Social Spotlight with Rutledge Wood

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community about their social media usage. This week: Rutledge Wood from NBC Sports.

You have a really special ability to connect with people. That makes social media perfect for you in a lot of ways, because you have a very positive spirit. How do you feel like that comes through in your daily social media use?

This may surprise you a little bit, but I was a weird kid. (Smiles) I’ve always been weird, a little bit different, and I was really lucky that my parents were always there to support me and make sure that I knew it’s OK that I’m not like anybody else. That’s not a weakness, that’s your strength, so go be that person. I always believed in standing up for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves and that certainly has gotten into a few dust-ups in my life.

Social media is this funny place where — good, bad or indifferent — we have opened this thing that we call “social” that is in fact completely anti-social, and we’ve allowed people to have this influence on us. I’ve definitely seen over the years there are really positive influences on social media and there is the total opposite; in that range between is where you hope most of your stuff lies.

So for me, it’s not about following people that I believe everything that they do politically or on any kind of scope. I just try to follow a lot of people that bring joy to my life, bring joy to other people’s lives, and I think I will find those right things through there.

I’m a person who came from the fan base of this sport. I started at Speed channel in 2005 from a Craigslist ad. I had gone to school for marketing and they basically needed somebody for the marketing department who could do all their on-site marketing and be an MC. So I would ride around the campgrounds and go meet fans and say, “Come to the stage, we’re having this big party later, it’s called Trackside.”

And what they started to notice is that people started to hang out with me when there was nothing going on. So I would have a crowd there and they said, “Hey, we know you’re kind of different, but fans seem to really like you. We should do more.” And the more time I spent out there, (they) realized I come from this huge car background, I love cars, I love racing. I really came from a place where I didn’t know much about NASCAR in the beginning, but everything great that’s happened to my career has happened because the fans of this sport have supported me and supported it.

The way that Top Gear (the History Channel show that ran from 2010-16) found me was a race fan loaded something that I did for RaceDay at Atlanta Motor Speedway with John Schneider from the Dukes of Hazzard onto YouTube illegally. And because that person sat down and said, “This was fun to me, I want to share this with other people,” that person forever changed not just my life, but my wife’s life, my children’s lives — all the things I’ve gotten to do are because of moments like that. And that person didn’t have to.

So I try to use social media in a way to share joy, to have fun, to tell people, “This is what I’m doing, here’s where I am, these are the car projects I’m working on.”

Someone asked a long time ago, “Why do you post pictures of your kids?” because I certainly some people do, some people don’t. And for me, I did enough stuff during Top Gear and I’ve been on enough weird flights where I think everyone has those kinds of moments of, “What happens if I don’t make it out of X, Y, or Z?” And I wanted to make sure that people never had any doubt what was actually important to me. Because work is really fun, and I’m so fortunate to get to do stuff that I love — but life is what I love, and my wife and my daughters, that’s my heart. (Gets choked up.) That’s my world.

So I want to make sure people don’t ever wonder — if God forbid I don’t make it to 95 — “What was important to him?” “Let’s go back and look. Well he liked sneakers, he liked cars and he loved his family.” So I just try to put that hat on with social. And sometimes it works out well.

I also find out every time that we’re on big NBC for the races that it is like an all call for, “Hey, if anyone has anything negative to say, come on over!” And you just gotta roll with that stuff, too.

There’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s start with how you avoid getting sucked into the negativity, because as you touched on, you’re a positive person who loves life and you like to spread the positivity. How do you not get brought down by some of these people that are deciding to yell at you on social media?

The hard part is when you feel like someone has no idea of anything about you, and you know nothing about them because most of the time it’s just they signed up and there’s no information and they’re not real. That’s hard because you feel like, “Man, you don’t know the first thing about me.”

So when I remember, “This isn’t a real interaction. This isn’t somebody that sat down next to me at a restaurant and asked me about whether politics.” This is like a drive-by shooting, but the shot is a comment. And to me, it’s just not real. There’s no reality in that moment.

