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Giant Idaho potato truck to get a high-tech revamp

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 6, 2017, 11:08 p.m.

BOISE – The giant, 6-ton Idaho potato that tours the country on the back of a semitruck to promote Idaho’s most famous crop is getting a revamp this year, and by next spring, it might even glow in the dark.

“The potato, it’s 6 tons, and as it’s traveled, it gets a little road-worn, and cracks develop, just like a real potato,” said Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission. “Cracks develop in potatoes when they age, they start having shrink issues. Unlike a real potato, we can resurface it.”

But after six years on the road, the commission decided a full replacement was in order this year. So by the time the truck heads out again on its annual nationwide tour next spring, the existing potato will be replaced by a new fiberglass model. It will be built by the same Weiser couple who designed both the original 6-ton model and the “glowtato” – the smaller but still vastly oversized glowing potato that drops from a crane at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Idaho’s capital city.

So, might the new 6-ton model also glow from within? Muir said it’s a possibility. First off, the new one will be the same length as the current one – 27 feet – but it will be a crucial 2 feet narrower. That will exempt it from wide-load restrictions and free it up, for the first time, to travel at night.

Muir said the commission is hoping the designer can “figure out some creative ways to light it from inside,” but it will be made of a much thicker fiberglass than the New Year’s Eve glowtato. If not, it will have exterior lighting – so the big spud can be displayed in nighttime parades.

The giant spud-on-a-truck was first developed in 2012 as a one-year promotion of the commission’s 75th anniversary. It quickly caught on, and has been rolling ever since, usually traveling from spring to fall; it’s visited every state but Alaska and Hawaii and has logged 148,000 miles.

A giant sign near the front of the truck appears, from a distance, to say, “IT’S REAL,” suggesting that the truck’s huge payload is actually a real, mind-bogglingly large, Idaho-grown potato.

“But if you look at the whole logo, it says, ‘You’ll know it’s real when you see the seal,’ ” Muir explained. “It’s a double entendre – it’s a real Idaho potato if you see the grown-in-Idaho seal.”

He noted, “Nobody ever asks wiener mobiles if the wiener is real. But it’s funny, they want this potato to be real – and they really believe it could be.”

The giant potato truck travels with a crew of three including the driver, and participates in charitable events and promotions all along its route. Last August, the Potato Commission rented a barge and the big potato floated out onto the Hudson River and posed with the Statue of Liberty. Major publicity for the humble Idaho spud ensued.

“The New York Times, Telemundo, all the major TV stations were running the story,” Muir said. “Even the NYPD put out an all-points bulletin to be on the lookout for the 6-ton potato running up the Hudson River.”

The commission’s annual budget for the truck is about $700,000, including the three staffers; it usually travels about six months a year. Muir said the replacement spud is expected to cost a few hundred thousand, but be much more durable than the current model.

The giant spud truck makes local charitable causes – from Meals on Wheels to veteran recognition to fundraising for a local park – part of its hallmark when it visits a community.

“What I’m always trying to do with our brand is to be good and do good,” Muir said. “And the potato is good – it’s good for you. It’s like the world’s largest multivitamin.”

He quickly ticks off health benefits of potatoes – more potassium than a banana, plentiful Vitamin C, complex carbohydrates and just 100 calories for a medium-size potato. “An Idaho potato is certified by the American Heart Association as heart-healthy,” Muir said. “It is a good food, it is a healthy food.”

And the giant spud truck helps spread the word.

“It’s just one of these iconic, incredible marketing crazy ideas that just came to life.”