Ask any shop owner or aftermarket manufacturer in the performance automotive industry what their three biggest concerns are today, and just about every list will include the need to find qualified workers – especially ones with experience and a real passion for this trade.

Hot Rod Institute in Rapid City, South Dakota, was started with a clear mission of educating and training students to succeed in customizing and restoring cars, trucks and motorcycles.

Doug LaRue, president of the Hot Rod Institute, looks over a ’39 Ford pickup project truck with his son, Danny.

“It’s available to students who don’t want to learn about the collision or repair industry,” said school president Doug LaRue. “I didn’t see any other school doing hot rod restoration work, and that’s all we specialize in.”

Visitors to the institute will find a wide variety of projects underway, ranging from musclecars to classic trucks to street rods. Some of the vehicles are brought in through an associated business called the Rod Shop at HRI while all the remaining projects are student owned.

“If you’re going into this industry you have a love for the automobile,” says LaRue. “It’s a great motivator for the students to work on their own vehicles.”

My goal is to teach bumper-to-bumper hot rods. –Doug LaRue, Hot Rod Institute

About 25 to 30 students attend the classes each quarter with the school having the capacity to accept up to 50 students. The curriculum is designed to be flexible in that students can enroll for any or all of the six programs offered. In other words, if a student only wants to learn about upholstery, then that class can be completed in one quarter. By completing all six programs over the course of 18 months, the student earns a Hot Rod Special Achievement diploma. Of the six classes offered, one focuses on motorcycles. So, many of the students complete the remaining five that cover customizing and restoration of cars. Topics also include chassis fabrication, body fabrication, paint and refinishing, upholstery and performance auto mechanics.

Students receive one-on-one instruction and have generous hands-on shop time to advance their skills.

Quality Instructors

“Classes all run at the same time,” says LaRue, “except for the motorcycle. That’s offered only during the October to January quarter as the instructor owns a repair shop of his own.”

The Hot Rod Institute has six full-time instructors while the Rod Shop operation employs five to six workers. Many of them are HRI graduates who earn valuable experience as interns while awaiting job placement. On occasion, HRI students will receive some of their instruction working on Rod Shop customer projects.

Student projects are found throughout the large shop. Here’s a Model A coupe with a hand-fabricated frame, and next the top gets a 4-inch chop.

Tuition for each of the six individual classes is $6,800. If the student signs up for a degree program that covers four to six classes then the tuition comes down to $6,500 per class. There is a $100 fee when interested students apply for admission. The school is open to students of any age, although the majority of the students are 18 to 23 years old. Classes are held Monday through Friday from 8 am to 4:30 pm.

Financial aid is available through Sallie Mae Financial, and the school is going through a second accreditation process to obtain federal financial aid. The good news is that veterans can attend under a number of GI Bill programs like Chapter 30, Chapter 33 and Chapter 35. The amount of benefits differs depending on the eligible program for each veteran, but the school says the Post 9-11 GI Bill has been the most successful with up to a $20,000 annual tuition credit possible.

“We currently have nine veterans in classes,” said LaRue. “And three of our instructors are vets.”

Trucks are very popular with the students. This ’57 Chevy pickup body has been mounted on a 2003 chassis.

Equipment From Liquidation Auction

LaRue has more than 20 years experience teaching and developing new programs at automotive trade schools nationwide. A native of Black Hills in South Dakota, he worked in auto body shops 13 years before teaching the trade at a WyoTech in Laramie, Wyoming.

“I was there for 15 years and started helping out in a custom paint class after hours,” said LaRue. “Then I started a custom body class after hours.”

The Rod Shop hires graduates to work on customer projects. This ’66 Chevelle underwent a full frame-off, body rotisserie restoration. That 454ci big-block puts out more than 500 horsepower.

LaRue approached the school with a proposal to start a hot rod curriculum, and in 1993 one of the first such programs in the country was offered alongside traditional collision and repair instructions. In 2003, he was offered a chance to help launch a new trade school in Alabama where he again proposed a hot rod program. About four years later a management change led to the school’s closing, which was rather timely because he was a little homesick for South Dakota.

LaRue was facing a bit of a dilemma, however. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to open a hot rod shop or continue teaching.

The chassis class offers students the opportunity to learn welding and custom suspension setup.

“I had a lot of students in Alabama who wanted to learn more,” said LaRue. “And they kept pushing me to start a school. It took a while to soak in that I really missed teaching.”

It’s a start! Here’s another angle of the ’57 Chevy truck project.

LaRue obtained a loan from a Rapid City bank and purchased $250,000 worth of equipment that the shuttered trade school put in a liquidation auction. It took seven 1,500-mile trips with a semi-trailer to haul all the machinery and teaching tools from Alabama to South Dakota.

“We started the school January 1, 2008,” LaRue said.

