About a year ago, the marketing geniuses of Pepsi MAX came up with the idea of having NASCAR star Jeff Gordon disguise himself as a milquetoast tire-kicker and shoot a video with him taking a used-car salesman on a high-speed joyride in a Camaro. It was a good notion, but the setup was a bit too transparent — the more you thought about it, the more staged it seemed. (C'mon, cupholder camera?)
So the marketers reconsidered, with Gordon himself. What if they could pull the same stunt, but this time on someone who had no idea it was coming? A mark who would offer an authentic reaction, yet not pursue charges for getting tossed around like wet laundry — like, perhaps, one of the Jalopnik writers who made the most noise about the first video?
The result? Proof that Jeff Gordon knows how to scare the Pepsi MAX out of someone for real — although Gordon told Yahoo Autos he was almost as nervous as his passenger.
After the success of the first video, Gordon says Pepsi's ad team started talking about how to do something bigger and better. The result took months of planning with dozens of contributors, scouting locations and coming up with a realistic story that wouldn't give away Gordon's identity.
The target of this elaborate prank was Travis Okulski, Jalopnik's deputy editor. The new mission began with a new costume for Gordon, a more hard-bitten look featuring stubble and fake neck tattoos. The former editor of Jalopnik, Ray Wert, now works in advertising and served as set-up man, crafting a just-believable cover story: Okulski thought he was flying to North Carolina to get a sneak early drive of the Chevy Corvette Z06.
"I had no reason to believe anything was amiss," Okulski said. "Everything made sense, and I don't really go through life expecting that people are actively trying to fool me."
For the video to work, the stunt had to come off in one take, and Gordon had to stay in character while driving a wild course full of obstacles. Says the four-time Sprint Cup champion: "I’ve never been more nervous about pulling something off in my life."
"To get him there put a lot of pressure on all of us to make sure it was unnoticeable, that he had no idea it was me and to really get the authenticity of his actions."
Upon his arrival, Gordon showed up disguised as a taxi driver to take Okulski to the track, and when confronted by a fake state patrol, Gordon ad-libbed lines about being an ex-con who doesn't want to go back. The earpiece was real; the crew and Gordon had a safe word — "Nebraska" — that they could use to shut things down in case something went awry.
"When we first took out, and Travis started going a little crazy in the back seat, I was just seconds away from saying Nebraska," Gordon said.
To his endless credit, Okulski maintains his politeness even as he's screaming in terror and being kidnapped by a maniac. And of course in hindsight, he says he should have seen the tell-tale signs of a prank; what kind of cabbie in North Carolina has a late-model Chevy Caprice police car? Despite all that, "I only figured out it was a setup when we drove into the warehouse," he said. "I was freaking out too much to have that be on my radar that someone would take that much time to put one over on me like this."
As for Gordon: "I could not believe how nice he was. While I was driving I felt bad — I wanted to get through it so I can pull this hat off...I want to see that look of relief on his face."
No one appears to have suffered any lasting trauma from the ride: Okulski now has a fantastic story to tell, and should Gordon decide to retire from NASCAR after this season as he's said he might, he's demonstrated new skills in dramatic acting and off-road racing.
"It's fun, it's challenging and it inspires me to want to take risks," Gordon said, adding. "I couldn't be more thrilled about how they maxed it out on this one."