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February 2010
Fast Company
By Ellison Clary

     SPEED is a cable television network dedicated to delivering an “electronic campfire for the vast tribe of speed freaks and gear heads,” according to its official history, and its performance bears that out.

     Originally launched in 1996 in Connecticut as Speedvision under the ownership of Cox Communications, Continental Cable and AT&T, it quickly became the fastest growing cable network of all time while delivering the highest male viewing audience per household of any cable or broadcast network in history.

     In 2001, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation purchased its majority ownership, moved it to Charlotte, and relaunched it as Speed Channel. In late 2005, Speed Channel re-branded themselves as just SPEED. But it always has featured fast-traveling vehicles.

     Its programming has added more and more of a NASCAR flavor over the years. That makes the West W.T. Harris Boulevard address of its flashy digs even more appropriate. It’s only a few qualifying laps from the concentration of stock car racing teams and related businesses in northern Mecklenburg and southern Iredell counties.

     Through all the changes, SPEED has hewed to a focus for people who like competition involving vehicles with two-to-four wheels. These days, Hunter Nickell sees to that, and he enjoys it immensely.

     “When you have a cool job, you know it,” says the SPEED president. “And I have a cool job.”

 

A Good Lineup

     It seems a logical line of work for a native of Detroit, America’s auto cradle, who earned a mass communications degree from Ohio’s Denison University, where he captained the ice hockey team. He went on to coach high school hockey and lacrosse while teaching English in Maine and Connecticut.

     In New Canaan, Conn., lots of people were involved in the cable television business. Nickell decided to sign on with Home Box Office, taking an entry level position in New York in 1985.

     Since his switch to broadcasting, he hasn’t glanced in the rear view mirror. After working for a time in Boston for a private publishing company that served the television industry, he hooked on with Atlanta’s Turner Broadcasting in 1990. Fox, owned by Murdoch, eventually acquired all of Turner and Nickell left Atlanta for Charlotte in 2005.

     Now Nickell occupies an office in the 78,000-square-foot SPEED facilities the network built specifically for itself and occupied in 2008.

     It’s his base for pursuing a passion for broadcasting, sports and fast wheels. Telling his story, he brims with excitement.

     “Broadcast sports is an exhilarating business,” he smiles. “Sports television is so dynamic that the pace of change is extraordinary. It provides a level of adrenaline that is sensational to have as part of your job.”

     A resident of Charlotte’s Myers Park neighborhood, Nickell professes to becoming a NASCAR fan from the day he set foot in Atlanta. From the summer day he wheeled into Charlotte, his focus has been on enhancing the NASCAR relationship.

     “The chance to work in a business whose foundation and top priority is NASCAR is terrific,” he says. “The opportunity that existed when I got here still exists. We continue to add more NASCAR coverage and work on how we are reaching a larger audience with existing programs and programs that we might add.”

     To be sure, SPEED also airs events on other racing circuits and a variety of vehicle-related programs. In 2009, it secured new broadcast rights deals with Formula One and MotoGP. It also broadcasts Supercross motorcycle races. It carries the popular Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction extravaganzas, along with original shows such as “Dangerous Drives” and “Bullrun.”

 

On the Program…

     Though SPEED’s official history says it turned an initial profit in 2000, Nickell declines to share revenue details. But he’s happy to discuss audience growth.

     In early 2005, SPEED scored its first Nielsen rating higher than 2 with a 2.1, meaning it reached more than 1.3 million households. The show that did it was coverage of the opening race in Daytona Beach for the NASCAR Truck Series, whose broadcasting rights SPEED wrested from ESPN in 2002.

     These days, live broadcasts of the truck racing series rank among SPEED’s top-rated shows. Further, telecasts of the NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord in both 2008 and 2009 scored a Nielsen rating of 3.7, meaning viewership in more than 2.7 million households.

     “Another program that’s stout for us is ‘NASCAR RaceDay,’” Nickell adds. It features pre-race coverage of each Sprint Series event, marquee attractions all.

     The biggest date for SPEED this year promises to be live coverage of the initial NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony on May 23. Household names Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. make up the first class. The telecast will originate from the sparkling new Hall in center city Charlotte that will open May 11 with SPEED cameras cranking live.

     Such attention is bound to bode well for the whole area, thinks Tim Newman, chief executive of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. His organization’s offices are in the Charlotte Convention Center, a homestretch dash from the Hall.

     “As Charlotte continues to grow as a hub for NASCAR, SPEED is a vital element in the industry infrastructure,” Newman says. “We are blessed to have it call Charlotte home. SPEED is a great partner for efforts we make to grow NASCAR business and Hunter Nickell and his team are outstanding partners to work with.”

