ATLANTA — Like any real celebrity, she just has to be pampered.
There’s the primping and the preening and the cleaning. There are even those moments — far too often than she’d care to admit — in which she goes under the knife to receive some much-needed, emergency cosmetic procedures.
Sure, it may sound a bit much, but she has to be on top of her game at all times.
The bold, searing lines of her golden face are always on the public, and the football boys and their fans are always eager to watch her every move.
So she has to have it all. She needs to have it all. At least, so would say her escort for the year, Winfield Tufts.
“It’s a lot of work,” Warner Robins’ Tufts said of ensuring his beauty’s upkeep, “but I really can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”
A senior at Georgia Tech, the young man has been spotted in recent months cavorting around the streets of Atlanta and Middle Georgia with his much older mistress in tow. Born in 1930, she has the lad by nearly 60 years.
But that doesn’t bother Tufts. Because “she” isn’t really, well, a she, per se. She’s really just a car.
Not just any ordinary car, however, Tufts warns. This queen of machines — he is fond of saying with a grin — is better known as the “one and only Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech.”
It was September 1961. A packed stadium full of white-, yellow- and gold-clad fans rose to their feet to witness something never before seen.
That afternoon was her debut. For the first time in Georgia Tech history, out she came zigzagging onto her grass-laden stage to the tune of the song that bears her name.
Leading the Yellow Jackets football team onto the field before a game against Rice, the 1930 Model A Ford Sports Coupe known simply as “the Wreck” began a tradition that has now spanned nearly five decades.
And Tufts is the latest in a line of her 49 drivers.
Driven, washed and fixed by students, the Wreck is fully operated by Georgia Tech’s Ramblin’ Reck Club. “Usually we don’t allow freshmen to join, but we let everybody at least try out,” said current Reck Club vice president Dane Kalejta, who’s also from Warner Robins. The group is solely responsible for all the financial and mechanical upkeep of the car.
“One of the most common rumors by the fan-base is that — and part of this is Reck Club’s fault; we don’t advertise it enough — the athletic association and the Wreck are together. Not at all,” Tufts said. “The Reck Club students 100 percent take care of the car. We don’t receive any money from the athletic association.”
That has been the situation since 1987, when the Georgia Tech Athletic Association sold the car to the University for $0. From that moment on, the vehicle was no longer the responsibility of the school’s athletic body. It was all on the students to keep the new mascot alive.
“I joined Reck Club because I wanted to take care of the car, and I knew I was coming up and had the opportunity to drive,” said Tufts, who gave up a leadership role with Georgia Tech’s club baseball team to become the elected driver. “Hands down, this wasn’t even an option. I wanted to run for driver.”
THE $1,000 DEAL
It was 1959, and something was missing. At first, James Dull could not quite figure out what it was.
His campus was lively, but it did not feel lively enough. The schoolboys seemed excited to climb the steps of Tech Tower, but something about their energetic gait still felt strange. To the dean of Student Affairs, something was missing.
Then, one day, while watching the frat boys enthusiastically roll their broken-down “House Wrecks” — vehicles loosely engineered with parts that shouldn’t seem safe to run on the road — across campus during a homecoming parade, it dawned on him.
Georgia Tech needed to have a wreck of its own.
A ragtag throwback as idiosyncratic as the students he mentored, the antique car Dull pictured in his mind was to become a new symbol that would set the school apart.
He did everything he could to track down such a pre-World War II vehicle. He placed newspaper ads and made radio commercials but had no luck.
At least, not until one day in 1960, when former Delta Air Lines pilot Captain Ted J. Johnson and his Model A Ford happened to venture to the university.
There to watch his son Craig and his Florida State Seminoles teammates compete in a track and field event, Johnson parked his restored car in front of Dull’s dormitory.
“Here parked right in front of my doorstep was this magnificent 1930 Ford ... car, painted black and gold. I mean, it was unbelievable,” Dull said in a 1990s interview.
“And so I thought, ‘I’ve got to get to this person.’ So I put a note on his car and said, ‘Please, I live right in this doorway right on the side where your car is. Would you please knock on my door when you get back. I want to talk to you about your car,’ ” he said.
Johnson originally turned down the dean’s offer. He and his son had spent more than two years rebuilding the 30-year-old car. He was connected to it and did not want to let go.
But several months after being pestered by Dull, Johnson finally submitted and gave up the car for just $1,000 in exchange.
“The big thing was, how much is he going to ask for this thing?” said Dull, who died this spring. “Now, unless it was just outlandish, I thought I could get the money up. And so he said, ‘I want $1,000.’ And I almost fainted, because that was nothing compared to the worth of that car at the time.
“So I said, ‘You got it,’ to him. And I got to (head football coach) Bobby Dodd, and Bobby Dodd just pretty much handed over $1,000 just like that.”
The next year, the car was transferred to the possession of the school’s athletic association just in time for its September debut.
