Driving the West Coast Wienermobile down PCH and eating hotdogs

It was just another weenie Wednesday for Abbey Rank and Keila Garza.

They woke up at 5 a.m in a Downey hotel room and put on their work attire: a yellow polo, a red windbreaker emblazoned with “Keep It Oscar,” an embroidered black apron and the matching fanny packs that they call “bologna bags.” Before sunrise, they were back on the road driving the West Coast Oscar Mayer Wienermobile to Los Feliz as their “hotdogger” alter egos: Abbey Frankfurter and Queso Dog Keila.

“This is such a funny thing, you know?” Rank said later that day, looking at the cars below. “We literally drive a giant hot dog around the United States just to make people laugh.”

Hotdoggers Abbey Rank and Keila Garza ride around in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile as it visits L.A.

(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

Though five of Oscar Mayer’s six Wienermobiles have Wisconsin plates (which read WEENR, OUR DOG, RELSHME, YUMMY and OH I WISH), only one has a California plate: OSCRMYR. It never leaves the West Coast (which Rank defined as “all the way up to Washington or all the way down to Arizona”) so if you spot a 27-foot-long weenie carving its way up the Pacific Coast Highway or coasting down the Las Vegas Strip this fall, Rank, 23, and Garza, 22, are the two hotdoggers waving at you from OSCRMYR’s windows.

Both are from Texas — Rank is from Houston and Garza grew up in McAllen. “I remember when I told my mom that they were sending me to the West Coast she was like, ‘Keila, you know they have like six lanes on the highway. Are you ready for that?’” Garza said. “I was like, ‘I will be, Mom.’”

Hotdogger Keila Garza grins while riding around in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

The first Wienermobile hit the streets in 1936, but the hotdogger program — which recruits recent college graduates to drive the six vehicles and attend grocery store openings, weddings, funerals and everything in between — began in 1988.

“It’s like seeing a unicorn,” Rank said, explaining the novelty of spotting the Wienermobile, “if a unicorn was shaped like a hot dog.”

Thousands of people apply every year but only 12 are chosen to drive the massive hot dogs, which means the job is harder to get than an acceptance letter to Harvard University and that more people have been to space than have driven the Wienermobile. Though it may feel a bit deceiving, none of the hotdoggers were hired to cook or sell hot dogs; they’re actually traveling street teams who make public appearances, wave at stunned passersby and dole out various wiener-related paraphernalia — including keychains, stickers, hats and the legendary wiener whistles — to excited fans.

It’s like seeing a unicorn — if a unicorn was shaped like a hot dog.

— Hotdogger Abbey Rank

“We heard a story recently from one of our bosses that it was their grandmother’s dying wish that she ride in the Wienermobile, and she passed away, but they were able to go to the beach with her ashes in one of the Wienermobiles,” Rank said. “It’s very much a part of people’s families.”

The tough competition for the job is warranted: only the most extroverted extroverts would enjoy being that recognizable and social when they’re off the clock. (When we stopped at a deli to get sandwiches on their afternoon off, the cashier left her post to gasp and ask them where the Wienermobile was.)

The hot dog, which is nearly the length of each “L” in the Hollywood Sign, is also quite dramatic on the inside: its six plushy red and yellow seats each have embroidered renderings of the Wienermobile on all four sides. The bright red floor has a vivid yellow mustard streak running down the middle, but along the perimeter of the van there are sections of repurposed bowling alley carpet. Above the mounted bluetooth speakers and flat-screen TV, there’s a bright blue sky speckled with perfect clouds, only interrupted by the van’s sunroof.

An embroidered image of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, left, and hotdogger Abbey Rank, right, steers the vehicle as it visits Los Angeles.

(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s always sunny in the Wienermobile,” they recited dozens of times that day as curious fans peeked inside.

Driving a massive hot dog about 500 miles each week offers quite the conversation-starter; Rank and Garza can now use hot dogs as a unit of measurement (assuming each dog is about 5 inches long and weighs 1.6 ounces) and churn out wiener-related facts and jokes like nobody’s business.

“Give me five hot dogs,” Rank said as she high-fived a young fan near Venice Boulevard. “How many hot dogs-long do you think this is?”

“10,000,” the girl said confidently.

“Ah, close!” Rank replied with a laugh as she handed the girl a weenie whistle. “It’s 60 hot dogs long.”

Working and running errands in OSCRMYR has also given them a new perspective on driving.

“Traffic can actually be kind of fun,” Rank said. “No one’s ever mad to be stuck around the Wienermobile, so they’re just waving and honking.”

“We actually have speakers that are on the outside,” she continued, “and I know our colleagues, Sizzling Shelby and Corn Dog Clara, were recently stuck in traffic, bumper to bumper, and they just started playing music.”

Hotdoggers Keila Garza and Abbey Rank sit for a portrait with the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, which they drove around Los Angeles.

(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

Each year, all 12 hotdoggers meet in June at a two-week-long program called Hot Dog High. There they get duffle bags of merch (which they call street meat) and train their way from driving large SUVs to a full-sized Wienermobile.

“We do these obstacle courses at one point,” Garza said with a laugh. “Just kind of going through scenarios of what you’ll be going through in a large hot dog.”

Despite that training, the hotdoggers don’t need special commercial licenses to drive the Wienermobile and the actual vehicle only uses about as much gas as a large SUV. But stopping to get gas is almost always a thing.

“It’s like ‘The Walking Dead’ — people swarm from so far to start talking to us,” Rank said. “The best is when someone’s pumping gas right across from us and they’re trying to be real cool about it.”

And even if it’s not technically a truck, the hotdoggers have CB radios, use special navigation apps for truckers (which allow them to input the height and length of the vehicle for routing), and get monthly check-ins at Penske, making them feel a kinship with the other large vehicles that they pass on the road.

“We feel the sentiment for truckers trying to get into a different lane and how a lot of people don’t let them over,” Garza said. “Abbey and I have been like, ‘We vow to let all truckers that need to switch lanes in front of us merge.’”

Want to “meat” the Wienermobile?

It’s rolling into two SoCal events this weekend:

From 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, find it around Northgate Market in Hawthorne (3930 W. Rosecrans Avenue), and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, see it at the Canines N’ Cars Show in Huntington Beach (16582 Gothard Street). Here’s a map to find out the Wienermobile’s next stops.

Working in such a large and recognizable vehicle could seem exhausting after a while, but both Rank and Garza seem to relish every moment of it. Even as they struggle to find parking or spend an hour at the gas station answering questions, they shrug it off and say they’re living “on hot dog time.”

“You can never be a hotdogger again,” Garza said. “You have one year to make the very most of it — to make the most smiles, the most cheer.”

“So I would rather drive this every time I go to the grocery store and have someone stop and try to peek in or whatever,” she continued. “Because in the end, once it’s over, I’ll never get to do that again.”

Hotdoggers Keila Garza and Abbey Rank sit atop the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

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