I used to block people on Twitter when I first got on, and I think there’s only a handful of people who I’ve ever blocked. Then I realized then you can just mute them. And if you mute them, you don’t give them the satisfaction of blocking them. Some people get excited, like “Yeah, he blocked me!” It’s like, “Cool. Way to go man.” But if you mute them, then they can still feel like, “This person is totally reading it.” So now we’re at the point where I can see something bad and I’ll just read the first two words and then I just mute them and roll on, because there is definitely an algorithm.

I have leaned on people before, because sometimes I just want people to know there’s a real person on the other side of this. I feel bad sometimes — my mom reads comments that people leave and I know that she gets upset because she’s my mom and she’s awesome and that’s what you do — but I always look at it like if I think they don’t know better, then I can’t waste any time or energy on them. Like they just don’t know better. And that’s OK; everybody is brought up differently and what people do every single day is far different than what we do. Cool. Just roll on.

But if I think they should know better, sometimes I think about, “What would I want to say?” One day, this guy said, ”You’re fat, you’re stupid, you’re ugly, you shouldn’t be on TV,” whatever else he said. I looked at his profile picture on Twitter and it was him and his daughter in a canoe. And I wrote back and said, “Hey man, I hope no one ever says to your daughter what you said to me, because this will be really hard for you to try to rationalize.” That’s all I said. I didn’t attack him, I didn’t say anything about it, I just said, “Hey, this is gonna be hard, because kids are mean.” And that guy just burned it down. He lost it. “How dare you! How dare you look at my picture!” He goes off on this whole thing. It’s like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You brought this to my doorstep! I just held the mirror up and asked if you liked what you saw.”

And that’s the tough thing. Let’s take NBC. I’m so lucky to work with the people I do and the people who are passionate about this sport. We have a ton of sponsors on every single side. And it’s tough because there are times where you feel like saying something, but I also don’t want to alienate anybody who wants to be a part of this great sport, the things that we’re doing. So sometimes, you just have to bite your tongue because there’s no other side to it, whether it’s people pointing the finger, whatever it is. At the end of the day, you just want to be like, “I love this sport. I think we all do. That’s why we’re here.”

And sometimes we have to remember that people like you, me, anybody who’s on PRN, MRN, every writer, every blogger, everyone who has come inside to be a part of this sport — we are definitely on the inside of the fun, the joy, the experience, everything else. And sometimes there are people who just can’t comprehend how much hard work it took to get here. And that lack of knowledge of understanding how much sacrifice, how much hard work, how many late nights you stay up transcribing a press release or what a driver said after the race, trying to load up your interviews so the fans who support you can see it — those people don’t understand what it took, and they believe that it’s all chance, that we all knew someone, that everything was handed to us.

So when they make comments, they’re coming from this place of confusion and hurt and feeling like, “Well I wanted to be a part of that and nobody found me.” Turns out I’m not related to the Wood Brothers and I’m not related to anybody that runs a network. I’m a guy that loved cars and I found a way to work with cars and TV, which is what I’ve always dreamed of. I’ve got one of my closest friends from college, a guy named Jason Millican, who said that I looked at him senior year in college while studying at the University of Georgia, and said, “I’m gonna get on TV for cars because that’s it. That’s what I love. I want to make people smile.”

For me, I thought I’m either gonna go back to school and be a youth minister — minus my terrible language — or a high school counselor if I can’t make TV work. Because trying to be on TV and make the most people smile was always my dream. That’s what I wanted to do. I felt like that’s what I was supposed to do with my life.

But if I couldn’t do that, then I wanted to have a really positive influence on people and target the time of life where it was always the most important for me. Watching Columbine and the insane amount of guns and stuff happening in school, that’s what breaks my heart the most, because those are the same kids that were at some point a lot like me. They were different, and all of the kids that weren’t different were afraid and they attacked them — just like social media. They went after the square peg that didn’t fit in the round hole.

