Car Culture: Hot rod expo is vehicle for career day

Melissa Preddy
Car Culture

For most people, a trip to Autorama is a chance to spend a few hours in delightful sensory overload amid high-performance engines, burnished metal, glossy paint jobs and sparkling special effects.

But for about 3,000 Metro Detroit high school students, a day at the hot rod expo being held March 2-4 at Cobo Center could be a ticket to a lifelong career.

That’s the aim of Autorama promoters, who annually host about 15,000 students from the United States and Canada at Student Career Day events tied to their car shows. The students attend the preview on discounted tickets coordinated through their schools, and local colleges and trade schools are on hand with information about their programs, too. Kids, primarily from automotive tech classes, are welcomed to a private morning seminar featuring guest speakers, giveaways and more.

“Then, onto the show floor they go for the day,” said Bob Chubala, national coordinator of Student Career Day for Autorama producers Championship Auto Shows of Auburn Hills.

The students are turned loose among the nearly 1,000 vehicles, where exhibitors and corporate reps are primed to chat up the students and help them explore the myriad facets of the auto manufacturing, customizing and aftermarket industries.

Chubala, himself a ’70s-era graduate of automotive vocational training, said the industry is keenly aware it needs to stimulate a new generation of interest in auto-related occupations. “We really need young people to be interested in the industry,” he said. “And to show them that it’s modern technology — you no longer just get dirty and greasy working on cars.”

Filling dual roles as exhibitors and career-day students will be some of the class from Roseville-based Drive One Detroit, a non-profit program that helps at-risk young people establish skills in automotive technology, machining and more. Their handiwork will be showcased in a 1965 Shelby Daytona (blue with white stripe, of course), a 1997 Jeep in StarLite, the Axalta Coating Systems’ 2018 Color of the Year, and a 1972 Tri Rod — sort of a cross between a dune buggy and a motorcycle.

Drive One Detroit started in 2012 as a grass-roots effort to make up for the disappearance of shop programs in public schools. Recently, it partnered with the Way Academy charter school, so that students receive academic credit for their technical training. The aim is to graduate students with both a high school diploma and state certification as automotive technicians, said director Paul Tregambo Jr.

But the impact of the program goes far beyond hands-on skills, said Tregambo, himself a veteran auto shop instructor. Professional conduct, accountability and leadership are stressed throughout the program, from the very first entrance interview.

“A lot of students realize there are doors of opportunity they never have thought about,” he said. “People who never saw themselves as engineers suddenly realize what they are capable of.”

Drive One Detroit is assisted by numerous sponsors like Axalta, and employers like The Suburban Collection, who are eager to nurture the workers of tomorrow, Tregambo said. “What our students do, they can’t send offshore. That’s job security. And at the end of the day, there’s the self-confidence factor of saying ‘I made that,’ or ‘I fixed that.’ It opens their minds.”


What: 66th annual Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama custom car show, including five cars from the “Fast and Furious” movies

When: Noon-10 p.m. March 2, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. March 3, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. March 4

Where: Cobo Center, 1 Washington Blvd., Detroit

Admission: $20; $7 ages 6-12; free for age 5 and under