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It’s been said that the Indianapolis 500 can change a person’s life.
It certainly changed the life of NBC Sports Producer Rene Hatlelid.
In last year’s 105th Indianapolis 500, Hatlelid became the first female producer of the famed racing event.
I had a chance to have an exclusive interview with Hatlelid to hear her unique story of producing the world’s greatest race to the millions of viewers watching on television.
It would have been Hatlelid’s grandma’s 105th birthday on the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 and she was about to produce the biggest sporting event in her career.
“I know she was looking down smiling on me,” Hatlelid said. “The family aspect of IndyCar plays a lot in that. I’ve worked really, really hard to get in this spot. I get the respect I do because I do a good job.
“It meant a lot to me to see where I started in TV to where I am now. I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I love my job.”
She stressed that her job is to produce the best sporting telecast she possibly can.
Last year, Hatlelid and NBC had the incredible fortune of sharing one of the most emotional storylines in Indianapolis 500 history. It’s when Helio Castroneves won became the fourth driver to win the Indianapolis 500 times in his career.
Hatlelid proved that timing is everything because after Castroneves won the race and climbed the fence, NBC was about ready to go to commercial before Hatlelid made a decision that would change her career.
She saw on one of the cameras that Castroneves was about to run up the track and share the huge moment with the fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as they chanted, “Hel-i-o!!! Hel-i-o!”
“All of a sudden, I said, ‘We should wait. We should wait. We should wait,’ before breaking for commercial,” she recalled. “When Mario Andretti kissed him on the head, I felt that was probably an appropriate time.”
It was an authentic and organic moment of television history that could not be scripted and orchestrated.
“Every single driver you talk to says this race changes your life,” Hatlelid said. “Every driver that crosses the yard of bricks, their lives’ change forever in some way, shape or form.
“Watching Helio last year was unbelievable. It leaves me speechless when I watch it back.”
Hatlelid seems to specialize in “high-speed sports” as a producer including the NHL Playoffs, NASC
In 2021, she got the assignment of her career and made television history as the first female producer of the Indianapolis 500 telecast for NBC.
“It’s an extreme honor,” Hatlelid said. “I started working the Indy 500 in 2019 as a pit producer and last year was the first year, I actually produced it.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to produce the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’ I take that on my shoulders. I know how important this race is to every single driver, every single fan, and the racing community in general.
“I take it very seriously. I owe it to the drivers. They are going extremely fast, and I want to tell their stories.”
Producing a major sporting event such as the Indianapolis 500 has to combine the visual and audio sensations, as well as telling the stories as they happen.
“The most important part of it is knowing the storylines going in and the action on the track always dedicates what we are doing,” Hatlelid said. “Then, trust the people you are working with. Pit reporters are selling you and then all of a sudden there is a great battle on the track or a team and then go down to the pit reporter.
“It’s being able to provide the most pertinent storylines that are happening and what matters the most to the fans at home.”
Also, if there is a lull in the racing, Hatlelid can provide the personalities of the drivers, the storylines, and the families of the drivers.
“They are going 230-plus miles an hour and their families are watching them,” she said. “It matters. It’s scary. They are going faster than airplanes go.
“It’s providing the storyline of the race as it is going down and then providing the personalities of these drivers and showing the danger they are facing every time they go out on the track.”
Sunday’s 106th Indianapolis 500 is the first full-capacity Indy 500 since 2019. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was held without spectators in 2020 and limited to 137,000 fans in 2021.
On Sunday, crowds in excess of 250,000 fans will fill the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Those fans have their favorite vantage points to see the race. Many fans have had their tickets for over 30 straight years.
Hatlelid’s seat is in the production truck in the broadcast compound at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She has to watch the action on 15 screens that are all split into nine squares.
She has to recognize and process what she is seeing to determine which camera to use throughout the race.
“Our director, Sean Owens, covers the racing and he chooses how we do that, but we are both watching at the same time,” Hatlelid explained. “We have a very good mind meld. I tend to point, and he is literally going to the camera I’m pointing to by the time I’m pointing to it. We have worked together for quite a while so it’s nice to know I have a great partner in crime working next to me.”
As well as the visuals, the pit reporters and their producers are talking to her feeding information to determine whether to switch to them on pit road, or relay that information to the booth that includes Leigh Diffey, James Hinchcliffe, and Townsend Bell.
“You have to prioritize and compartmentalize the stories that are going on, on the track,” she explained. “Then you have to take a gut check and decide which one if the most important at that time.”
The Indianapolis 500 telecast also features the NBC “Pit Box” on pit road where host Mike Tirico will be joined for 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick and former NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Tirico has high praise for Hatlelid’s ability to produce an outstanding and compelling race for the television viewer.
“The producer role is always about timing and over time and years in the truck, you learn that timing,” Tirico said. “Regardless of gender, Rene is an exceptional television producer.
“The fact there was attention around her being the first woman, she deserves that, but I think of Rene as a terrific TV producer, period.
“By being around big events, covering live events, being in the middle of it all, she knew when to do the right thing. When things go fastest, you have to be at your most attentive, but also calm.
“Those show up in the biggest moments. I knew how great a pro she was getting here. I didn’t care what gender she was; you just know when people get it, and she absolutely gets it.
“She performed like a rock star.”
Hatlelid will produce her second Indianapolis 500 telecast Sunday on NBC. The telecast begins at 11 a.m. Eastern Time with the pre-race show leading into the 106th Indianapolis 500.