But it’s really themselves that they’re worried about. It’s (the ones attacking). It has nothing to do with the other kid. And because I had these parents whole told me it’s OK and I should push through and that life is gonna be great, then I didn’t end up going through one of these other paths that so many of the kids end up going down, which is a really dark place.

I think we all have that choice everyday. You can get up and look for sunshine or you can look for clouds. And whichever one it is that you’re looking for, you can find it. So I think at the end of the day, I just try to do my best every day to get up and live my life like that.

And as you know, adulting is hard. Like this stuff is real, the sacrifice that it takes to be out here, to be a part of this. Sometimes (I try to) remember: I’m bringing joy to somebody right now that I don’t know. I’m in someone’s living room and I hope they enjoy learning that Jimmie Johnson has all these amazing layers to him and they’re fun and caring and funny.

And I hope that they know that and think about that, because I might be missing a friend’s wedding, or I might be missing playing the backyard with my kids or whatever it is. But it’s because I believe at the end of the day, it’s all gonna be worth it.

I don’t mean that in terms of financial gains. I know it’s tough in a sport where people have private planes, but you see me flying Southwest or Delta. I’m a Delta guy, but I met somebody on my Southwest flight the other night and they’re like, “What are you doing here? You’re on TV.” I’m not Ryan Seacrest! Like Ryan Seacrest is on TV! The rest of us are just on TV, that’s a totally different thing.

But it’s some of those moments where you get to educate people, like yeah, started from Craigslist, 13 years later I’m lucky to still be a part of this. You think about all the different sides.

You asked one question and this is a 15-minute answer. That’s my bad. But at the end of the day, I think that’s how you gotta do it: Just try to be the best you that you can, and I think at some point the trolls will get tired of not getting a response and they’ll just give up because they’re bored anyway. That’s why this whole thing started, because they were bored.

I guess in the manner of spreading joy and sunshine, how do you do that with individuals who are replying to you? How often do you write back to those people? At one time you would call random people from Twitter. So how much time and energy do you put into those interactions?

I think it’s a hugely important thing for me to do, because all these people that follow me and interact are the same people who watch the shows and help give me ideas. So what I try to do it sort of compartmentalize that as, “This is definitely part of my job,” and I try my best to get back to every person that reaches out. It’s sometimes impossible, and sometimes it will take me months. But I try to get back to Instagram messages, Facebook messages, tweets. I always feel like when I’m at an airport, it’s a great time to do that. If I’m sitting in a hotel room, it’s a great time to do that. I used to try and do it constantly and I realized that the time that it was taking out of me being in the moment, being home and being present with my family was not worth the benefit of that instant gratification for me or the other person.

So I said OK, I have to remember that this is time here (at home), and if I’m out of the house and when I’m out working, then that’s everybody’s time. Because like you, the same people that support me are the same reason that I get to go do it. So I want to try and devote as much time to them for that purpose as I can.

And that’s what Phone Call Friday came out of. My brother-in-law had ridden with me to Charlotte for something (in 2012), and we were coming home and I said, “Man, I wish there was a way that I could call people and just say thank you.” He said, “You should do that. Why don’t you?” It was like, “Oh, I never thought about that, maybe I should.” So I said, “All right, everybody tweet me your phone number and for the next two hours I’ll call as many people as I can.” I did a *67 to block my number because believe it or not, I didn’t want everybody in the world to get my number. But I would just go down the list and just call every single person. And some of them would not pick up, and I love leaving voicemails — it was really fun. But it was just a great interaction, like, “Hey! What are you doing? It’s Rutledge.” And the first half of each call was them being, “No it’s not. It’s not Rutledge.” I’d be like “No, it’s definitely me! What’s up?” “Oh, it is you! Hey!”

In my mind, things like Facebook Live and Periscope do that in a way that feels less intrusive than putting your phone number up. But I wish there was a way that we could say, “Hey, from 2 to 3 I’m gonna video live and pop in and say hi,” and there’s a way to see people back. I would love that sort of iMessage/FaceTime kind of app where people just come in and say hi.

