By Chad Simon
Hot Rodders of Tomorrow: Grooming Talented Youth For an Automotive Future
Now in its seventh year of existence, Hot Rodders of Tomorrow (HROT) enables young automotive enthusiasts to develop and show off their mechanical skills while being exposed to the automotive specialty-equipment industry. The organization’s purpose is to replenish the aging automotive field with essential future talent by expanding high-school education programs and providing career guidance to students while promoting the value of teamwork.
“We started out recruiting high-school and college students and soon realized where the need was,” said Jim Bingham, HROT chairman and president/CEO of Winner’s Circle Speed & Custom based in Joliet, Illinois. “At the high-school level, we can get kids pointed in the right direction; we’re actually changing lives. It sends a chill down your spine when you see what you’ve done for these kids; we’re getting them to go to school.”
According to Jeep Worthan of Auto Meter—an HROT sponsor—helping young individuals to learn and grow is a personal responsibility that is beneficial to the country’s prosperity.
“As a long-time member of our industry and having served on the SEMA Board of Directors, I realized that one of the greatest needs of the high-performance industry is to attract more young people as both consumers and participants—and also into our businesses,” he said. “HROT accomplishes literally all of those goals.”
Showdown at SEMA
HROT launched in 2008 at the Race & Performance Expo in St. Charles, Illinois, with five teams competing for the national championship. The organization first received funding in 2009—the same year the national championship, dubbed the “Showdown at SEMA,” moved to the SEMA Show. In 2014, more than 50 specialty-equipment companies sponsored 110 teams from 65 high schools, and 33 teams qualified for the
The season started in February in Illinois with regional Engine Challenges held through June. Teams of five students were judged based on how quickly they could disassemble and reassemble a small-block Chevrolet engine with aftermarket components. Teams that average less than 35 minutes at regional events automatically qualify to compete for the championship.
Time-added penalties are assessed when participants commit errors, such as dropping components, improper disassembly and poor sportsmanship. There are five judges, each following an individual student, and they score everything from the use of torque wrenches to proper assembly.
In 2009, Team Fel-Pro’s Joliet Central High School posted a time of 44:12 for the national championship. Last year’s national champion—Team Moroso’s Eastern Oklahoma County Technology Center—was crowned at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Trade Show with an average time of 19:15. The record for fastest time at a regional event was set earlier this year in Atlanta, when Team Derale from Forsythe High School did it in 19:10. Now teams are pushing the 16- and 17-minute threshold.
The Showdown at SEMA has been held at the SEMA Show every year since 2009, with the exception of last year, when it moved to the PRI Show in Indianapolis. This year, 15 teams traveled to the SEMA Show, and 18 will go to the PRI Show for playoff competition. A dual championship will feature the top two winners from the SEMA Show traveling to the PRI Show to take on the top two winners from PRI for the national championship.
2014 Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Sponsors
“The SEMA Board wanted us to attend both events this year, so we worked out a plan and budget where we could take half the schools to the SEMA Show and the other half to PRI,” Jim Bingham said. “We wanted to have a final winner, so at the PRI Show on Friday, December 12, at 5:00 p.m., we will reset the clock for the final-four competition between the top two teams from SEMA and the top two from PRI. Then, two more rounds will be held on Saturday, December 13. At the end of three rounds, we will have the final winner. SEMA has been very accommodating; the association realized the need for this type of program.”
A Varsity Sport
HROT has partnered with three colleges that provide $10,000 in automotive scholarships to each member of the national championship team. They include the School of Automotive Machinists in Texas, the University of Northwest Ohio and Ohio Technical College.
“If you talk with the students, the prize to them is beating the other schools,” said Tom Begler of Begler’s Performance, based in Wilmington, Illinois. “Students are talking to each other from across the country about how they’re going to beat each other. It’s such a friendly competition; most of them hang out together at the event.”
Responsible for recruiting judges and maintaining the motors and trucks used to transport equipment, Begler became involved from the beginning when Jim Bingham asked him to be a judge at the Race & Performance Expo.
“They started out with some old, greasy, junkyard motors,” Begler said. “When my brother and I saw what they were doing and how exciting this program was, we jumped in and asked if we could take the motors back to our shop and clean them up for the next year. That’s when Jim got all of the other aftermarket companies to join in and start donating parts.”
HROT has been instrumental in drawing more kids into high-school automotive programs, which helps preserve them, because if enrollment drops, the program may be cut and turned into an English or science class, according to Rodney Bingham, vice president of Winner’s Circle Speed & Custom.
“I spoke to a new instructor, Sean Reisdorf, who got involved in Hot Rodders at a different high school last year,” he said. The instructor was blown away when he showed up for automotive class with 30 kids who all wanted to do Hot Rodders. His enrollments are higher than what he’s used to.”
HROT has turned into a varsity sport, according to Jim Bingham. Thirty kids compete for five spots, so 25 of them won’t make the team.
“If you compare that to basketball, one player can carry the team,” he said. “In our sport, one player can destroy the team. It takes all five players hitting on all cylinders together to be competitive. They are learning that getting something done takes more than one person; it takes team work.”
The Engine Challenge has helped the event’s organizers identify high schools throughout the country that don’t already have automotive programs in place. Students there are allowed to form clubs within their high schools. That is a challenge in itself, because the clubs don’t have tools, so HROT seeks donations to help them get started. The hope is that the club becomes popular enough to convince school administrators to open an auto shop. This strategy has resulted in at least one school—Greenville High School in Georgia—launching a new automotive program.
Recruiting Next-Generation Talent
HROT has gained such a reputation that sponsors are starting to post their jobs on the organization’s website to attract students to their part of the industry.
“I went to an automotive seminar and talked with a guy from Tennessee who happened to hire one of our students,” Begler said. “He actually helped donate tools to the school. Our main goal is to get high-school kids interested in automotive programs again. We lost an entire generation of students, and we don’t know how we lost them. There are very few 30-year-old mechanics right now.”
Many school programs actually drive students away from the automotive field because they teach the technical side too soon, according to Begler. Students aren’t being taught the basics first; instead they are learning about ABS and check-engine lights and skipping over how to actually assemble an engine. But Jim Bingham believes that there’s still hope for the automotive industry’s future.
“Between what we’re doing and what SEMA is doing with its education department and programs, including ‘35 Under 35,’ our focus is getting kids involved,” he said. “We need to make it as fun as it was years ago. I’m concerned that the audience today is treating cars as appliances. The car needs to be your personal vehicle that fits your lifestyle.”
The Engine Challenge’s popularity has soared among spectators. During last year’s final-four competition at the PRI Show, the audience was 10 rows deep.
“To see these kids get the same cheering and excitement as the high-school quarterback is the best part for me,” Rodney Bingham said. But there’s still a long way to go to reverse the industry’s aging trend and draw youth back into the automotive culture.
“The Baby Boomers founded this industry, and while they have made great strides and have had an amazing run, they will not always be here to keep it alive,” said Steve Whipple of Edelbrock, a sponsor. “It is up to the next generation to drive this industry to new heights. That concept can be quite disconcerting, since today’s youth seems to have traded in their wheels for smartphones. Thankfully, there is HROT to fuel Generation Y with the knowledge and passion for automobiles.”
To date, Hot Rodders of Tomorrow has fostered a total of 600 teams consisting of 3,114 students from across the country, and it has raised more than $9 million in scholarship opportunities, including more than $2.1 million last year alone.