I'm not the kind of guy who turns down the opportunity to pilot a huge frankfurter around South Florida; so, that's exactly what I did about 20 years ago. Man, it really was almost 20 years ago. Time really flies when you're clawing out an existence.
What brought this to mind was a frantic search this morning for some archival photo to throw up on Facebook for “throw-back Thursday.” I came across some photos taken the day I spent behind the wheel of an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. I write “a” Wienermobile because at the time, Oscar Mayer operated six such vehicles: three or four in the U.S., one in Canada and another dedicated to foreign marketing.
|My Wienermobile crew: From left Donna Grady, Michelle Navedo and Jonathan Rhudy.|
The corporation, part of Kraft Foods, hired two freshly graduated college seniors – Hotdoggers – to man each Wienermobile. These, I understand, were and still are highly prized 12-month positions that the hot-dog maker actively recruits for on college campuses.
My buddy John, at the time, was the regional sales manager for Kraft Foods in South Florida. During one of our outings, I expressed a desire to drive the Wienermobile. I was writing the auto pages for the Palm Beach Post at the time, and thought it would be a fun story. As it turned out, the story was picked up by a couple of other newspapers including the Washington Times.
|Amy and I.|
I received a call from John one day notifying me that the Wienermobile would be in Palm Beach County on a particular day, and Oscar Mayer would make it available to me for four hours or so. We settled on a location and time where I would meet it and its crew. I called my buddy Amy to see if she might want to tag along and shoot some photos of this landmark event. She, of course, was in!
Arriving at the appointed meeting place, we found the vehicle set up in a parking lot with its side door open and a sign in front just as though it was participating in an event of some sort. It, obviously, had attracted a gawker or two.
There was actually a crew of three that day. One of the Wienermobiles had been somehow damaged and was in an airplane hanger somewhere being repaired. Mayer split its two-person crew between two other Wienermobiles, one of which was mine.
|Engaging the slalom.|
The crew had set up a simple slalom course with small orange cones to measure my capacity to pilot this monster. Having bested the course, they then set up cones to test my parallel-parking skills. No surprise that there is virtually no way to view what is happening behind this thing. Even the outboard mirrors aren't sufficient to provide a comprehensive rear view. But, even in the early 1990s, there was a degree of camera technology. I don't remember clearly, but there were either two or three rear cameras.
I had never attempted to park something this big; nor had I ever parked anything using TV monitors for the rear view.
|Receiving my well-deserved props from the crew after parallel parking.|
I slid the Wienermobile into the space on my first try. I probably couldn't have done it again had you put a gun to my head. But, I did do it on the first attempt. Whether the crew was actually impressed, I have no clue; but they sure acted like it.
My two tests completed, I received some basic dos and don'ts regarding my role behind the wheel. The two instructions I specifically remember: Wave and smile at every person and vehicle, and don't drive under any low-hanging tree branches. Got it!
Rules stated and received, we mounted up and headed out on the highway.
|Me at the wheel preparing to embark.|
Despite this vehicle's size, it wasn't difficult to drive. An uber-high seating position provided excellent visibility down the road. Mastering the use of the rearview cameras required a bit of time, but otherwise, no worries.
What was tough was the smiling and waving. After two hours of zipping around in this contraption my right arm felt like lead and my face hurt. Only a kid could possibly do this for eight or ten hours a day without requiring an emergency-room visit.
It was a great day, however! After cruising back into our starting point and dismounting, the crew gave me a small orange traffic cone they had all signed. Each signature accompanied by a little saying like, “You cut the mustard” and “You're top dog.” The cone is long gone, but the memories aren't.
I have to say that with nearly 30 years in the auto-journalism business under my belt, this was one of the most unique experiences and best times I've had just doing my job.