Before even driving the Ramblin' Wreck over a single blade of Grant Field grass, Raj Desai has already achieved the sort of lasting fame that only being in an ESPN commercial can bring.
Desai, a Georgia Tech fifth-year senior from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., is the driver for the Ramblin’ Wreck this season. He shares the screen with the Wreck (also known as the Reck) and Tech cheerleaders in a commercial promoting the start of the College Football Playoff.
“It’s funny, because I’ll be watching something on ESPN2 or ESPN, and I’ll think, Oh, that’s me on TV,” he said. “It’s cool. I can’t say I don’t like it. I definitely do.”
In the shot, the camera pans in on Desai, behind the wheel of the Wreck, as he attempts a menacing nod, an answer to the question “Who’s in?”
Desai, whose hobbies include surfing and scuba diving, does not come across as the type who makes that sort of face often.
The director “was telling me to make a serious, kind of angry face and look to the camera like you’re ready to race, battle it out,” Desai said. “It was hard to act, let’s put it that way.”
Desai said the shot that was used took about 20 takes. The filming was done in late July at the LaGrange-Troup County Drag Strip in LaGrange. Desai towed the Wreck there. The shooting process took about six hours for about two seconds of screen time. He was also filmed pulling up to the start line and gunning it off the line.
“All the shooting was on the drag strip,” he said. “But it was a lot of fun. It was a really good experience.”
The commercial has brought him a small amount of notoriety. When it first aired, he was scuba diving. He came back to the boat and was receiving text messages from friends telling him they had seen him on TV. Desai was at first confused, thinking friends were telling him that they had seen him scuba diving on television.
“And I was just thinking, Wait, what, how?” Desai said. “I really couldn’t figure it out.”
Desai said no strangers have recognized him yet, but he has heard from friends who weren’t aware he was the Wreck’s driver. He called it a personal honor, and said the Wreck deserves its status as a college football icon.
“I definitely think it deserves to be up in the ranks of most notable college football traditions,” he said.
More tidbits of this year's pilot of the famed 1930 Ford Model A Sport Coupe:
1. He is an aerospace engineering and economics double major pulling down a 3.25 GPA. He said he’s wanted to design aircraft ever since his parents nixed his idea of becoming a cartoonist.
“I couldn’t say it’s not a challenge,” he said of aerospace engineering. “It’s definitely been difficult, but that’s kind of why I came here. It’s been tough, but it’s been tough in all the right ways.”
His dream job is to design airplanes for Boeing.
2. He does not come from a family of college football fans and had to explain the honor of being voted the Wreck’s driver (by the Reck Club, the student spirit group). When he excitedly called his parents with the news, Desai said the response was "Oh, that's cool," mimicking their dismissive tone. “I said, 'No, you don’t understand. This is a big deal.'”
Only after reading the Reck Club website did they get a better sense of what their son had achieved. Being in an ESPN commercial perhaps cements the understanding.
3. The commercial was not his first minor brush with fame. Desai was in the background of a photo from Tech’s 49-28 loss to Middle Tennessee in 2012 that ran in the AJC the following day. Desai, sitting in the front row of the Reck Club section, was photographed with his jaw dropped as MTSU wide receiver Anthony Amos made a spectacular one-handed catch in the end zone.
For Christmas, Desai’s sister had the image of her brother’s face printed on M&M’s.
“I was like, Is this all of them, trying to get rid of them,” he said. “She was like, No, I hid them around the house.”
4. He learned to drive a stick shift shortly before becoming the driver, with thanks to his uncle and the previous driver, Barrett Ahlers. He said he is “alright” as a mechanic.
“Having the past drivers as resources has been super helpful,” he said. “I’m not the best, but I guess I can get myself around the Model A a little bit.”
5. Desai, who is Indian-American, is believed to be the first minority driver of the Wreck.
“To me, honestly, it’s just not a big deal, because I feel like, if it was a big deal, it would just mean to me that there’s still a divide there,” he said. “I didn’t feel like that there was any barrier when I was getting elected. When the club looked at me as a driver, I’d like to think that what they saw how I would be as a driver rather than any other quality.”
6. While the privileges of being the Wreck driver are obvious, Desai had other motivations for running for the position. He said he saw it as the best way to give back to the campus community.
“To me, a good driver is somebody that can represent the school well and, honestly, be an ambassador for the campus,” he said. “I haven’t done it yet. I’m excited to drive onto the field, but to me, I just want to represent the Institute as best I possibly can.”