How did they make the Toyota Tundra 'Killer Heat' commercial?

Construction of the "corkscrew" road begins in the desert, where temperatures neared 115 degrees Fahrenheit.
Construction of the "corkscrew" road begins in the desert, where temperatures neared 115 degrees Fahrenheit.
Courtesy Toyota

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­­A­sk any­one what the Super Bowl is, and they'll tell you it's ­the final game of the National Football League (NFL) season that decides which team goes home with the Vince Lombardi trophy. There's no disputing this. But a more detailed answer reveals that the Super Bowl has become much more than that. It's a media spectacle, with pregame concerts and activities, days of partying, interactive exhibits and, come game time, a showcase for the biggest and best TV commercials on the air.

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In recent years, car manufacturer Toyota has made its mark on the advertising world by shooting some of the most dangerous ads ever attempted. Precision drivers put their lives on the line in real-life demonstrations that test the truck's mettle. The idea is to show the TV viewer something that can't be faked -- no camera tricks­, no computer effects and no post-production gimmicks. The ads have been a hit, but with that kind of success comes the pressure to try and top each one with something bigger and better.

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Heat Management

The tunnel was rigged with burning fuel, to create the worst-case towing scenario.
The tunnel was rigged with burning fuel, to create the worst-case towing scenario.
Courtesy Toyota

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­Before we get into commercials, let's talk heat and cooling. In the Tundra, that means understanding a series of components that all work closely to cool the truck down -- and to keep it going.

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Simply put, cars and trucks need a system of gears to move them forward. You can have a manual version, which involves a clutch, or an automatic transmission, which shifts on its own. Like every other moving part on an automobile, the transmission depends on fluid to keep it lubricated and running smoothly. When a car or truck is operating, the transmission fluid (ATF) heats up to about 175 degrees Fahrenheit (79.4 degrees Celsius). This is the normal running temperature, and if it's able to be maintained, the transmission will behave just like it should. But anyone who's ever had to tow something heavy knows what kind of pressure that can put on the transmission. Pressure in this case means heat -- the number one killer of automatic transmissions.

Every time the ATF rises 20 degrees above 175 Fahrenheit, the life of the fluid is cut in half. Overheated ATF causes the buildup of two things that can kill a transmission -- a semi-solid material called sludge and carbon particles. These two things can easily clog up or block the small lines that circulate the fluid through the transmission. This means that it won't cool properly, causing it to overheat and potentially die. Besides being dangerous, a faulty transmission can be very expensive to repair. Toyota engineers reacted to this ever-present threat by including an oversized transmission cooler designed to keep the Tundra shifting smoothly -- even in an unforgiving desert environment.

But the transmission isn't the only component in the Toyota Tundra that's designed to combat heat. It's actually loaded with perfectly matched driveline parts that all work in concert to get the job done.

It begins with a powerful aluminum block V8 engine with aluminum heads and an oil cooler to keep it running at peak power. A lightweight, two-piece aluminum and steel driveshaft reduces some of the stress on the engine, yet retains the strength a truck in this class requires. A massive ring gear in the rear differential gets the power to the rear axle. And when it's time to bring it all to a halt, Tundra's vented, four-wheel disc brakes provide the stopping power.

To demonstrate the strength of the Toyota Tundra's transmission and to show how capable it can be -- even in a worst-case towing scenario like an oven-hot desert -- Saatchi LA knew it had to come up with something extreme. And so the ad spot "Killer Heat" was born.

Killer Heat Preproduction

Construction of the "corkscrew" road nears completion.
Construction of the "corkscrew" road nears completion.
Courtesy Toyota

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­Toyota was faced with a challenge when plotting how to best demonstrate the Tundra transmission's heat capacities. The ad needed to convince viewers by showing a real-life example of the kind of extreme environment the Tundra can take. At its core, "Killer Heat" had to prove that the Tundra's automatic transmission could stand the heat, literally. So what did the creatives cook up? Try an 80-foot (24-meter) climb up a narrow corkscrew "road" in the middle of a desert, towing a 10,000-pound (4,535-kilogram) load. Now add a 170-foot (51.8-meter) tunnel of fire. Now start your engine, and drive through it.

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The effectiveness of a real-life demonstration is powerful because it can't be argued. Saatchi LA Creative Director Erich Funke says it best, "We wanted to go back to a classic demonstration where the camera couldn't tell any lies." Director Andrew Douglas wanted to make sure that the viewer "knew that it was real." To ensure that everything was on the up-and-up, the set had notaries and witnesses on hand to verify that there was no slight of hand or camera tricks involved.

The shoot took place at Pisgah Crater in the searing 107-degrees-Fahrenheit (41.6-degrees-Celsius) summer heat of the Mojave Desert, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Los Angeles. The design crew had quite a task -- build an 80-foot-tall corkscrew "road" out of 740,000 pounds (335,658 kilograms) of steel, then top it with a tunnel rigged with burning fuel. Construction of the tower began in June 2008, when temperatures averaged 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius), and took two full months to complete. Once the tower was finished and everything was tested and retested for safety, the production team needed to find a driver talented (and crazy) enough to pull off the stunt. Enter Matt McBride, who's been working as a stunt man and precision driver since the 1994 film "Speed."

Killer Heat Production

After the haul, the truck takes a welcome, cooling bath.
After the haul, the truck takes a welcome, cooling bath.
Courtesy Toyota

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­Precision driver Matt McBride had­ his work cut out for him in "Killer Heat." The stunt would be dangerous if he were simply towing a heavy load up a spiral incline -- an incline with an inside grade of 16 degrees and an outside grade of 19 degrees. Unable to see his front wheels and the edge of the steel road, it would only take the slightest slip to send the truck and load of concrete cinder blocks tumbling off the side. Then add a tunnel of fire and temperatures exceeding 285 degrees Fahrenheit (140 degrees Celsius). Even after a dozen test runs, McBride still found the run "scary."

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If the truck failed to perform and the transmission overheated, the results could have been truly dangerous. A transmission stall because of overheating in a tunnel of fire 80 feet (24 meters) up isn't a good thing. After testing and numerous practice runs, McBride was able to pull the stunt off without a hitch. The Tundra climbed up and around the tight corkscrew with the transmission intact. When it reached the top platform it got a welcome, cooling bath from fire hoses mounted on cranes flanking the finish line.

Check out the links on the next page to learn more about towing, cooling systems and trucks.

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