Do you wish your job offered more opportunities to travel, but also had more to do with a giant potato? Maybe a job driving the Big Idaho Potato Truck is the career you’ve been looking for.
The promotional vehicle, which consists of a semi cab hauling a 12-foot-tall replica potato, travels around the United States to draw attention to the prize spuds of Idaho. Operated by the Idaho Potato Commission, the truck is currently on its fifth annual tour of the country. Funding concerns mean this could be the last year, but a recent, unexpected endorsement from Kobe Bryant—he name-dropped the truck in an ESPN interview—may have helped secure its future.
To find out what life on the road with the Big Potato is really like we spoke with Larry Bathe, who is not only the current driver of the trailer, but has been with the project since the very beginning.
The Big Idaho Potato Truck first hit the road in 2012, as a promotional tour commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Idaho Potato Commission. As Bathe told us, the idea for the truck came from Linda Kaufman of marketing company Foerstel Design, who was inspired by an old novelty postcard that showed an impossibly massive potato on the back of a flatbed.
Bathe, a lifelong truck driver, was brought in to help figure out exactly how to create and pilot a giant potato around the country. Originally, the huge tater was set to be 16 feet tall, and hold a museum inside, but at that scale it wouldn’t have fit under most bridges. The potato creators scaled the tater back to its current 12-foot-tall size, and began to test drive it, which is when Bathe first took the wheel.
The truck did its first nine-month tour in 2012, mostly visiting grocery stores to hand out information on Idaho spuds. That was supposed to be the extent of its service celebrating the Potato Commission’s anniversary, but the vehicle proved so popular that it was allowed to hit the road again in 2013. More and more venues began requesting that the truck make an appearance, from Nascar events to the Kentucky Derby. After the Big Idaho Potato Truck’s second tour it had gained so much notice that the program was given a three-year contract, 2016 being its final guaranteed year.
“Some people love it in the commission, and some people don’t, or at least they act like they don’t,” says Bathe. “But in the end we win them over pretty easily.” Despite yearly funding worries, the Big Idaho Potato Truck continues chugging along. Having turned down the first two tours to be with his family, Bathe returned to the truck tour in 2014. He has driven the potato every year since.
According to Bathe, driving around with the heavy carb load is both challenging and rewarding. The potato is 12 feet wide and 28 feet long, making it nearly impossible to see what’s directly behind it. “It’s difficult for mirrors to see behind it, so I don’t have an idea of the traffic pattern [behind the truck],” says Bathe. Turning the huge tater is also a challenge, that Bathe nearly always has to navigate by instinct and experience.
But the driver of the Big Idaho Potato Truck is not alone. There are also two other “ambassadors” on board who look after the logistics of the tour. In addition to the responsibility to interact with the public that each of the potato team shares, one of the ambassadors takes care of photography, video, and other documentation, while the other looks after social media and managing the venues and locations. It takes a team to drive a six-ton potato.
All three of the team ride in the cab while they are on the road, but the Big Potato itself isn’t empty. “You can’t have something that can’t be inspected inside, be as big as that potato,” says Bathe. To allow for this, there is a door in the potato that leads to the hollow insides which have been fitted with shelves and lockers for the potato team to store their stuff.
Even with the close quarters and the challenges of driving a giant potato around, Bathe loves his gig. “The amount of people that wave at you every day when you’re driving the Big Idaho Potato is just outrageous,” he says. “I get thumbs up, waves, people taking pictures. It’s just a feel-good job.”
Since each year could possibly be the last for the truck, its overseers have ended up filling the positions last minute. But Bathe hopes that this will change as the popularity of the Big Potato Truck grows, along with its crew. Oscar Mayer’s promotional, giant-hot-dog-shaped Wienermobile is 80 years old, Bathe points out. The Big Potato ”is just five years old. It’s just getting going.”
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