In 1984, Johnson returned to Georgia Tech with a $1,000 check in hand to give to the athletic association’s Alexander-Tharpe Fund to erase the purchase. The former pilot wanted to go on record as having given the car as an official donation.
It was 2008 and the most unlikely of partnerships ensued.
Who would have known that deep into their college careers, two boys from the same Middle Georgia town who had not previously known each other but once dated the same girl in high school — “Oh, but not at the same time,” one of them interjected — would end up living just two doors away?
Strange as it may seem, those were the circumstances in which Tufts and Kalejta met just over a year ago.
“We didn’t even know each other last year even though we’re both from Warner Robins,” said Kalejta, who, like Tufts, is finishing his fifth year of Industrial Engineering. “We kind of knew who each other were. We knew we didn’t really like each other but then met at orientation and were like, ‘You’re Winfield. And you’re Dane. All right.’ And that was it.”
These days, they are around one another often and don’t have a problem with that. That’s because, usually, when they are together, it means one thing: Ramblin’ Wreck time.
“Once you get to hang out with the Wreck some more, it kind of energizes you,” Kalejta said. “It’s really good motivation.”
A fourth-generation Georgia Tech student, Tufts has long been energized about seeing the Wreck. For much of his life, the car and school’s notorious mascot, Buzz, were all he and his two younger brothers knew.
“(The youngest), who is a senior at Houston County, already told me, ‘Winfield, I’m not joining a fraternity. I’m joining the Reck Club as soon as I get the chance,’ ” said Tufts, who also attended Houston County.
His other brother, Cameron, is already a Georgia Tech student and is also a member of the Reck Club. Winfield longs for the day he can hand the keys to the car to both of them.
“One of them at the very least,” he said. “Two brothers or three brothers who have all been drivers of the Ramblin’ Wreck? How crazy would that be?”
In Kalejta’s household, however, “crazy” might not be the word to describe the family’s fondness for things white and gold.
Bred a Georgia Bulldogs fan, Kalejta grew up familiar with the combination of red colored polos and black slacks. After his older sister enrolled at Georgia, he really had no choice but to pull for the Yellow Jackets’ hated rivals.
But once he got into Georgia Tech five years ago, those allegiances were forced to shift, and he made sure others changed with him.
“I learned better. I went up to college and wisened up,” Kalejta said with a laugh. “My whole family is Georgia Tech fans now. They’re all season ticket holders. Even my brother, who was an intense Georgia fan — even more so than my sister — he’s come around, and he bought season tickets, and he’s gone on road trips with us, too. So I’ve done a good job of converting them.”
In his role as vice president of Reck Club, Kalejta oversees projects that extend beyond the limits of the Ramblin’ Wreck. He and club president Steph Robbins have worked to ensure the club can build up revenue for the car, including setting up an endowment for future members.
Additionally, as vice president, Kalejta is responsible for printing the T-book and getting it in the hands of freshmen during this year’s “Traditions Night.”
A yearly ritual — to be held this year Sept. 9 at Russ Chandler Stadium — the nighttime event and the book are just part of Reck Club’s duties in helping instill school spirit in Georgia Tech’s newest pupils and explaining certain traditions to them.
“Dane’s basically set the bar for the vice presidents of the Reck Club,” Tufts said. “A lot of times it was that they supported the students and do a few responsibilities, but he’s taken it higher.”
It’s game day.
After a week of daily attention, her exterior is washed, waxed and buffed. Her insides are tended to, as well, tweaked to help her have the best performance possible.
Taken out of her surprisingly cramped, cluttered, less-than-regal home, she awaits her full day of appearances, photographs and jaunts around town.
Always watching her every move, her escort is there to guide her through her very own parade.
The grand mistress of the procession, she leads the booming brass sounds of the marching band down the street with cheerleaders and football players filing behind. It’s Yellow Jacket Alley, and it’s her first appearance of the day.
After that short trip from the garage to Bobby Dodd Stadium, it is up to her escort, hmm, driver, to take her across campus to see and be seen.
“Then, the Wreck driver can take the car wherever they want. I’m probably going to swing past my parents’ tailgate at some point at that time,” Tufts said. “And then 45 minutes before kickoff, it goes atop Freshman Hill, where we lead the band down and parade into the stadium.”
Less than 10 minutes before the start of game, with the band on the field, she awaits her next cue.
Usually, it’s whenever the television producers shout for her to roll, but sometimes, it comes whenever the players are ready to release their pent up emotion.
And so away she roars, engine ribbitting along like an army of fast-croaking frogs, as the banner that was once staring her in the face becomes draped across her hood like a pageantry sash.
As she swerves around the band with the “Ramblin’ Wreck” fight song drowning out the beckoning cheers, she begins the game and continues a tradition that two Warner Robins boys don’t want to see die.
“We take care of (the Wreck) because we love it; not because we have to,” Kalejta said.