Although the weather can get quite frigid in the winter, Rapid City is a rather unique location for the school. Located on the edge of the historic Black Hills, it’s home to Ellsworth Air Force Base where a B-1B bomber squadron is assigned. It’s also a college town with the South Dakota School of Mines and Technolgy (you should see their Formula SAE racecar!) campus nearby. More important to hot rodders, hundreds of thousands of car and motorcycle enthusiasts are drawn to the Black Hills every summer for numerous car shows and rallies. The largest, of course, is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, but there are also major gatherings with the Black Hills Corvette Classic and Sturgis Mustang Rally. Finally, Kool Deadwood Nites is one of the most popular car shows in the western states.

“I chose Rapid City for its size and availability of housing for the students,” LaRue said.

Six Different Classes

The institute’s building offers more than 20,000 square feet of shop, classroom and office space. There’s plenty of parking and additional outside secured storage. Inside, the shop is divided into labs or areas where the different classes are taught. Following are capsule descriptions of each discipline:

Hot Rod Chassis – Students learn on frame jigs and other equipment the craft of building frames from the ground up or modifying bare frame rails. Instruction includes metal bending and rolling, plasma torch cutting, suspension assembly and mounting the engine and transmission. Students also learn both TIG and MIG welding skills in this class. Jamie Ellenwood is the instructor who has 25-plus years experience and runs his own custom shop on the side.

The school has a custom full-size frame jig for specialized construction. Currently on the jig is a ’32 frame rail being modified to fit a Model A body. The student building this car is from Australia.

Hot Rod Body – Want to learn how to use an English wheel? This is the class. Students also work with a power hammer, planishing hammer and metal brakes along with equipment for shrinking, stretching and rolling sheet metal. Students learn to fabricate floors, chop roof tops, flair wheel openings, fix quarter panels and mount doors. Straight, even gaps are emphasized in the class taught by Doug LaRue.

The latest in fabrication equipment is available at the school. Here are an English wheel and power hammer.

Hot Rod Refinishing – Students learn about bodywork and applying primers, top coats and clear coats. Custom paint techniques are also taught. In addition, there is instruction on glass installation, inspecting for fit and finish and final trim assembly. The school has a complete mixing room and professional paint booth. Taught by Eldon Amero, who has 35 years in custom paint and body work and is also a master pinstriper. He had his own shop in Idaho for over 20 years before transitioning to teaching.

Students learn the finer details of custom paint and finishing. This is a ’48 Plymouth customer car being prepped by a HRI graduate now working in the Rod Shop.

Hot Rod Performance – This is the hands-on mechanical instruction where students work with engines, transmissions and rear axles. They study performance theory, learn the fundamentals of electronic fuel injection and set up disc and drum brakes. There’s also a section on wiring electrical components and installing air conditioning. This class is taught by Lee Addington, a former WyoTech instructor with 30-plus years experience who is also an ASE certified mechanic.

Engine building is covered in the Hot Rod Performance class.

Hot Rod Upholstery – Here’s where students get in touch with their inner needlecraft skills. They learn sewing machine operation and how to stitch up basic and advanced seams for seat covering. They also work with wood panels, carpet, headliners, visors, headrests, armrests and other interior components. Hot rod upholstery is taught by Bob Koehly who has 35-plus years experience and is the owner of Perfectionist upholstery shop.

Behind this ’48 Pontiac project is the upholstery lab where students learn about custom fabrics and sewing.

Hot Rod Motorcycle – Students learn to build a complete custom motorcycle from the ground up or with a kit. If students already have Hot Rod Chassis under their belt, they build and modify frames. They learn machining of new components on the lathe and mill along with working on the engine, transmission and primary. Other instruction covers wiring, brakes and tuneup. This is taught by Gregg Davis, who has 30 years experience in motorcycle customizing and mechanics. He is also a former employee at the Harley factory in Milwaukee.

The motorcycle class is taught during one quarter only each year. This is a student’s custom project with a Shovelhead motor.

“You can see we focus on skills that seem to have gone by the wayside in other schools,” said LaRue. “My goal is to teach bumper-to-bumper hot rods.”

The Rod Shop is a full-service operation that works on street rods, customs, trucks, musclecars, Pro Touring and motorcycles. Customers make arrangements with the school for the desired work.

“We only hire our graduates to work in the Rod Shop,” said LaRue. “It’s like an extended education for them and they get paid while they’re doing it.”

A wide variety of projects is found at the school.

The institute offers help with job placement and enjoys a success rate of about 80 percent. Students are required to keep a log of all their work and document their portfolio with photos. Students also attend a resume-writing lecture to prepare for the job search.

“For the short time we’ve been going we’ve had really good success,” said LaRue. “Today alone, I had calls from two graduates wanting to hire our graduates. That means they’re already in business for themselves.”

Contact the Hot Rod Institute through the school’s website or by calling 605-342-1195 for more information. Also, check out the school’s Facebook page.