     Nickell returns the praise. “Being here in Charlotte, smack in the middle of the NASCAR world, is tremendous,” Nickell says. He speaks of impromptu visits by the likes of Petty, known simply as “The King” for his stock car driving exploits, and Formula One legend Mario Andretti.

 

Grabbing the Audience

     Charlotte is fast growing into a hub for all types of racing news, says Erik Arneson, SPEED’s vice president for media relations. He cites the presence in Concord of Bruton Smith’s zMax Dragway and Charlotte Motor Speedway as well as nearby facilities for a new USF1 Formula One racing team.

     He points out SPEED’s state-of-the-art facilities, including a trio of high-definition, tapeless studios and the capability for desktop production for Web, mobile, iPod, VOD and linear outlets.

     “This facility has been attractive for news conferences and it appeals across the board, not just to NASCAR,” Arneson says.

     That brings to his mind another NASCAR-related point. “We are adding the NASCAR Sprint Cup banquet in Las Vegas,” he says, “so we are their only TV partner from opening in Daytona to the banquet at the end of the year.”

     Nickell knows the NASCAR tie is critical to building audience, an endeavor he admits is never completed for a network executive. For five years down the road, Nickell wants SPEED to quadruple the size of the viewing audience it reaches.

     “We are primarily a male network,” Nickell says as he discusses demographics and his hopes for the future. “When we talk about target audiences for our network, we talk about men 18-to-49 and men 25-to-54.”

     That older group is also the most likely to watch NASCAR and Nickell hopes to lure a larger number of those viewers to SPEED regularly. But he also intends to coordinate closely with NASCAR to grow fans in the younger group.

     “It’s terrific if we attract more females,” continues Nickell as he enumerates other ways to grow. That’s important for SPEED brand awareness, for getting into more households and for attracting more overall advertising, he says.

     “There is a tremendous opportunity for us to grow African-American audiences, Hispanic audiences and Asian audiences,” Nickell adds, “because there is a significant motor sport interest in those groups.”

     Certainly, SPEED viewers are avid fans. Nickell relates how executives at Daytona International Speedway praise the channel for making their phone lines light up anytime it mentions a race at that premiere track.

     The network has 116 full-time employees at its Charlotte hub. Nickell chuckles that he’d like his News Corporation bosses to know that is almost enough. The number swells past 300 when part-timers and stringers help on big live events.

     Blowout attractions such as the Daytona races are where SPEED shines brightest, says Arneson, who adds that the channel is concentrating on improvement for its regular broadcasting, too.

     By the way, Nickell injects, an orientation toward vehicles is great but not a requirement to work at SPEED. He likes a mix of motor sports enthusiasts as well as junkies for television sports in general. And, sprinkled in, he’s fond of people who don’t fall into either category.

     “It’s helpful to have others with a different perspective who can figure out how to do something and give great creativity to our coverage,” he says.

 

More Action Ahead

     Past the Hall of Fame induction, Nickell admits a fascination with the impact that iconic female driver Danica Patrick might have on the NASCAR circuit she’s joining this season. “I’m impressed with the way she handles herself,” he says. “She is really focused.”

     Nickell’s network has originated shows from Whisky River, the watering hole in Charlotte’s EpiCentre owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Though he went winless in 2009, the younger Earnhardt remains perhaps the most popular driver in North America.

     What would it mean if the NASCAR darling caught fire this season, wheeling his Number 88 Chevrolet into Victory Lane multiple times? “It would be huge,” Nickell responds instantly.

     So at 53, what does Nickell drive? A Ford Mustang GT, he replies, pointing from his office window to a maroon muscle car parked nearby. A surprise present from his wife and children on his 50th birthday, it instantly fixed a somewhat embarrassing situation.

     He was driving a 1996 Ford Explorer with 160,000 miles on the odometer. The air-conditioning had given up the ghost and there were rips in the seats. Though it boasted a V-8 engine, it looked out of place.

     “In the SPEED parking lot, there were some cool cars,” he laughs. “We have car guys and gals.”

     Besides being a better fit, the Mustang has provided Nickell a one-time thrill. He aired it out on that nearby Bruton Smith drag strip.

     Nickell hesitates to name his favorite drivers. He does confess to closely following the careers of three younger NASCAR chauffeurs who were friends with one of his sons in Legends mini-car competition. He’s happy that Reed Sorenson, Joey Logano and David Ragan—all of whom he’s known since they were youngsters or teens—are now in the big time.

     That brings him back to thoughts about having what is for him a dream job.

     “This place lights up early in the morning; it’s lit up late into the night,” marvels Nickell, who admits to working seven days a week. “It’s cookin’, and you feel that when you get here. Everybody is into it and it’s fun to be around people who are fired up.”

     On his personal future, he doesn’t hesitate.

     “This is where I want to be,” he vows. “I’m lucky to work in this business and in this company.”

 

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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