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October 21, 2011

VIDEO: Hotdoggers spread miles of smiles driving Wienermobile

Iconic vehicle makes stop in Terre Haute

TERRE HAUTE — “This is awesome,” Lawrence Paige said laughing Thursday morning just after the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile pulled up in front of Kroger on Wabash Avenue.

“This is gonna be my new Facebook status,” he said as he took a photo of the rolling hot dog on a bun.

The iconic Wienermobile made two stops in Terre Haute during a journey across America to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Wienermobile -- much to the delight of many who showed up to have their photos taken and to collect a Wiener Whistle.

“When we heard it was going to be her, I brought the kids out specifically to see it,” enthused Chrissy Revell, as she and husband Scott gathered with their children, Jonathan, 9, David, 7, and four-year-old Lizzy “I was her age when I first saw it,” Chrissy said of her daughter.

Based in Madison, Wis., the Oscar Mayer company sends out six Wienermobiles each year to cover different regions of the country. Terre Haute won an Oscar Mayer Facebook contest to be one of the 75 cities being visited on the Wienermobile 75th anniversary tour.  The crew also visited Kroger on Fort Harrison Road later in the afternoon.

Hotdoggers Dylan “Dyl-icious” Hackbarth and “Ketchup” Kyle Hodges drive the RV-sized vehicle in a region from Maine to Virginia and as far east as Indiana.

“It’s probably the greatest job I’ll ever have,” Hodges said. “It’s about spreading miles of smiles.”

The current model of Wienermobiles have been traveling since 2009, but there have been several models since the first rolling hotdog hit the road in 1936.

“We travel anywhere from 300 to 1,000 miles a week,” Hodges said. “We stay in our region, but the region is very big.”

Public reaction to Wienermobile sightings is almost always positive, she said. “Most of the time, it’s just a lot of smiling and honking and waving. My most memorable was a grown woman who was hysterically laughing. She couldn’t speak, she just kept laughing.”

Driving through neighborhoods is also a blast, she said, especially when someone doing yard work takes pause to stare open-mouthed as the Wienermobile rolls past.

“There’s nothing about the Wienermobile that makes you sad,” she said.

Rena Burk of Terre Haute agreed. She and her husband Kenny and 4-year-old son Nicklaus made a special trip to the Kroger on Wabash to see the legendary vehicle.

“It’s just a part of history,” Burk said. “People our age usually don’t get to see this. It just brings the kid back. And, I got a whistle!”

Burk said she has seen Food Network television programs about the Wienermobile, and was thrilled she got the chance to see it up close.

Jonathon Alltop of Bowling Green was on his way to work at Union Hospital when he stopped by to “meat” the Oscar Mayer crew.

And Cheryl White brought a special friend along -- Flat Stanley.

“My niece in Georgia sent him to me,” White said of the paper boy cut-out, who is a popular phenomenon in his own right as people photograph him in various places before returning him on his journey. “If you’re gonna take someone around Terre Haute and show them the interesting things in Terre Haute,” White said, “you gotta show them the Wienermobile.”

Some of the males stopping by to check out the rolling hotdog were interested in the vehicle’s statistics, such as miles per gallon and top speed.

“It gets about the same mileage as a large SUV,” Hodges said. “It can ‘haul buns’, but we always like to go the speed limit.”

Many of the visitors chose to have their photos taken with the Wienermobile. With the side door open, visitors could step inside for a quick peek at the plush yellow and red interior, and the mustard stripe painted on the floor.

“This is the ketchup walkway,” Hackbarth said of the red floor. “We tell kids we spilled mustard on it, but they won’t believe us.”

Passengers in the Wienermobile must wear a “meatbelt” rather than a seatbelt for safety. The front seat passenger is riding “shot bun” and the big hot dogs in the front windshield are “dash hounds.”

“On the ceiling we have blue skies painted,” Hackbarth said, “because even when its cloudy and rainy like it is outside today, inside the Wienermobile it’s a beautiful day.”

There is even a “bun roof” that can be removed during parades so that the wiener crew can wave to crowds. And in the heat of the summer, Dylan and Kylie cranked up the air conditioning to become “chilly dogs” on the long drives.

They stay busy giving out Wiener whistles, making scheduled stops at retail businesses and for community events. Since they hit the road in June, they have given rides to the families of ill children staying at Ronald McDonald Houses, and have participated in “wiener-robics” for senior citizens needing exercise.

Last week in Indianapolis, they drove around the Butler University campus with school mascot Blue the Bulldog barking at students.

“It’s really great to go places where people really embrace us,” Hodges said. “We’ve been to other Facebook contest towns, but we haven’t gotten the reception like we did today.”

The duo have been hotdoggers since graduating from Hot Dog High, after they both graduated from college and committed a year to being ambassadors for the Oscar Mayer company. The interior of the Wienermobile is spacious, with plenty of storage space for up to 11,000 Wiener Whistles.

“A lot of people think we’re married, and that we live in this thing, and that we’re volunteers,” Hodges said laughing about the questions she and Hackbarth get from the curious.

“It’s pretty surreal,” Hackbarth said. “I was telling Kylie this morning, ‘Oh no! I’m having dreams about the Wienermobile.’ We live, eat and sleep with it.”

As two of just 12 hotdoggers, Hackbarth and Hodges were selected from among more than 1,500 applicants for the one-year position as Oscar Mayer ambassadors.

“We were lucky to cut the mustard,” Hackbarth punned.

Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.

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