ATLANTA -- Most dreams are never realized. Patti Wheeler's was exceeded.
The daughter of longtime Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, Patti started a television career hoping to find a niche as a producer in live racing coverage. At only 34 years old, she is president of the largest motorsports television production company in the world.
World Sports Enterprises produces more NASCAR coverage than every other company and network combined -- not to mention other racing series, several racing programs, Darrell Waltrip's radio show, Carolina Hurricanes hockey and much more.
All Winston Cup races carried on TBS and TNN are WSE productions, including the two major upcoming events at Charlotte: Saturday night's 14th running of The Winston (TNN) and the May 24 Coca Cola 600 (TBS).
Patti was a kid with an "in" when Humpy worked for Firestone in the early '70s, and she got to know many of the drivers and their crews.
That made her valuable when CBS came to Charlotte a few years later. The network needed people who could point out racing personalities to the big-shot producers from New York, and 13-year-old Patti was able to do that, as well as perform many go-fer duties.
"I fell absolutely, madly in love with live television," Patti recalled. "I couldn't believe how they could turn a parking lot in the middle of nowhere into a fully functioning television studio in the matter of a day or two.
"Everybody would be running around in complete chaos -- or at least that's how it looked through a 13-year-old's eyes -- and then they would count down to air time and everything would work. It still amazes me."
Patti majored in English literature at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina and paid her way through school with a full-time job at the Charlotte CBS affiliate. When she graduated in 1986, cable television was exploding. Networks such as ESPN and TBS found motorsports to be viable programming because the rights fees were next to nothing and the races provided hours of entertainment.
Patti took a job with veteran sportscaster Ken Squire and former NBC news producer Fred Rheinstein. The two men eventually formed WSE.
"I was willing to do anything to get my foot in the door," Wheeler said.
After three years, Patti was hired as director of motorsports for TNN, which had just acquired the rights to televise five Winston Cup events. She spent three years there, and during that time, the network's motorsports inventory grew to more than 50 live events.
TNN's parent company, Gaylord Communications, bought into WSE in 1994. That created the need for a top executive at WSE, and Patti's background made her the most qualified.
"Timing is everything," Patti said. "I got there, and there was all this new programming coming at us faster than you could grow the people -- the producer, the production staff -- to take care of it. There was no old guard because cable was brand new. So, people like me, at 23 and 24 years old ... if you dug in hard enough and had (confidence) in yourself, you started live producing."
In 1993, Patti produced a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway 2 1/2 weeks after giving birth.
She takes a hands-on approach at major events, which means she probably will be in the production truck for The Winston on Saturday night.
"I've worked very hard, and I'm very happy to be where I am, but the opportunity of cable is what made it possible," she said.
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