That would be so cool, because those are ultimately the people that guys like you and I — and there’s plenty of females out there, too — that owe our placement of where we are to those people in the sport. So I do think it’s really really important.

I also try to remember that if somebody’s mad about something that I covered or mad because Junior is out of the race, whatever the moment is, it’s not worth it to waste the time on that person when personally you could be spending it on somebody that is asking a real question or wanting to know more. Like, “Hey, I really thought that was neat how you mentioned this thing about Jenna Fryer (in last week’s Social Spotlight). How can I see more of that? I want to learn.”

The stuff we have to keep in mind is, “OK, it’s all about the time we spend and how. So let’s make sure we do it in a good way.”

This is something that sort of drifts away from social media, but I’m really interested in knowing more about your instant warmth toward people. I feel like if people walk up to you and haven’t met you, they could probably give you a hug and it probably wouldn’t be that weird. So through interactions with people on social media or wherever it may be, what is the secret that I could learn or somebody else could learn in their daily life where you are able to express that? What can people do to be more like Rutledge?

That’s a really funny way to put that. First off, thanks, because I really appreciate the kind words. I think at the end of the day what you’re saying is, you enjoy the way that I love. And for me, the way I love people and share love and show love and express love is — not in a weird way — a pretty physical manner. I just think the world is a better place with a little more love. So when I see people, old friends — whether it’s (Jimmie Johnson spotter) Earl Barban, who many not look like a great hugger on the outside and may not seem like that kind of guy, or if it’s Clint Bowyer, I’ll hug whoever. I’ll let my friends know that I’m a hugger.

It’s funny, some of the things we talk about sometimes with family and friends. They’re like, “Why are you such a hugger?” I definitely think that if people aren’t into hugging and aren’t into expressing warmth and stuff like that in that way, I’m in no way implying that that means there’s something wrong or they aren’t built like everybody else. Like I’ve got some friends that are really uncomfortable when I try to hug them. I’m always like, “Just let me get it out of the way — just one good hug and we’ll just roll on.” And that’s just part of it.

I’m certainly not perfect, but I try to be real comfortable with myself because if I feel like I’m getting up every day and I’m trying to do the best I can with all of the things that this world has to throw in your face every day, if I can just get up and try to get the best job I can, I’m doing something right. And so I’m almost always real comfortable with that side of my life.

And look, we all have good days and we all have bad, but a hug can change that. You can have a bad day, and someone can see that in your eyes or in your face or whatever, and come up and give you a good squeeze and you can literally feel like that tension and that anger just be completely wiped away through one single little interaction there.

So yeah, race fans will see me — and it could be out in the garage, it could be in the campgrounds, it could be in the airport — and be like, “Can I just give you a hug?” Yeah! I’d love a hug! Yeah, let’s hug it out, because it’s this one moment that can change so much in a person’s day, and whether you see it or not, it has a very real effect.

My two oldest girls will get off the bus and they come running to me, and it is hug central. There is nothing that makes me feel better in the world than moments like that. But I do think that in a crazy world that we live in now, love is what has changed in the world. From colonial days — pick any time period to now — it’s harder to love people. We’ve created this great technology that does all these things, but all it does is put these constant restraints on your heart, on your time, on your placement with everything else.

I am most attracted to people who love like that, who can just be immediately warm and open and it creates great friendships. I think that’s honestly one of the reasons why Kyle Petty is one of the closest friends I have in the world, and I hug him almost every time I see him. I called him earlier and he’s not flying up until tomorrow, and I was like, “Aw, alright. Well I can’t wait to see you tomorrow.” And I know when I see him, I’m gonna give him a hug. And when I leave the track on Sunday, if we’re not on stage and one of us is running for an airplane or whatever, it’s always a hug and “I love you” because that’s really important.

