Hot Rod is a top-down racing game that allows up to four players to play in its largest configuration. The four-player arcade cabinet is a large table-top cabinet with one player at each side. The game could also be configured to be played by fewer players, if operators were running the game in a different style of cabinet. Some home versions of the game also limit the maximum number of players. Sega's System 24 hardware was used to power the original arcade release.
Though earning first-place finishes is the surface goal in Hot Rod, players stay in the race as long as they have fuel remaining. Fuel drains during normal driving, but can also be lost in a large chunk if the driver can't keep up with the other cars and scrolls off the back of the screen. Fuel power-ups can be found on the track, and finishing first in the rankings earns more fuel than than finishing fourth.
Between races, in-game cash can be spent on new spoilers, motors, bumpers, and tires. The tires correspond to different track types, so speed tires are best on road courses, while spikes would be better on icy roads, and so on.