Katie Shroeder got her first glimpse of the slick tan, red and yellow beast when she was a waitress in Kansas. Grabbing a once-in-a-lifetime chance, she tracked it for 60 miles until it finally stopped.
Shroeder’s chase two years ago had caught the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, and for now at least, her calling.
“I was so obsessed,” she said of aspiring to work the wiener.
Now she is Katie Shroeder, hotdogger — that is, a driver of the Wienermobile.
On Independence Day, what could be more American than hot dogs? The holiday adds a special gleam of Americana to the Wienermobile, Oscar Mayer’s pioneering mobile marketing gimmick, which turns 70 this year.
“It’s one of those things from my childhood,” said Karen Preston, 47, who came out to see the Wienermobile recently in Las Vegas.
Oscar Mayer created the Wienermobile in 1936 to transfer the company spokesperson from store to store.
The original was a 13-foot-long metal hot dog on wheels with an open cockpit in the center and rear, so the hotdogger could pop up. Hog dog whistles were given out starting in 1951, and many people still show up at Wienermobile events looking for the whistles. The 1952 version of the Wienermobile is in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
The Wienermobile has evolved with the times. Now, it’s 27 feet long and boasts a GPS navigation system, six mustard- and ketchup-colored seats and a V-8 engine.
There actually are six Wienermobiles. Two hotdoggers are assigned to each, taking turns driving and living on the road for a year, traveling to promotional events and listening to that familiar jingle, over and over.
The jingle has progressed, too. There is the classic that surely has taught millions of children to spell b-o-l-o-g-n-a, and the wiener jingle. In 1998, a Spanish jingle was added. Each Wienermobile has a CD of the wiener jingle being sung in 21 different styles ranging from rap to country. Shroeder and her partner, Lindsay Brant, swear they never get sick of “Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener ...”
So just how do you get to be the driver of a traffic-stopping, pop culture icon?
Oscar Mayer recruits at college campuses, looking for outgoing, independent, trustworthy graduating seniors willing to spend a year inside an oversized hot dog.
More than 1,000 people apply each year, according to Ed Roland, Oscar Mayer’s mobile marketing manager.
“Twelve lucky ones cut the mustard,” he said.
Those 12 head to Hot Dog High in Madison, Wis., where they are instructed in everything from crisis training to how to drive the dog.
“We do everything we can to avoid scratching our buns,” Roland said of the training; punmanship apparently is a job skill in this field.
Graduates crisscross the country promoting the 123-year-old brand. Hazards of the job include crazed fans begging you to pull over on the highway and families hanging out the window, desperate for a picture.
“Just seeing the looks on people’s faces when we drive into town is just priceless,” said Brant, 23, who graduated from Penn State University last year. “There’s always people inviting us over for dinner.”
She estimates she’s heard the jingle a thousand times a day, but insists she never once has thought about tossing the CD out the window and running over it with the 14,000-pound Wienermobile.
The recent Las Vegas visit was a rare treat for fans: Four Wienermobiles at one time, almost a half package. And with them came the chance for wiener immortality.
The hotdoggers are in search of new jingle singers. Five winners, age 6 or up, will be chosen this year to star in a national Oscar Mayer television commercial. With the Wienermobiles came the chance to audition. This is serious stuff: One mother practiced with her daughter for at least 15 minutes before the girl took the stage.
Lisa Branch, 53, popped up on stage and belted out her rendition of the jingle. She lives in tiny Ozona, Texas, where sightings of the Wienermobile are rare — though her husband thought he remembered seeing one pass by on Interstate 10.
For sisters Preston and Tracy French of Temecula, Calif., the big hot dog brought back memories of the dog days of summer. (Of course.)
“I came because it’s nostalgic,” French said.
The memory is heartwarming ... er, bun warming.