping into that ultrahigh-end show car realm traditionally only occupied by '50s and earlier cars, predominately '30s Fords. There are several big shows with prestigious trophies, but the very peak of the pile is usually considered to be the Ridler Award. Named after famed promotions agent and publicist for the show, Don Ridler, since 1964 the award has been given to the Best in Show at the Detroit Autorama. This real GT500 found in a junkyard not only competed in the 2012 Ridler competition, it made it to the Great Eight-the very last round of judging. That's a major achievement in itself, but the truly amazing part is that it did it without having a single body modification, since the owner didn't want to cut it up. As far as we know, that's never been done before since body mods are a huge part of the judging criteria. That's how perfect the fit and finish is on this Shelby. Still, it's also the reason why it didn't walk away with the trophy. Rumor has it one of the judges even flat out admitted that it was the best car in the running, but was just too "stock."

By The Numbers

Engine: 427ci Ford FE side oiler with Inglése individual runner EFI, 550 hp
Trans: Tremec TKO 600 five-speed
Rearend: Strange Fab9000 with 4.10 gears
Suspension/Chassis: Total Control Products coilovers, tubular control arms, and rack up front, Total Control Products coilovers in the rear
Brakes: Baer discs
Wheels & Tires: 18- and 19-inch one-off wheels from Curtis Speed Equipment with Pirelli tires
Contact: JF Kustoms; 250-495-3328; JFKustoms.com

"Mayhem"

1967 Chevy Camaro

Builder: Sled Alley/Mark Stielow
Trend: Subtle supercar performance

this Camaro is the epitome of speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

As Pro Touring and track-oriented muscle cars have progressed over the past few years the builds have gotten more extravagant and extreme, with some cars becoming vintage versions of modern luxury grand touring cars like Aston Martins, while others have morphed into street-legal American LeMans cars. Mark Stielow, however, always manages to stay far removed from both camps and yet still create cars that embody the best principles of both. Take his latest '67 for example, known as Mayhem. It's essentially an exercise in subtlety. What appears at first glance to be just a very nicely executed, but totally typical version of a Pro Touring first-gen Camaro is actually a carefully crafted and balanced formula proven on track. Stielow used readily available Detroit Speed & Engineering suspension as well as a powerful GM-based driveline with a stock ECU. The interior is mostly stock Camaro with Recaro seats and good Auto Meter instrumentation. No engine or driver setback, no extreme bodywork or flares to cram in huge tires; it's just a classically good looking, completely street-friendly coupe that will age timelessly. And yet, at the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational it walked away from a pack of some of the very best vintage and modern performance cars at SEMA including Corvettes, Shelbys, and GT-R Nissans. Stielow is a phenomenal driver, but even the best jockey needs a good steed and this Camaro is the epitome of speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

By The Numbers

Engine: 427ci LS9 with ZL1 supercharger, 977 hp
Trans: P&D Performance Tremec T6060
Rearend: Currie 9-inch
Suspension/Chassis: Detroit Speed & Engineering (DSE) complete front subframe with tubular control arms and DSE/JRi shocks, DSE Quadralink rear suspension with DSE/JRi shocks
Brakes: 14-inch Brembo GTR discs
Wheels & Tires: 18x10 and 19x12 Formula 43 wheels with 275/35R18 and 325/30R19 Goodyear Supercar II tires
Contact: Sled Alley; 586-630-0171; SledAlley.com