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Piston Stories

Piston Scholar Riley Sojka Aims for An Upholstery Car Career

Two events changed Riley Sojka’s life. One was visiting a car show in July of 2018, during his high school years in Wichita, Kansas, and the other was an opportunity to sit in a 1967 Chevy Camaro. Both experiences introduced Riley to the idea of a car career. He realized that, “Yeah, this is what I want to do. I want to work with these cars.”

Soon, the 20-year-old Piston Scholar, was deep into restoring cars as a student at McPherson College and living his dream.

By Judy Stropus

April 26, 2024

The Start of a Car Career

“I was with my parents and my younger brother, just walking around the show, and someone brought down the first production Camaro ever built, and they were allowing everybody to sit in it, take a picture, and just get a feel for it,” said Sojka.

The car scene in Wichita was vigorous, Sojka discovered, and, “hearing my dad talk about his experience with cars when he was in high school, sounded really cool. One of his cars was a ’68 Buick Riviera and he had some mid-50s coupes. He told me stories and it was cool to hear what he did with those cars.

“There’s a good car community in Wichita and I would get to see a lot of those cars on a daily basis, especially during the summer. Getting the opportunity to grow up around it is what really pushed me towards it,” he said.

Mom and a Multitude of Avenues

By age 15, Sojka was getting his hands dirty on his older brother’s 1990s GMC Sonoma. “I remember we bought it from our neighbor. It had been sitting on the property for a number of years, so we did some work on it, changing the oil, getting some new fluid in there, doing a brake job, rotating the tires,” he explained.

During his senior year in high school, he was considering his plans for his future. “I was looking at maybe going into the military and then doing something with college later on,” he said. “Then I found out about the restoration program at McPherson College and it was the choice I needed to go with. Once I took my campus tour, there was just nowhere else I wanted to be.”

He’s now finishing up his junior year, and gearing up for senior year, studying machining technology, chassis restoration, electrical systems, and taking voice lessons on the side.

Wait, what? Singing? “Yeah, singing. It was a one-credit-hour course and it got me up to my full-time student status at 17 credits to go,” he explained. “I think I have a good voice. I took a year of choir in high school, so I had a little bit of background.”

Sojka was also encouraged by his mom, who is the library director at McPherson College. “She has a Masters in library sciences and she’s where I got my interest in history and reading. When I was applying for McPherson, she was the assistant director at Friends University in Wichita and was looking for a different job. McPherson had the opening and she applied for it and said, ‘Hey, by the way, I applied for this.’ I said, ‘That’s cool. I guess you’re following me to college.’”

Hopping Over Future Hurdles

With one more year to go at McPherson, Sojka is well aware of the challenges he’ll face once he graduates. “I guess there is a little bit of fear going out into the real world, especially carrying that title of Bachelor of Science in Automotive Restoration. Right?” he said. “You’ll definitely be held to a higher standard and it can create a little sense of anxiety to do your best always, but they really do a good job here at McPherson to get you ready to do your best and I’m excited to see what the future holds for me.

“You find challenges in anything you do, so I can only imagine there will be something in the future.”

Riley Finds his Upholstery Calling

After taking classes on restoring upholstery, Sojka found a true interest in that discipline. “It wasn’t really something I thought about doing before I got to the class,” he said. “I came into the program thinking, ‘Yeah, engines or maybe paint work will be what I want to do in my career.’ I had never even touched a sewing machine before, but getting the opportunity to be in that setting was like a shining light. It was like, ‘Oh, this is what I understand and this is what makes sense to me.’

“You’ve got people in the program who can shape metal better than anyone or who can tear apart an engine and rebuild it in a weekend. For me, it’s that I can make a new seat cover and that’s just my thing.

“It could take me to a variety of places after graduation. There’s definitely a lot of full restoration shops that have an upholstery department, like Paul Russell and Company. I’ve been working for an upholstery specific shop, Style Craft Auto Upholstery, in Wichita. The owner is also a graduate of the program and I’m looking to maybe continue there after I graduate. Also, a lot of the aircraft companies have interior departments and need stuff sewn up as well.”

A Helping Hand from the Piston Scholarship

Being awarded a scholarship by The Piston Foundation last year was key to his progress. “I saw the college post news that several of my classmates had received scholarships. So, I got my stuff together the following year and applied for several scholarships. Last June I was notified that I was receiving The Piston Foundation Scholarship. I was a camp counselor at a summer camp, and I was by myself in our dining hall and I literally jumped up and down. I was so happy.

“Because of the Piston scholarship, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot more time in the lab this year. Previously, I had to spend several to almost all nights of the week working at a job to make sure I had enough money to cover any extra fees or just my general tuition, and having enough money to be comfortable going out to eat once or twice a week. College students can’t deal with cafeteria food all the time. That’s where I’ve seen the biggest help from the Piston Foundation. I can now focus more of my time on my projects and schoolwork.”

“Everyone at The Piston Foundation is great to work with,” Sojka added. “It’s felt so much like a family and it’s been so friendly.” 

Social Media is Key

His advice to parents with kids interested in the trade? “Make sure your kids are applying for scholarships,” he said. “It’s easy for people who don’t have experience with the industry to think that it’s just oil changes and changing tires. There’s so much more to it than that. There’s so many different aspects of the industry. Even outside of the restoration itself, you can be designing, or helping with social media or part of the auction world, and that’s important to know.”

Sojka believes that social media is a valuable tool for students looking for work after graduation. “We are very social media savvy and we use our phones a lot, and I’ve seen good things with social media,” he offered. “If I’m looking for a shop or I’m interested to know more about something, I look for information or posts from that company or just in general. If the industry provides consistent updates, that is very helpful to us.”

American, Foreign Cars and “Shadow” Judging

While American cars caught his attention early on, and he finds the 1965 and 1966 Ford Mustang to be “elegant” cars, he has had some experience with foreign cars such as a 1956 Austin-Healey 100M and a Subaru, but he learned to drive a standard shift in a 1989 Ford Bronco. “My dad taught me how to drive on that. My second car was a 2000 Ford Mustang, and it was also manual.”

This year, he had the opportunity to be a “shadow” judge at The Amelia Concours d’Elegance at Amelia Island, Florida, judging Pikes Peak International Hill Climb cars. “It was just amazing. To be around so many cars of that caliber and significance is what really struck me, as well as the people.”

As for the future, “I think, down the road, opening my own shop is definitely a consideration,” he said. “There’s always going to be a need for a restoration shop. I am more of an upholstery person, but working on engines is not a bad area at all. The higher quality upholstery work is definitely what I aim for. Even with small projects I want to do the best I can. That way I can prepare myself for the big jobs.”

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