Done with college, disillusioned and at a crossroads as to what direction to take next, Dave Ihlenfeld discovered a job ad seeking cross-country drivers for the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile. After careful screening process and weeks of intensive training, Ihlenfeld, along with 15 other successful candidates, set off on a yearlong tour of key locations in the United States and Europe, passing out whistles, serving up wieners, marching in parades and surviving breakdowns in the desert and PETA protests.
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Today, a successful TV writer for Family Guy and Nickelodeon’s Supah Ninjas, Ihlenfeld has come a long way since he toured the nation in an iconic, bright yellow fiberglass hotdog. We caught up with him to learn more about his wild and crazy odyssey aboard the Weinermobile that he’s documented in Dog Days: A Year in the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile.
What were the best and worst aspects of traveling in the Weinermobile?
The best part was being an instant celebrity—something I’d never experienced before. You pull into town and you’re instantly the center of attention—everyone wants something from you. And it’s also a huge ego boost because you can just stand next to it and get recognition.
The worst moments were all the breakdowns. It’s a really fun car to be in, but not so much fun to drive. Our old boss said it was “built more for show than for go.” We all became mini-mechanics by the end of this trip.
Was the experience anything like you’d imagined it would be?
I did know what to expect when I first began. I figured we’d just travel around and pass out whistles, but the amount of things you actually get to do and see in your free time amazed me. I didn’t imagine the personal connections I would make. I became great friends with people I still keep in touch with today, and they gave gracious interviews for the book. Definitely the connections were the most valuable thing that happened.
As you researched the Oscar Mayer Company, what surprised you the most?
I think just the story of Oscar Mayer himself. When you’re working for the company, it’s hard to take a step back and realize that Oscar Mayer was a real person. I was impressed at just the fact that he was able to start in Chicago from a small storefront and build the business into the sausage empire that it is today. He sounded like a great man.
Now that you have firsthand experience, what’s the biggest misconception about folks who do promotional work for a living?
I think it would be that these jobs are really hard work. I definitely feel like a tinge of sympathy for people who do this for a living. It’s a job where you’re basically being paid to be nice to people, and you can’t let a bad day affect that goal. There were times when we were all so tired and just done with it, and you never wanted the customers to see that. When I see other promotion people doing it, I just want to go up to them and give them a hug and say, “You’ll get through this!”
What was your reaction to the PETA protests you encountered?
It was something that we had been trained to expect. The groups before us told so many stories about the protests they’d been met with, but we never ran into it until we drove in a parade in Louisville. I was surprised that we didn’t see more of it. That parade ran off without a hitch—other than our driver almost running over a guy in a pig costume!
Are you still as pessimistic about your future as you were when you took the job?
No, I feel that I’ve got things figured out now. I was always really angry at those people who had it all figured out. It took me a long time to figure it all out for myself. The main reason I took the Weinermobile job was because I had no other job offers, and I figured that the Weinermobile will give me a year to work things out. And by the end, I had a lot more confidence, and I’d survived a major breakdown in the desert! Even after the experience, it still took me a good three or four years to figure out what I wanted to do. I’m definitely not so down on myself these days though.
Have you retained any of the friendships you made in your journey?
I’m still friends with everyone I met. There were 16 of us who drove. It’s pretty amazing how they do it—two weeks of training with everyone, and they hire people they know are going to mesh—a lot of Type-A personalities. I was never one of the popular kids in school and suddenly I had 16 best friends!
Are you still a converted fan of Oscar Mayer wieners?
Yeah, actually when I go to the grocery store, I would feel so guilty buying anything else other than Oscar Mayer! I feel like I owe them at least buying their hotdogs.