Behind the wheel of perhaps the most recognized 1930 Ford Model A Sport Coupe in the world, Hillary Degenkolb turned to look over her shoulder. The quick check of traffic, in the northeast tunnel of Bobby Dodd Stadium on Thursday night, revealed a bottleneck of Georgia Tech football players. In front of her, a huge banner, the green grass of Grant Field and the Tech marching band.
In a moment she called “half terrifying, half just so incredible,” Degenkolb steeled herself for her debut as the year’s driver of the Ramblin’ Wreck at the Yellow Jackets’ season opener against Alcorn State.
“Just seeing football gloves on the rumble seat, just ready to go, everyone jumping up and down,” Degenkolb said. “It was like, OK, this is going to happen.”
A computational media major with a 3.47 GPA, Degenkolb earned a slice of history, becoming the third woman to lead the Jackets onto the field, and the first since 1988. A high-school cheerleader at the Lovett School who can program in HTML, Java, Python and C, Degenkolb fits the mold of spirited achievers that have occupied the seat before her.
“The school has given me so many opportunities career-wise, life-wise, socially-wise, Tech-wise, that I am so thankful for every second I’ve been here,” she said.
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Drivers are elected by the Ramblin’ Reck Club, the student group that charges itself with promoting school spirit and traditions and the maintenance of the Wreck (which club members maintain is spelled without the “W.”) As a new member in 2013, she was assigned a “big brother” in Barrett Ahlers, who was the driver that year. Seeing the work and service to school that goes into the position up-close planted within Degenkolb a desire to eventually be elected driver, even though it had been almost 25 years since a woman last held the position.
“I’d ask Barrett, ‘Do you think a girl could do it?’” Degenkolb said. “And he goes, ‘Yeah. It’s happened before. They just have to do everything a driver can do, and there’s no difference between a guy doing it and a girl doing it.’”
At an alumni pig roast shortly after she joined the club, Degenkolb found Lisa Volmar, the club’s first female driver, in 1984, and quizzed her about her experience. Volmar said Wednesday the two have kept tabs on each other since. The two are members of the same sorority, Alpha Chi Omega, and Volmar’s daughter, Morgan Stephens, is a probationary member of the club.
“I wanted to open the path, to open this opportunity, for everyone,” Volmar said. “I never wanted to be the only one.”
The two also have been linked by the car’s occasionally balky engine. Early in Volmar’s drivership, the car wouldn’t start in front of a row of fraternities, requiring Volmar to fix the problem in front of a slew of curious fraternity brothers, including her future husband and his parents.
Volmar passed the test. On Thursday, only a few hours before kickoff, the bolt that holds the carburetor mechanism together stripped and fell out. With the help of past drivers, Degenkolb fashioned a fix with a washer and zip ties.
“It was wild,” said Raj Desai, last year’s driver, who himself is believed to be the Wreck’s first minority driver. “She handled it really well.”
She has been gladdened by the response from students and fans.
“I haven’t gotten anything discouraging,” she said. “It’s all been really, like, ‘Yeah, you go, girl!’”
In a year when the school welcomed a freshman class that is 41 percent female — the first time in institute history that the percentage exceeded 40 percent — Degenkolb hopes to continue where Volmar left off. She reported that the new class of Reck Club members is “brilliant” and also has more women than in the past.
“I’m hoping that they can come in and see something new and think of it as the norm,” she said. “Where it’s not like, ‘Oh, there hasn’t been a girl driver in a while,’ but, ‘Oh, there’s a girl driver this year. That can happen anytime.’”