Joey Buttitta ’11 (Journalism) had a secret that he couldn’t wait to share with the world — but he had to wait about five months.
The California State University, Northridge alumnus and his girlfriend, Kelsey Gerckens, had been chosen over thousands of applicants to be among the 12 teams to play the CBS reality TV show The Amazing Race, which would take the couple to five continents, 10 countries and cover more than 34,000 miles during the course of about a month.
In the high-intensity show, which gives contestants difficult tasks related to the foreign cities in which they travel and compete, the difference between winning and losing may come down to seconds won or lost through hair-trigger decisions made under duress. The prize? One million dollars.
Buttitta and Gerckens jumped into the show as longtime fans, and they excelled from the early part of the competition, reaching the finish line near the front but never in first place. In fact, they finished second five consecutive times, which played out over the five weeks of the competition.
In the pressure-packed finale, the remaining three teams, including Buttitta and Gerckens, traveled from China to New York City for the final challenges. A deft decision to ask a New York City cab driver to keep the meter running during a stop on Rikers Island — where Buttitta did a firefighting challenge with the New York City Fire Department — was a game changer. One team let its cab driver leave, while the other team’s taxi left. When one team tried to commandeer their cab, the tense standoff ended with Buttitta and Gerckens taking back their cab and taking the lead.
“We knew the cab ride was going to be important,” Buttitta said. “It turned out to be the million-dollar decision.”
The pair took command of the lead, which they would keep to the thrilling final sprint, surrounded by the applauding competitors who already had been eliminated. Host Phil Keoghan declared them the winners of the one Amazing Race leg that mattered most.
The only problem at the time was that the competition ended in July. The show would not begin airing until late September, and the finale would not be shown until Dec. 11.
Buttitta and Gerckens returned to Santa Barbara, where they are news reporters for KEYT. Working in the information business, they were sitting on an incredible scoop, but they had to keep the secret to let the CBS show play out during the fall season.
“We work in a newsroom, and we’re lying to these people [for the nearly] six months it’s been playing out,” Buttitta said. “For the first couple of weeks, it was really tough. We had such a great secret to keep, and we didn’t tell anybody. Our families didn’t know, our friends, co-workers, nobody.”
During the Dec. 11 finale when the secret was revealed, it began to play out on the East Coast, where Joey’s father, Joe Buttitta ’64 (Journalism), has a lot of family. Starting at 6 p.m. PST, the news broke when the couple were crowned winners during the show’s East Coast airing. The younger Buttitta described the next several hours as “insane,” with his phone going crazy until well after the finale had aired on the West Coast.
Yet, Buttitta had one more surprise in store. During the live airing of a morning variety show featuring Gerckens and himself in mid-December, Buttitta got down on one knee and asked her to marry him. He said that it was during the race that he knew Gerckens was the woman he wanted to marry.
“If we could put up with each other 24/7 for a month straight, having to be feet from each other for the cameras with all the pressure and us never really arguing, we knew we were perfect for each other,” Buttitta said.
The Matador also pointed out the great support from the CSUN community that he and his fiancée received throughout their Amazing Race journey. Both his parents, Joe and Teri ’76 (Kinesiology), are CSUN alumni, as are his brother and sister. Matador pride was beaming via social media and on phone calls throughout the show’s three-month run.
“It’s been a whirlwind, and the CSUN community is awesome,” Buttitta said.
Impending nuptials aside, the couple has started to map out their post-race future. It’s going to start with their parents, who are all still working.
“We want to be able to help them and relieve them of some bills and house payments,” Buttitta said. “We’re going to use the money smart, and then we’re going to enjoy a little bit. We’re not going to quit our jobs. We look forward to what’s next. Both of us aspire to bigger and better things.”