The Sonic National Convention, held each fall, is generally the highlight of the year for the D&B team. The gathering offers new strategies and inspiration, and leaves participants ready to kick-start a new year upon their return.
This year, however, members of the local Sonic family wondered if it would be possible to attend the convention at all.
Jack Dewitt, the head of D&B Properties -- and a family member and mentor to many in the local Sonic organization -- passed away in early September. Dewitt, who secured the 71st Sonic franchise in the nation in 1971, was very ill in the weeks leading up the convention and lost his life just days before the annual event.
Facing the loss of someone so dear made following through with the trip difficult. But the D&B family gathered the strength Dewitt had imparted upon them and traveled to San Diego for the national convention.
Dewitt's granddaughter, Kari Romero, chose a seat in the auditorium that led her to take home the grand prize of the event -- a one-of-a-kind motorcycle built by Paul Teutul Sr. of Orange County Choppers.
"Kari won it a week after Jack passed away," said Sonic-D&B Properties CEO and franchisee Penny Guthrie. "Jack would have really got a kick out of seeing our team win the chopper. It would have put a big smile on his face."
"He would have loved this," said Romero. "He loved to be out on the road. (In the summer), we would just ride from Sonic to Sonic. This would have made him think of the open road."
A sneak peak of the chopper was offered in the opening session of the Sonic convention. A part of the upcoming "Orange County Choppers" season on CMT, footage of the episode featuring the bike was included in a video welcoming attendees to the 2013 event.
"They showed some footage of the bike at the beginning of the convention," said Romero. "They showed the Orange County Choppers design team going to a Sonic to get inspiration for the bike, but they never brought it up again until the very last moment."
Newbern Sonic Manager Teri Peevyhouse, a part of the D&B team, earned one of the coveted spots in the competition. Romero cheered as her teammate took a place on stage with two other contestants.
But Sonic had a couple more surprises in store for employees attending the convention.
An envelope was secured to the bottom of one of the seats in the auditorium providing a ticket on stage for one more contestant -- a seat occupied by Big Jack's granddaughter, Kari Romero.
"I had empty seats all around me," said Romero, who chose an open row with plenty of space for members of the Dyer County team when she first arrived in the auditorium.
One by one, Romero's fellow employees entered. She laughs as she recalls how each one chose a seat several rows in front of her.
"Nobody sat by me," said Romero, still chuckling. "I thought 'That's OK, Uncle Mark will sit next to me.'"
Before the contestants were named, an announcement requested audience members to move forward and fill in the empty seats closer to the stage. Romero and her uncle, Mark Roberson, moved down -- and, still, the duo was on their own.
A member of the Sonic production team requested Roberson's seat by the aisle. Roberson joked that he wanted to keep his seat, but he and Romero each moved down one chair on the row.
"There was one envelope in the whole place," said Romero. "When they told everyone to look under their seat, I knew the envelope was under mine. I knew that was why the lady asked us to move down."
Romero was right. She ran down the aisle, arms waving, and took her place on stage.
"We had two of the four contestants," said Guthrie. "As soon as we found out it was Sonic questions, I knew (Kari) was going to win it."
"I have two master's degrees, so I tend to retain information," said Romero. "(But) I've never won anything in my life. My grandmother even says 'If it weren't for bad luck, you'd have no luck.' I would have never in a million years thought I'd be up there."
Once on stage, Romero did the math and realized the convention was one prize short for the number of contestants participating. She spent her first few minutes on Contestant Row peering as far as she could backstage, hoping to catch a glimpse of the motorcycle.
"I was looking for the bike, looking for the bike," said Romero. "I was determined I was going to find that bike."
Soon, it was time for Romero to focus her attention on the competition. As she concentrated on the questions, she also pumped up the energy for her time on stage. Romero and her husband, Justin, have a great deal of experience in drama. Justin Romero is a minister and the couple presented and produced many church theatrical performances.
"I knew from a background in drama that they were looking for enthusiasm," said Romero.
The first question was appropriate for the Tennessee girl who lived in Memphis from the time she started Rhodes College in 1995.
"The question that I answered first was, 'What song did the band just play at the break?' remembered Romero. "Appropriately, it was 'Walking in Memphis' -- I lived in Memphis from 1995 to 2005."
The question that decided the fate of the Sonic Chopper also drew on Romero's expertise.
When the contestant next to her answered "$67,000," Romero took clues from the announcer to find the winning answer.
"The announcer looked back to the judges and asked 'Will you accept that answer?' and I knew it had to be $67,500 or he wouldn't have asked," said Romero, who buzzed in when the judges declined her competitor's answer and earned the points herself.
The final tally had Romero at 80 points, with the second-place contestant earning 30, and third and fourth place tied at 20.
"They did a tie-breaker to determine the order and the winner was allowed to choose their prize," said Romero. "But before I could choose anything, the announcer goes 'Oh my! We have four contestants, but we only have three prizes! What are we going to do?' and then all you could hear was the chopper revving up its engine."
As the contestants and the audience cheered, the one-of-a-kind Sonic chopper was driven on stage by none other than Paul Sr., himself.
Members of the Orange County Choppers production team were on hand to film the competition and Romero's win. She will appear on the episode featuring the Sonic chopper, scheduled to air on Saturday, Dec. 14.
The chopper features several touches inspired by the Sonic brand, including the start button, which looks just like the red button on the drive-in menu. The bike pops with a colorful red, yellow and blue paint scheme. Accents include neon lights and even the Sonic logo fashioned into the polished aluminum rims.
The chopper is now the property of the D&B Properties team. The one-of-a-kind creation has appeared locally in the Dyersburg Christmas parade and the D&B staff is currently organizing a tour of its 40 Sonic restaurants.
Inclement weather has limited opportunities for area residents to see the chopper up close before the episode airs. The bike was unable to attend the Newbern Christmas parade and Bike Night at Sonic No. 2 in Dyersburg prior to its debut on CMT, but officials are working on scheduling local events after icy conditions subside.
Winning a one-of-a-kind custom chopper, meeting the celebrity who built it, and taping promotions for both Orange County Choppers and Sonic all took place in just a matter of hours for Romero. The experience was such a whirlwind that the bike was loaded up and on its way to Tennessee before Romero's husband and sons returned to the convention. The chopper even made it home to Dyersburg well before the team returned from California.
"It was quite an experience," said Romero, sitting on the seat of the chopper. "It's a lot to take in."