Hot Rod is a top-view racing game influenced by Super Sprint, in which three miniature cars race to complete a race as quickly as possible, by rotating, accelerating and braking at the right moments. You start with limited fuel, but more can be collected as you cover the track. Hitting hazards can cause your car to explode, thus costing time as it is replaced.
Unusually the racetracks are linear rather than lap-based, so each round involves covering a section of track once. After each race, you can purchase upgrades at the shop, depending on how much money you earned in the previous race.
Only part of the circuit is shown at a time, and this scrolls following the leader. If you fail to keep up with this, your car is moved forward on the track, with a penalty fuel deduction. This is slightly similar to the system later used in head-to-head games of Micro Machines, and is especially punishing while you are on roads travelling horizontally and the leading CPU car is travelling vertically, as it makes the margin for error much smaller.