Inside Chicago's Mega Test Track

February 27, 2005

2005 Chicago Auto Show Index by TCC


“So, how fast do you have to be going to launch this puppy into the air?” This is not the question the test driver wants to hear as he pulls a Wrangler up to the 20-foot peak that is the highest point on the Chrysler Group display at the Chicago auto show. He chuckles worriedly and proceeds on up the hill in our Jeep Unlimited — the tallest point reachable on the show floor unless you scale Dodge’s equally impressive ram’s-head signage at the opposite end of the track, which as it turns out, isn’t allowed.

It’s not merely an off-road re-enactment we’re sampling here. It’s a four-station, Disneyesque dabbling in “experience” marketing that resulted in what Chrysler says was the largest test track ever constructed for an auto show. And though the Chicago show for 2005 is history, you can be sure that Chrysler is looking at a bigger and better experience for '06.

Taking up 156,000 square feet — about the size of three and half American football fields — the course is split into four sections. A half-mile “test track” in the middle splits the off-road Jeep section from the Dodge truck towing area and the Chrysler driving areas. Jeep anchors one end of the display, while the 28-foot-tall ram’s head illuminates the other, signaling either Dodge’s supremely American brand or some bizarre satanic ritual meeting spot.

The statistics don’t make any rational sense. The display is composed of more than 115 semi trailers full of material, 1100 cubic yards of topsoil, boulders, gravel, concrete and timbers, almost eight miles of electric cable, and seemingly, enough plasma-screen TVs to outfit the Tate Modern. Those aren’t real boulders strewn about the Jeep area, they’re plastic ones wired for sound outfitted with fans to keep the car exhaust circulating.

The entire affair takes six days to assemble and four to dismantle — and it’s the duty of John Tulloch, senior vice president for client relations at George P. Johnson to make sure it flows smoothly. Tulloch’s company produces much of the Chrysler Group’s media displays, everything from auto-show stands to press drives to the popular Camp Jeep getaways organized by the brand in places like Santa Barbara. Though not strictly limited to automotive clients — they produce events for Cisco, IBM, and other technology companies — half their clients are companies like Toyota, Nissan, and Chrysler.

In the last day before an estimated 1.2 million people descend on the auto show (maybe more, since the weather’s improving to 50 degrees for the opening weekend), Tulloch is in perpetual motion, handed off from one PR person to the next, suited up and welded to his walkie talkie. But he’s done this before on a smaller scale, so there’s no rush and drama — just final tweaks before the doors open at

McCormick Place

The idea for the humongous test track — which looks surprisingly small in

McCormick Place, one of America's biggest convention centers — evolved from the display Tulloch organized last year for Jeep at the New York Auto Show. Because of space limitations, and the unwritten rule that trucks go in the basement of the Javits Center, Jeep wanted to do something to create a “destination” media booth that wouldn’t get lost in the hubbub. Tulloch had his eye on a little-used area of the center to recreate an outdoor display done for the 1997 Detroit auto show and began to inquire in 2001 about using it for an interactive Jeep experience for showgoers. But in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York , the city and the center were wary of such a display, not only because the center was itself a primary terrorist target but also because the building had served as a temporary morgue for the victims of the Trade Center crashes. On the other hand, the city was eager to publicize the center and to pump the site as the potential location for an Olympic stadium underpinning New York's bid for the 2012 Summer games.

Tulloch set to work and his team produced a 300-page proposal — “this thick,” he gestures hands six inches apart. “I know more about air quality than I care to,” says Tulloch, whose proposal won the day, earning him the right to run herd over mechanical engineers, safety engineers, creative engineers, and a staff of drivers to drive around showgoers. By the end of the show, Jeep had 36,000 guests escorted around the track and had 300,000 people walk through its displays.

The expansion of the Chicago auto-show complex gave Tulloch and Chrysler the space to take the idea four times bigger. The track takes up an end of the newer wing of

McCormick Place
. “If it weren’t in this building, it could not have been done,” Tulloch says. That’s because, of the complex of buildings in the center, this one’s the only one with a door tall and wide enough to get all the display pieces in the hall.

As in New York , Chrysler and Tulloch had layers of bureaucracy to peel back — the conference center, the city, the fire marshal (because “combustibles” like fuel are not normally allowed inside the building). One concession to all the forces involved, the largest of which is American liability law, is that showgoers can’t drive the cars themselves. Instead, professional hired drivers are at the wheel as the audience rolls through off-road obstacles at Jeep, quietness tests at Chrysler, road-feel exercises at Dodge, and towing at the Dodge Truck loop.

The exercises are compelling enough to bring potentially 75,000 or more guests through the Chrysler display at the show. And because it’s a “sticky” exercise, meaning that it holds people’s attention, the company expects visitors to linger around the booth for a good 20 minutes, versus the seven minutes usually observed by time-lapse cameras that capture the crowd footage in Chicago (and in New York, where they also captured a security officer making off with plasma displays for his own personal collection).

Tulloch expects visitors to wait less than 20 minutes for their brief thrill. His company learned a lot from Disney and MGM Studios in planning the lines, obeying the old adage, “If there’s no line, pull up the stakes” — if no one wants to wait, it’s not good enough, he explains. But the waiting isn’t the hardest part for patrons, because Tulloch’s company has ladled on plenty of side attractions to keep them interested. There are squadrons of video games, displays like the Jeep Hurricane concept where pictures of visitors are taken and are offered online at Chrysler Web sites for free downloading. There’s a device that cranks U.S. pennies into smiley face ovals with the Jeep logo, and there’s also live entertainment — 40 local bands playing sets for the duration of the public hours of the show, a sort of indoor-outdoor Lollapalooza.

Those thrills, Tulloch and Chrysler are banking, were to be enough to boost the number of visitors to the stand far higher than in New York. And if they can beat the New York show’s very special guest, they’ll have had another unforgettable experience to log. “On Easter Sunday in New York , there was a TV event, and Steven Spielberg came by with his father, a WWII veteran and Jeep guy,” Tulloch recalls, and he and the director shared tips and information on building displays and effects. “Who can turn down Steven Spielberg?” he smiled.

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