HOW hard can it be to travel five and half miles at 2.5 m.p.h.?
Difficult enough: if you’re the pilot of a 22-wheel, 120-foot-long vehicle that weighs 110,000 pounds, even a simple right turn can have profound consequences.
Yet a small cadre of drivers finds the experience of blind-driving a balky Rose Parade float so satisfying that they come back new year after new year.
Wes Hupp, for example, has driven (or served as an observer, acting as the eyes for the driver tucked under the platform) in 34 Rose Parades. A resident of Weston, Vt., he is paying his own airfare to take part in the 123rd annual parade on Jan. 2 — to be held on Monday in keeping with the Pasadena Tournament of Roses’ never-on-Sunday rule.
This time, Mr. Hupp, a 51-year-old pharmaceutical chemicals buyer, will serve as observer for Greg Hill, a 46-year-old health care technology project manager from Huntington Beach, Calif., who will be at the wheel. It will be their 17th consecutive year as teammates, and their assignment is literally the biggest challenge yet for Rose Parade drivers: they will maneuver the longest and heaviest single float ever to follow the parade’s 5.5-mile route.
The float, called Surf’s Up, was conceived by Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance Pet Foods to fit the 2012 parade theme of “Just Imagine.” What the float imagines is a canine surfing paradise: an onboard wave machine will send seven actual dogs, riding eight-foot surfboards, down a 66-foot-long pool filled with 6,600 gallons of heated water.
Powering the massive Surf’s Up float is a gasoline-burning Ford V-10 truck engine mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission. A transfer case further increases the gear ratio for continuous low-speed travel in first gear.
The first significant landmark on the parade route is the Tournament House on Orange Grove Boulevard, and just beyond that is the first big challenge, a 107-degree right-hand turn onto Colorado Boulevard that makes drivers sweat. Known as “camera corner,” this is the prime viewing spot for broadcast crews and thousands of grandstand spectators. To Mr. Hupp, who grew up in nearby Monrovia, the turn is “wicked.”
In his observer role, Mr. Hupp will sit in the lifeguard tower on the float’s nose. He will relay instructions by intercom to Mr. Hill in the driver’s compartment, nestled beside the engine bay underneath the front end of the pool.
“Greg doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing unless I tell him,” Mr. Hupp said recently by telephone from Vermont. “A wrong decision can get you some real excitement.” The two men endure this pressure and discomfort neither for glory nor a fat paycheck. Each receives $250 from Fiesta Parade Floats, the company that Natural Balance hired to build and operate Surf’s Up. Construction began in October.
The depressed economy has forced some longtime participants like the City of Long Beach and the Budweiser Clydesdales out of the 2012 parade; one float-building operation has shut down. But the president of Natural Balance, Joey Herrick, says his company will have around $300,000 “at least” wrapped up in its record-breaking effort.
Since first entering a float in 2009, the company has made its Rose Parade participation a centerpiece of its marketing and promotion efforts. “We work it like nobody’s ever worked it,” Mr. Herrick said.
While Mr. Herrick’s eyes are on the company’s target of six billion media impressions, Mr. Hupp could be said to see things through the other end of the telescope. Part of his motivation to return each year, he says, is the camaraderie of the crews on the nights before the parades, when drivers stay with their floats, tell tales and get little sleep.
“There’s only a hundred and some-odd people that do this every year,” he said. “Out of the billions of people that are alive and walking this earth, only a small handful can say they’ve driven in the Rose Parade.”
The appeal certainly doesn’t lie in plush accommodations within the driver’s compartment. Despite the advanced design and engineering of the elaborate, moving displays, the floats are in some respects nearly as primitive as their very earliest predecessors.
For example, on Jan. 2, 1905, The Pasadena Daily News reported: “Harry Zier’s automobile was a dream of beauty. The scheme was a barge and the striking effect was made by covering the big touring car entirely with a frame, boat-shaped, so that not a bit of running gear was visible.”
Three years later, the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce entered a 41-foot automotive whale that wagged its tail and flapped its flippers.
If anyone could be called the Harley Earl of parade floats, it would be Isabella Coleman, a local woman who, over six decades, made the motorized displays not only lower, longer and sleeker, but also more ornate, with well-integrated floral designs.
While the aesthetics improved markedly throughout the 20th century, the mechanical underpinnings evolved relatively little. The chassis of today’s float typically has no suspension whatsoever. In the austere driver’s compartment, there is a single seat of bare plywood.
“We usually bring a stadium seat cushion, or we bring hemorrhoid donuts,” Mr. Hupp said. “The problem with those is, they always end up getting punctured or ripped. It’s like going to San Francisco, blindfolded, on a piece of wood.”
In close proximity to the big engine, the driver can also expect temperatures of up to 120 degrees. A small electric fan is provided, but it does not offer much relief.
Decorating the floats with flowers, seeds and other natural elements leaves debris in odd places. “Every time you turn the fan on, you get a face full of seeds,” Mr. Hupp said. “I don’t care if you’ve been driving an hour. You turn on the fan again, you’re always going to get something in the face.”
It was ever thus. In the official 1949 parade program, an essay addressed the plight of “the forgotten man” who drives the float:
“He breathes in dust and fumes which are impossible for him to avoid. On a hot day he is drenched with perspiration. On un-California-like days he enjoys his own series of chills. Doing a fine job, lacking any applause, appreciated by but a few, he works for varying amounts and a ticket to the Rose Bowl game. The line for those who want to drive floats next year forms to the right, and please don’t crowd.”
But Mr. Hupp may not line up for 2013. Last week, he phoned the president of Fiesta Parade Floats and announced his intention to retire. “The stress is almost too much,” he said, referring to the challenge of negotiating the course in ever-larger floats. “They’re pushing the limits, and this is as far as I really want to go with it.”