This Texas hobbyist is reaching for his pro-shop dreams by supporting his local community. He’s inspiring his kids in the process.
Autobody Source staff
In this drought of automotive workers, J.R. Lara is a Texas-sized example that passion for the trades is alive and well with youngsters and their parents.
J.R. hails from Charlotte, a small town of roughly 1800 people just south of San Antonio. A 15-year diesel technician in the oil and gas industry of South Texas and self-taught mechanic, bodyman and painter, J.R. grew up the youngest of five boys, tooling on cars alongside his father in his family’s home garage. He started tooling for himself in 2006 and carries the tradition with his own youngsters for now in his home garage, which he converted to a shop.
“My dad has always been really independent, never took his cars to a shop for anything. He patched his own tires, did his own brakes, oil changes. So I learned a lot of my trade from him growing up, spending a lot of time with my dad in the garage.”
“When I was 13, we built a lowrider bicycle and it was featured in a lowrider magazine when I was about 15-years-old. That was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me growing up as a kid, and it was something that me and my dad built together. It was the highlight of my childhood.”
J.R.’s encouraging his kids’ interests in the same way. “I have two sons and two daughters. My youngest son, Domnik, is seven and he’s a gearhead to-the-max. He’s always had a fascination with anything automotive, from trucks, cars, motorcycles, boats. Anything that looks flashy or has fancy racing stripes, candy paint, nice wheels, a loud exhaust, cammed-out engines, he’s just drawn to it. It’s like it came naturally in his bloodline.”
His oldest son R.J. spends occasional time in the shop, too, but he’s more athletic, his dad says, and spends his time enjoying baseball and basketball. “And, of course, I encourage him and push him towards that, that’s what he likes to do. I want them to grow up knowing that I’m their backbone, and that whatever they want to do in life or what they pursue, I’m going to support them 100%, whether it be sports, cars, computers or whatever.”
GEARHEAD IN THE MAKING
J.R. says he gets repeated asks from little Domnik to takeover his operation. “He tells me all the time “This shop is gonna be mine one day, right dad?” And I tell him “No, when you’re old enough, you’re going to have your own shop.”
Like his father, J.R. is the community’s go-to auto service center. In fact, if you were having car trouble in the area and asked any resident or business owner, “they’re going to point you in my direction nine out of ten times,” he says with pride.
The shop’s name, Underdog Customs Garage, originated with J.R. and a good friend, who’s also a gearhead. “Growing up, the lowrider community was very popular here in South Texas, so I was really interested with the hydraulic setups and seeing how they work. Later on, sport trucks became popular, with air-ride suspensions, and it was always a fascination for me. I wanted to know how to build them.”
“My dad used to take me to car shows and I’ve always had a fascination with paint jobs. ‘How do you create this metallic?’, ‘How do you create this ghost-pattern design?’ I’ve always loved gazing into the depth of a paintjob with so many layers that it looks like a holographic image.”
SMALL FISH IN A BIG POND
In high school, J.R.’s dad gifted him his first truck, a 1995 Silverado. His first mod was to ditch the leaf springs, drop the ride height, and swap on a new set of mag wheels and tires.
The more he and his friend customized their rides (his buddy is a welder and fabricator), the more admirers asked for the name of the shop that did the work.
“We thought about it and realized that we’re like small fish in a big pond,” J.R. says, comparing themselves with well-known Texas shops.
“We can hold our own, but we’re always going to be known as the underdogs, because we won’t forget where we came from. So the name Underdog Garage just kind of stuck with me.”
J.R. looks back on his childhood love of cars and recalls thinking “I’m going to own a car like that one day. Now, here I am all these years later, and I’ve built five or six of them so far.”
He’s equally passionate about his diesel mechanic work. “If a machine goes down, I love being able to troubleshoot the problem, hearing it fire back up and seeing it run again. Seeing the customer happy again is always a good feeling.”
ONWARD AND UPWARD
As a budding small-business owner, the pandemic’s impact on jobs & consumers across the economy has deepened J.R.’s appreciation for his automotive skills, the experience he’s gained through serving others, and having access to affordable high-quality products.
“I’ve always been blessed knowing what I have here and that I always have something to fall back on. A lot of people don’t have that option.”
“We have a few bigger towns around us, and there are Class A paint and bodyshops in those areas. So I’m very happy with the quality of the Advantage Refinish® clearcoats because they make it cost-efficient for my customers, and I know it’s a great product. When you use great products, they’re easy to work with. The high-build 2K primers are great; they block down like butter.”
J.R. recently customized & showcased trucks in the Battle at the Alamo 2020 truck show competition last November, highlighting his suspension work, audio & lighting, paint work, truckbed liners, window tinting, and more.
And this year, UDC’s exciting plan is to build a new, 3-bay facility this Spring.
Located just south of San Antonio, Texas, Underdog Customs is owned & operated by self-taught mechanic, bodyman and painter J.R. Lara., specializing in mechanical repair, paint and body, bedliner, window tinting, audio and lighting, lifts and drop kits, detailing and vinyl graphics.