With temperatures hovering near a frigid 40 Degrees, Detroit football fans, bundled in Down coats and thermo gloves, crowd the Eastern market area of Detroit, about two Miles from the Lions stadium.
It’s a typical tailgate lot. Grills smoking. The Clunk of cooler lids dropping. And a billow of steam rising off a hot tub. Wait, what? A Woman in a skimpy suit dashes for the warm Water. One of the other six swimsuit-clad Soakers yells, “beer me!” A man decked out in Lions gear hands the hot-tubber a cold one.
That man is Denny Arney. “I’m the Tub Master,” he says. For the last 15 years, he’s been towing a six-man hot tub brimming with a few tons of hot water to Detroit Lions games, where the average low on December evenings hits 29 degrees. “That’s when there’s so much steam coming off the tub, it’s kind of like being in a sauna— even if the winds are really strong,” Arney says.
The hot tub forms the cornerstone of the Tubgaters tailgating crew. About 70 people strong, the water part of their tailgate started around 1994 with Arney’s friend, Ron Leonard. “I’m not sure how he came up with the idea, but he was always doing those Dr. Seuss kinds of things,” Arney says. When Ron passed away in a snowmobile accident in 2001, Arney took over the reins.
The tub lives on just as it started. “It’s the exact tub that Ron had, only the guts have been redone,” states the self-proclaimed Tub Master.
The method for heating the 600 or so gallons of water, though, has morphed over the years. “We started out going there simply filled with hot water,” Arney says. “And the temperature would go down in an hour.” So they spent a few years experimenting, “and we kind of perfected it,” he says proudly. “Now we can tailgate in 20-degree weather for hours.”
But he was reluctant to share the details. “It’s not like it’s a nuclear secret,” he hedges. “I don’t want to just put it out there.” Then he admits that, really, people would recognize it if they saw it, and since it is in plain sight on the trailer, he caves. “We have an on-demand water heater,” he admits. “The kind people use for cottages where you don’t want to run a tank.” The heater runs off a generator and actively warms the water as it circulates it. “We have pretty good filters too,” he says. “And the water gets changed every time.”
Since so many people marvel at keeping the tub steaming hot at a tailgate, Arney’s thinking about perpetuating the mystery of the source. “We’re kicking around the idea of putting a box around the heater with blinking lights and wires to make it look really complicated,” he says. Then his vision grows. “Maybe sirens that go off or have it act like something would happen if you touched it. We get lofty goals.”
What Arney won’t share is how he keeps the water tinted to the Lions’ official Honolulu blue color. “That’s my secret stuff right there. I don’t go willy-nilly with that kind of information,” he says. “It takes about three seconds to make that color. It’s easy, but not obvious.” Then he dropped a hint, “A little dab’ll do ya.”
And if you don’t recognize that phrase, it’s the Brylcreem slogan. A hair gel from the 30s, 40s and 50s, worn by Ronald Reagan, referenced in the “Sopranos,” and still on the market. But since Brylcreem was white (we haven’t opened a recent bottle), Arney may be purposefully misleading us to keep the secret alive.
To pull off a Tubgate, Arney pulls out at 4:00 a.m. from his home in Ortonville in his silver (of course) pickup truck with the empty tub in tow. “My truck colors are limited to silver or blue,” he states very firmly. “It’s my only hold back to buying any truck. They have a red one half off? No deal!”
About 30 minutes later, Arney and the spa arrive at fellow Tubgater Jerry Galka’s house in Allen Park. They fi ll the tub with hot water while it’s still hooked to the trailer. Then they chain it down, snap on the cover, and roll to the stadium that’s normally about 15 minutes away.
“But we go only at about 45 mph,” Arney says. “That’s why we lose hardly any water.” Their space saved hours earlier by Jerry Leman’s motorhome, the tub arrives around 7:00 a.m. “We uncouple it from the pickup, and that makes it look even more like a spectacle, and people are like, ‘Whoa, what’s this?!” Arney says.
WHAT IS THIS?
“The first thing that people do is they kind of stare at it weird, then they ask if they can get a picture in front of the tub,” Arney says. “Then they ask, ‘Aren’t you cold?’ and we say no, and then they do the third most common thing, they put their hand in the water to check it out.”
A look of amazement generally follows. “They expect us to be cold in the water, but what they don’t know is that we’re the warmest people in the place,” Arney laughs. “It’s about 105 in the tub when it’s 20 to 30 degrees outside and that’s even with a little wind.”
In the tub, attire sticks to swimsuits. “If you go in, it’s a bathing suit—or not,” Arney says. “We’ve had a few ‘nots.’ We’ve had some stories.” When Detroit hosted the Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks in 2006, a rabid Pittsburgh fan splashed happily into the tub naked. “She didn’t look sober to me,” Arney says. The Steelers won that game 21–10 in 29-degree weather.
For anyone not quite so uninhibited, the Tubgaters have swimsuits and towels on-hand. And everyone gets an invite. “We encourage a lot of out-of-town people to get in,” Arney says, then continues, “You go in the tub once, you’re kind of looked at like a Tubgator for life.”
