SBD/January 28, 2011/People and Pop Culture

Catching Up With Speed Exec VP/Programming & Production Patti Wheeler

Speed Exec VP/Programming &
Production Patti Wheeler
has racing in her blood, but she didn't always plan to follow in the footsteps of her legendary father, former SMI President & CEO HUMPY WHEELER. Alas, she couldn't pass up the opportunity motorsports offered her to pursue her passion of producing live sports, which led her to her current position as Exec VP/Programming & Production for Speed. The network is set to debut several documentary projects in the next few weeks, including "The 10" and "The Day: Remembering Dale Earnhardt," and Wheeler recently spoke with staff writer Erik Swanson about the documentaries, growing up in racing and her Anti-Blather campaign for the '11 season.

Favorite track: Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Manual or automatic? Manual.
Favorite race you ever produced: 1992 Winston.

Quick thoughts on:
The Chase, keep it or scrap it? (Laughs) You're not going to get that answer out of me. I think we need to, as a group, focus more on winning individual races for TV and for ticket sales. I think you need an overall point system, I just think we need to shift our focus more toward the individual races and how important they are.
Are races too long or just right? You'll have to ask DAVID HILL, my boss (Laughs).

Q: What are your earliest memories of being around racing?
Wheeler: Well, I literally was around racing in utero. I remember going to Indy as a little toddler, playing with MICHAEL ANDRETTI at the park because we all hung together. All the Firestone people hung together and my dad was running Firestone Racing. It goes back that far, it's just ingrained. And then Daytona, we would always go there in February and July. I just don't remember life before racing.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to go into the family business?
Wheeler: No, I did not want to go into racing (Laughs). I fell madly in love with live sports television. At a racetrack, no doubt, but this was in the '70s when there was no career in motorsports. They put three races on a year or something. So I fell in love with live sports and thought I would go on and do the Olympics and things like that. But by the time I graduated from college, this big, huge wave was just forming and I happened by luck and serendipity to jump on it and have ridden it ever since. But no, I had no intention of going into racing. This was the industry where my dad would, all of a sudden, on any given Saturday night turn a corner out in the country and go, "Look, we're at a racetrack!" And my brother and sister and I would sit there for hours on end, just mortified and bored to death.

Q: If you weren't in motorsports, what would you be doing?
Wheeler: Sports television. Just the storytelling of sports, that's what motivates me. That's what I love about motorsports, the storytelling of it. And you know where I get that.

Q: Fox' David Hill has called for a greater focus on the drivers rather than the mechanics of racing. How do you see this playing out going forward?
Wheeler: Because these guys do it every weekend and they all seem so cool and collected, I think we take for granted what it's like to put your butt into that seat and go 500 miles just 2/10 of an inch from your mortal enemy at 200 mph. I think we've just taken it for granted. What I think about now is, OK, it's you. It's the start of the Daytona 500, and me personally, I'm sticking my butt in that seat, and off I go. It would be terrifying!

Q: Has the media been too negative toward NASCAR?
Wheeler: I think so. I mean I know what point the media is trying to make, but there's a lot of incredibly great things about NASCAR that we take for granted. We take for granted that -- you know we bitch at all these other sports for having heroes who are not role models, and NASCAR has that. NASCAR is still the second-highest rated sport and still has tremendous attendance. There are still a lot of great things going on with NASCAR, and I truly feel that we have hit the plateau and we're on our way back up. I really feel it. And when you look at the ratings from the testing that we did last week and some other kind of early indicators, I really feel like -- it's not going to turn the corner in one race or one month, but I think we're in the right direction.

Q: What can TV do to help bring the sport back?
Wheeler: I personally started my Anti-Blather 2011 campaign. What I mean by that is we need to dig deeper. Asking how your car is or asking what do you think you're gonna do for the Daytona 500 is going to result in blather, most of the time. So I'm literally getting a sign made for my office and I'm considering making T-shirts that are Anti-Blather. So everybody working around me understands that it's no longer good enough to just ask the same stupid questions.

Q: To that end, you have several documentaries on the way.
Wheeler: Yes, and this Earnhardt thing is going to blow your socks off, and I don't say that lightly. I produced DALE EARNHARDT's funeral with David Hill. Dale Earnhardt was a dear friend of mine, and I loved him dearly. So with this 10th anniversary, we wanted to do something. We thought about all this stuff and then I had one of those enlightened moments you have, it hit me like a lightning bolt -- what we need to do is the day, February 18, 2011, you start at sunrise, everybody's getting to the racetrack, and you give them this chronology of the day and end with the post-race press conference. ... Through this thread, there are all these opportunities for all the great back-stories. ... It's a great way to honor Dale without taking advantage of anything or being morbid, it's just a great way to tell the story again, because even those of us who lived through it have forgotten half of it.

Q: Will we see more of these documentaries going forward?
Wheeler: Yes, but the 21st century version of a documentary, not the documentaries like I produced when I was 23 years old.

Q: Do you think ESPN's "30 for 30" series has rejuvenated that genre?
Wheeler: I go back to, the best reality television is live sports. Nobody calls it reality television, but it is the quintessentially the best reality TV. And the documentaries, if done the right way with enough pacing and enough production value, are just stories about real things that have happened. You just have to be really careful that it's got a pace and a production quality to it, so it looks modern, entertaining and quick moving.
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