Indy 500: NBC Sports’ Rene Hatlelid To Be First Female Lead Producer in the Race’s 105-Year History

The trailblazer is no stranger to high-profile auto racing

The Indianapolis 500 is a sports event steeped in tradition, but its 105th iteration is going to break the mold. When the green flag waves in Speedway, IN, on Sunday afternoon, NBC Sports Producer Rene Hatlelid will be the first lead producer in the event’s illustrious history. And it’s happening as sports production inches toward normalcy.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to bring sports back to fans,” she says, “but to be able to bring this event back with people in the stands, it’s a very special year. I understand the gravity of this race and everything that comes with it.”

Desert Dreams: Producer Finds Her Stride in Arizona

Hatlelid started out as an aspiring professional at the college level. As for the profession, her college career didn’t start out on the trajectory she has followed. “I actually went to the University of Arizona on a full-ride scholarship for biochemistry,” she says.

Rene Hatlelid will become the first female lead producer in Indy 500 history.

Over time, her love for science was transformed into a passion for live production. While at the university, she worked at the local PBS station, and her new-found love of production led her to a new collegiate home.

“Up the road from U of A was Arizona State University,” Hatlelid explains. “I eventually said, Goodness gracious, it’ll make a whole lot more sense to head up that way.”

A transfer having made her a Sun Devil, her first professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication was then lead EVS operator of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, Jim Dove. During more than three decades at the sports-media giant, Dove has worked in multiple roles, including editor on the production team of Monday Night Football. He also held positions at ABC, Fox Sports, and NBC. The program at Arizona State has been known for producing on-air talent, such as long-time play-by-play commentator of NBC’s Sunday Night Football Al Michaels, but, under Dove’s tutelage, Hatlelid focused on what goes on behind the scenes.

“He told our entire class of about 65 students, ‘If anybody wants to come to the Diamondbacks game, it’ll be on Sunday Night Baseball,’” she says. “It was myself, my two best friends, and a couple of others; not many more that than showed up.”

When she made it to then Bank One Ballpark, it wasn’t to watch the game but to get to work and learn valuable lessons that would pay off in the future. Some days, she observed employees at work; on others, she slugged cable through the mud. Those early days as a college student helped build her resilience and ability to adjust on the fly.

“We had to pay for all of our travel,” she says. “They said, ‘If you can get to the games, we’ll hire you all, but you’re going to need to get your own hotels and figure out how to get there.’ [My college friends and I] are still best friends, and they’re all still in television as well.”

Professional Transition: College Experience Leads to ESPN

After graduating from Arizona State, Hatlelid leveraged the relationship and contacts she had made. After spending some time on events with hockey and UFC, she moved to ESPN, landing on the network’s legacy studio show, SportsCenter. Although she enjoyed her Bristol, CT-based assignments, Hatlelid got the itch to travel and apply her talents to onsite projects.

“I knew that I always wanted to work in live production,” she says, “so I moved over to their remote department. When they got [the rights to] NASCAR, it looked like an amazing opportunity. I joined on to work graphics, and we ended up being nominated for [a Sports Emmy for] Graphic Design in my first year, in 2007. I can definitely say I’ve dabbled in pretty much every production role that there is on NASCAR.”

In 13 years at ESPN, she worked on numerous teams, including tape replay and pit producing, while continuing to rise through the ranks. Her versatility presented her with a chance to make the leap to her current employer: NBC Sports.

Years of Experience: Motorsports Vet Takes on NASCAR Coverage

Right away, her prowess in motorsports led her to NBC’s coverage of the NASCAR calendar. Hatlelid focused mostly on the Xfinity Series but ultimately worked on both Xfinity and the top-tier Cup series.

When the broadcaster grabbed the media rights to the IndyCar circuit in 2019, she migrated to this racing discipline and at first served as pit producer. Fast forward two years, she now finds herself on the precipice of history.

Rene Hatlelid and her team at NBC Sports will be housed in an onsite compound.

“I’m just super proud,” she says. “In terms of the numbers that we’ve had [all year], it’s going to be the largest gathering of people since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the race week, Hatlelid and her production team have been working closely with their counterparts on the operations side. NBC Sports has received notable support from IMS Productions at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the individuals working alongside her, including NBC Sports Director Sean Owens and Supervising Engineer Steve Sontag, have helped make the hectic week as stress-free as possible.

“Our technical crew has done an awesome job,” she says. “Each week, more things have been added a little bit at a time, but they’ve made [this week] really seamless.”

Away from the compound, Hatlelid tries to take in the pomp and circumstance of the prestigious event. Some of it is grandiose, like the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” or the scenes from the winner’s circle at the end of 200 laps; other aspects of Indy carry the usual importance in her mind.

“When that cannon goes off at 6 a.m. to signify the opening of the gates for fans, it still makes me jump out of my seat,” she says. “But I love it every single time. It’ll scare me to death, but I look forward to it because that’s when you know it’s Go Time.”

In addition to the blasting of the cannon, other instances are more intimate and remind Hatlelid that she plays a pivotal part in a larger purpose.

“I also look forward to the production meeting [on race day],” she adds. “We have a ton of meetings throughout the entire month, but, that morning, I get to see the excitement that everyone has on their face. Lastly, it’s the ‘Three, two, one’ before the start of the race that really makes my heart beat.”

Beacon for the Future: Historic Moment Inspires Industry, Viewers at Home

Besides this weekend’s main event, Hatlelid has made her mark on some of sport’s most groundbreaking productions showcasing the potential of women in the workforce, including NBC’s all-female NHL broadcast team on International Women’s Day. Aside from the historical significance of the upcoming race, she’ll enter the production truck and take her seat with high expectations of bringing a high-quality product to IndyCar fans around the world.

“Whether it’s a hockey game, an A-10 basketball game, or the Indy 500, I hold myself to an extremely high standard,” she says. “We plan on showcasing the best storylines and action on the track that we can.”

Female presence in the sport extends beyond the production truck. On the asphalt, Paretta Autosport, an organization staffed mostly by women, will be represented by Simona de Silvestro, the field’s only female driver. She has earned the respect of her competitors and is set on becoming the first woman to win an IndyCar race since Danica Patrick at the 2008 Indy Japan 300.

As for Hatlelid, her hard work and dedication have been noted by her superiors and colleagues alike at NBC Sports.

“Rene is really on top of [our coverage of this race],” says Sam Flood, executive producer/president, production, NBC and NBCSN. “She has mapped out great content throughout the whole day.”

More than a century’s worth of races are in the record books, but, in 2021, this special occasion is long overdue. For all the viewers at home enjoying some of the best drivers in the world, Sunday’s race means so much more than a checkered flag, the hoisting of a trophy, and the pouring of a tall jug of milk.

“We’ve worked for this [day] for a very long time, and I feel like we’re making strides in the right direction,” Hatlelid says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a little girl or boy that’s watching. I want them to know that, if you believe in your dream and put your best foot forward, anyone is capable of producing the Indianapolis 500.”

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