So often we just miss those little opportunities to say something when you have the chance. If the last thing people remember is, “Man, he gave me a really good hug when I saw him,” that’s a really cool thing to leave people with. It’s kind of that How Full Is Your Bucket? kids book that was always about if you say something nice, if you give someone else a compliment, it will make them feel better and it’ll put a drop in your bucket.

I think hugs are a great way to do that — but I think high-fives are, too, or smiles, or sometimes I’ll just shout your name. Like when I see you in the garage, sometimes I’m just gonna shout, “Jeff! HEY!” I think that’s fun. People need it. But I think at the end of the day, they’re all just different ways to show enthusiasm and fun for life.

Because let’s be honest man, there’s some hard stuff out there. The more that we grow, the more that we learn, we’re also constantly faced with the things that are not what we thought, and they are way more difficult. And there are people with huge fights out there, and if we can put our best foot forward and be those people that we wanna be, it will make their day better.

At the end of the day, that’s what I strive for: What can I do to make that person (happy) who is sitting on the couch who doesn’t have a ton to be pumped about this week? They’ve got a 50-hour work week, they’re barely getting by, the car hopefully starts every day they go to work. And they’re just laying there and watching this moment. If I can bring a smile to them by something that I’m doing or sharing, and if you can bring a smile to them because they go, “Oh my gosh, I want to learn more about my favorite driver. This is great, I love this angle,” then we are making a difference. And at the end of the day, that’s all everybody really wants to do. I just want to make a difference.

With this new food show that I have (Southern and Hungry), that’s been such a cool thing to see. So many race fans and Top Gear fans and people who really watch food shows and all those cooking channels, so many of them are the same people because they’re all the people that love. The reason why people like to go out and eat and love to do stuff like that is because they’re sharing with someone. That’s a moment of joy. The reason why people love to go to races together are because it’s with their friends, and they’re gonna go tailgate and they’re gonna watch people literally ride around in circles.

We are not saving the world, but we’re doing something really fun because this sport — like every other sport in the world — is a form of entertainment. We are taking our minds off of the very real things that lurk in the back of our heads all the time and we’re taking time away from that to live and to have fun, express joy and do all these things together as a group. So at the end of the day, if a hug is something that can change another person’s day, then I want to be that person who is first in line to give it out.

That’s not everybody’s cup of tea and it doesn’t have to do with me. It’s OK. If you’re a hugger and you need a hug, tell somebody. And if you’re not a hugger and you need a hug, then you should tell somebody. You’ll feel a lot better if you do. Or just throw a high-five out there.

But I’ve also learned in my life it’s not a weakness in saying that you need help with anything. If it’s, “Hey, I could really use a ride to the airport” or “Hey, I could use somebody to go to dinner with,” whatever it is, it’s truly a sign of strength.

And I’m telling you, there have been days where a person has come up and hugged me or I’ve seen someone else hug another person and change an entire week, a weekend, a moment in time, whatever it is, because of one action — and that’s a hug. So don’t be afraid to hug it out, people.

This is awesome. Well, where can somebody send you virtual hugs? You’re on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram — I know you dabbled in Snapchat at times. Where are all the places people can they find you?

Not Snapchat. I’m not a hater, but I went to school for marketing and it goes against everything I believe. If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth being around and people sharing it. I get why a lot of the younger folks like this whole idea, but you know what, let’s just send some real hugs. Let’s put a picture up on Instagram, let’s put it on Facebook, I’m on all of those. It’s just @RutledgeWood.

My new show comes out Oct. 9th on the Cooking Channel. It’s called Southern and Hungry, because anywhere I go, I am in fact Southern and hungry. It’s Damaris Phillips and I. I hope you’ll check it out, tell me what you think.

And of course, you can see me every week on NASCAR on NBC.

Adam Ferrara, Tanner Foust and I are gonna get the (Top Gear) band back together and go make some fun car show, and I can’t wait to tell you where that’s gonna be and when. We’re working very hard on that.

