Wienie man

Matt Heng, a 2014 University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, has been driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile around the country for the past nine months.

FRANCIS GARDLER/Lincoln Journal Star

On Monday, Matt Heng had a little downtime, so he offered to pick up a friend from veterinary school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus.

She was waiting outside, trying not to smile, when he arrived in the company car -- a 27-foot-long hot dog.

“Not everyone gets to take the Wienermobile home,” said Heng, who graduated from UNL last year with a degree in advertising and public relations and is in town this week for work.

He's a Hotdogger, one of a dozen young, encased-meat ambassadors who travel the country in one of Oscar Mayer's six Wienermobiles.

This week, Heng and his co-pilot, Jessica Smith, will be outside of Russ’s Market, 130 N. 66th St., from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, one of many scheduled events during their time in town. But Heng is also making time to show Smith the Capitol, Memorial Stadium and Honest Abe's.

“I have the best personal tour guide,” Smith said.

They're in the area until Monday. Then they'll close the passenger-side gull-wing door, put a "Harry Potter" talking book on the sound system and drive the hot dog to Oklahoma City, smiling for every surprised motorist who spots the vehicle on the interstate.

This is the Wienermobile life.

Smith knew it was for her. When she was a senior last spring, she applied for this job, and no others.

“I was very much looking to travel in a hot dog,” she said. “It’s definitely my dream job.”

Heng’s journey to the Wienermobile was a little more winding.

Although the giant hot dog was parked outside the campus Lutheran Center Thursday, UNL is not one of 10 schools where Oscar Mayer recruits future Hotdoggers for the June-to-June job. It was there as part of a food drive for OpeN Shelf.

When Heng was a senior at UNL, he happened upon a Reddit AMA (“ask me anything”) post from a pair of Hotdoggers. The innuendos get old quick, they told one questioner. The puns, as evidenced by the number of times they used them in responses, clearly did not.

Heng was intrigued.

He found some past hot-dog-drivers on LinkedIn and called them. All the former Hotdoggers gave glowing reviews of the gig. You get to travel the country with room and board covered, and no two days are alike when you drive a hot dog for a living.

He applied and was summoned to Madison, Wisconsin, headquarters of Oscar Mayer, for an interview.

By this point, he was so convinced the Wienermobile was the right post-graduation job for him that he turned down a full-time offer for the chance to drive a hot dog. That went over with his parents about as well as one could hope, he said.

This week, he got to drive the Wienermobile up the driveway of his family’s York home. And on Friday, the Wienermobile spent some time in the York Wal-Mart parking lot.

In each instance, friends and family from his hometown came by to say hi and ask about the footlong drive and what life is like behind the wheel.

When you drive the Wienermobile, Heng said, you get all kinds of questions. Here are some of more common ones, starting with the most frequent.

* Can I have a hot dog?

No., the Wienermobile does not contain a grill or even a convenience store-style hot dog roller. You can have a hot dog whistle, though. They take thousands with them wherever they go.

* Can I track the Wienermobile?

As of last summer, there’s an app for that. Search for "Wienermobile" on your smartphone or look for #Wienermobile on Instagram and Twitter.

* Can I take a picture?

Of course. Heng said one of his favorite pastimes is checking for #Wienermobile on Instagram and seeing if he can find himself cameoing in the photos of strangers. The Wienermobile, both Heng and Smith understand, is the star of the show.

Now nine months into their Hotdogging, Heng and Smith have been somewhat transformed by the photogenic nature of the vehicle they pilot.

This week, they got to cruise around in Heng's grandparents' gold Honda Accord, and they found that driving a normal car is what feels strange now.

“It’s weird,” Smith said. “No one waves at you. You wave at people and wonder, ‘Why aren’t you waving at me?’ We’re very rarely in a normal car."

“People just think I’m very happy,” said Heng.

A brief ridealong through downtown Lincoln Thursday proved that the mere sight of the Wienermobile can make others pretty happy, too.

“This guy’s got a selfie; he’s ready,” Heng said, pointing to a young man who’d just crossed R Street on campus, his back turned to the Wienermobile, his thumb on his smartphone screen. Nailed it.

Others tried to slyly take pictures of it, as if the subject were Ryan Gosling at a family funeral rather than a 14,000-pound motorized hot dog. For them, and plenty of others, Heng flipped a switch on a console to the left of his ketchup- and mustard-colored captain’s chair. And out came the “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener ... ”

The jingle appeared to make the day of a bunch of kids playing flag football on the Capitol lawn, a construction worker on Eighth Street and plenty more. Heng watched a woman fumble with her phone outside the Federal Building as the Wienermobile headed east on O Street.

“Grab the phone,” he said, narrating the struggle. “You got it, you got it, you got it, you can do it.”

Click.

“We try to slow down as best we can,” Heng said. “We’re in the business of making people happy.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7438 or cmatteson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSMatteson.

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Features reporter

Cory Matteson is a features reporter.

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