Being in the tub comes with something beyond just the warmth. “You get Tubgater privileges,” touts Arney. “Basically, you get kind of pampered.” Arney and co-Tub Master Dave Kreis take turns catering to the six to ten people soaking by refreshing their beers and fetching food. “It’s not like you’re being bossed around. It’s a labor of love,” he says, adding, “When there’s beer nearby, can anything be that bad? The answer is, really, no.”
Actions inside the hot tub are left up to the participants. “It just polices itself,” Arney says, including people taking turns. There’s only one hard-and-fast rule. “Never ever pee in the water, ever,” Arney stresses. “We’re not really big on rules, but that’s a biggie.” Break the rule, and you’re expelled back among the frigid landlubbers.
BACK ON DRY LAND
Outside the tub, the dozens of other Tubgaters do what all tailgaters do. “The scene is mostly standing around or dancing,” Arnie says. “We have a DJ, Scott Leman, so there’s a lot of music going on. A lot of beverages. There’s usually a lot of cornhole.”
Despite having such a dynamic centerpiece to their tailgate, the crew harbors only a single ritual: “Beer is our ritual,” Arney states. But he says they’re on the prowl for a signature Tubgator drink. “Something that’s bluish. But I haven’t quite hit the right chemistry yet.”
The kick-off for each Tubgaters tailgate does follow an opening ceremony of sorts. “I do the ‘We Tubbin’ Rap’ when we start,” Arney says. He wrote the lyrics to match the song “Whatever You Like” by rapper T.I. “It gets people whipped up into a frenzy of like ‘Hey, maybe we might win!” he says. But he only performs it once a game. “It’s a little hard to croak that thing out. I start running out of steam about the fourth verse. It’s like the national anthem. You have to pace yourself.”
When Thanksgiving hits, the Tubgaters go all out. “It’s definitely the crown jewel of our tailgating season. That’s when all the Tubgaters come home to roost. People who moved out of town come back just for that game and tailgate,” Arney says.
They put on the entire traditional feast with potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pies and four turkeys. Not even the soakers miss out, because they’re brought a brimming plate of all the fixings. “So you’re eating your Thanksgiving meal while you’re in the hot tub,” Arney says. “It’s pretty futuristic stuff going on.”
One Thanksgiving, Arney and his wife, Barb, hosted exchange students from the Netherlands. “We took them down to the game and they loved it,” he says. “And now they think Thanksgiving is eating turkey in a hot tub.”
But it’s not all beer and roses. About three years ago, Arney and Kreis were tooling down the highway with the fully loaded spa. It was the last game of the season, 10 degrees outside, and they were playing the Ravens. “It was 6:30 a.m., and we were almost there. Then the Tubgater pops off the hitch, snarls in the safety chains and the chains snap. “All I see is the Tubgater flying, and four lanes of traffic just stop,” Arney recalls. “When it hit the freeway, it was a white-out—but with steam. I’m so grateful that no one got hurt.”
The freewheeling tub finally spun around and off to the side toward the exit ramp. “It was empty and beat up, but otherwise okay,” Arney says. He called ahead to the crew with the sad news of the Tubgater’s accident and impending absence. But avid Tubgater Bill North told him to not give up. They brainstormed on where to find water. Since it was full daylight by then, they headed to the nearest fire station.
“I go in there, and there’s the super buttoned-down, battalion guy eating at his desk,” Arney says. “I knock on the door all meek, and say I’m going to ask a favor.” Arney tells his tub-out-of-control tale and, to his surprise, the chief’s all in. “We got it going in time for the Monday night game!” exclaims Arney. “So up to date, we’ve never missed a tailgate when we planned on being there. It was great. I was ready to just come home. That was a hairy one.”
The tub even regained its sterling Honolulu blue water. “I always carry a little bottle of [the secret coloring agent], for when I fill up at Jerry’s house,” Arney says. The water heater—always left unattached when the tub is in transit—remained unscathed on the trailer, so the Tubgater came back in full force. The Lions, sadly, lost 18–16.
ON THE ROAD
The Tubgaters don’t just stick around Ford Stadium. They take their water-marinated fun to at least one away game a year. Arney says the most common reaction from those tailgaters runs to something like, “Detroit people must really be weird like we thought.”
Among all the cities the Tubgater has journeyed to, Green Bay tops Arney’s list. “I like the town. No one is really a big hater there,” he says. “There are cities where we don’t like to go to because of the hostility, and the fans are too rowdy,” though he gentlemanly refuses to name them.
When the Tubgaters hit Green Bay, they rented a house for the weekend and set up the spa in the backyard. “From the hot tub, you could see the stadium,” Arney says. A host of Lions fans clustered there alongside the traveling Tubgaters, drawing in a brigade of media coverage.
That was 2014. “That was the year when the Lions were in the playoffs. It was the last regular season game, and it kinda felt like a playoff, because both Green Bay and Detroit were doing really well,” Arney recalls fondly.
That year, the party really began two days after Christmas, when about a dozen Tubgaters crammed into a motorhome for the 502-mile trip to Green Bay. “A motorhome of tailgaters pulling a hot tub in December. What could go wrong?” Arney laughs. But no tales get shared. “It was an epic road game. I was super proud of that day,” he continues, and adds with a bit of surprise, “But we did get our house deposit back!”