And I’m going to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February. And if people want to send virtual hugs, just know that I’m just a little bit nervous, like a pinch Idiot Abroad meets a pinch of nervous about global war, and it’s really hard for me to be away from my family that long.

So that’s me in a nutshell. Just a guy who’s just hustling to make sure his wife and daughters can have a lot of fun and a roof over their heads and scooters under their feet. And bicycles.

But thanks for letting me do this, it was really fun. I thought it was gonna be a 10-minute thing and we’ve been hanging for half an hour, so thanks for listening. You guys are awesome out there! And if you ever see me at a racetrack, say hi. And if you have to shout, it’s probably because I have earphones in and I’m listening to a producer in a truck tell me what they think I should go do next. So if I don’t hear you, it’s no offense, OK? Let’s hug it out.

This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. Thanks to Dover for sponsoring the Social Spotlight interviews for the past few months. It’s not too late to go, so here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).

12 Replies to “Social Spotlight with Rutledge Wood”

  1. I absolutely love Rut!!! Top notch guy in my book. Not sure what year early into his SPEED days I think…Yelled across the midway at Richmond to him…he waved and I ran him down to get his autograph on my ticket. Thought it was the coolest thing ever. He was same guy I’d been seeing on TV.

    Great article “Employee”! Keep up the great work. Annual reviews are due soon. ; ) See ya this weekend at Dover Jeff!!!

  2. The sound of his voice is just pure joy. Whether on TV or podcast you can hear it come bursting thru like ???? & ???? Here you go Jeff & Rut #HugItOut ????????????????

  3. This definitely ranks as one of my favorite spotlight interviews! I’ve been a Rut fan since his early days on Speed, being his goofy, silly self on the stage! He is absolutely a fan favorite! #HugItOut Rut!!!

  4. Ladies and Gentlemen…. meet the real Rutledge Wood. Oh wait…. yup…. he’s the good old guy you’ve seen all along.

    He even thinks he is who we think he is.

    Here ya go Rut………… [[[{{{((( ))))}}}]]] [[[{{{((( ))))}}}]]] [[[{{{((( ))))}}}]]]

  5. I liked you the first time I saw you covering NASCAR. Your a real cool dude. I think you would do a great job at hosting the NASCAR banquet. NASCAR wake up and think about that one!

  6. My first podcast listen! Couldn’t think of a better subject. Thank you for featuring Rut. Those of us in the broadcast biz have always known what a great guy he is. Glad he got to share it with your listeners. 🙂

  7. My friend and I got to meet up with Rut and Kyle Petty in 2009 when they did a Ponytail Express ride to Michigan from NC. After tweeting with Kyle we met them on the side of the road in WV and it was honestly right up there with the best times of my life. They pulled over and we stood and talked for probably a half hour, took pictures on everybody’s phones, and got one of the above-mentioned hugs from Rut and Kyle. Rut even gave us a bag of Skittles because “I don’t have anything else to give you!” Autographed of course. I still smile when I think of it or look at my pictures. He is the real deal! Thanks for the memories!

  8. I love Rut. Thank you so much for covering him. There’s people that love to hate on the guy but that drives me up the wall. You can tell he’s a very genuine person even when he’s presenting on TV.

  9. Thank you, Jeff, for this interview. You and Rut are two of the best representatives of my favorite sport! I hope one day to meet Rut and get one of those patented hugs, and it has been far too long since you and I ran into each other at Daytona and shared a hug! Five years. Wow!

    I almost started my winter travels with stops in Vancouver, WA and Portland. Maybe next year. ????

  10. Thank you, Jeff, for this interview. You and Rut are two of the best representatives of my favorite sport! I hope one day to meet Rut and get one of those patented hugs, and it has been far too long since you and I ran into each other at Daytona and shared a hug! Five years. Wow!

    I almost started my winter travels with stops in Vancouver, WA and Portland. Maybe next year. ????

    App keeps saying I already said that. I didn’t. LOL Try again

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