People - October 2005

He doesn't like races profiling his channel
By Joe Rauch

For Hunter Nickell, it all came back to cars. He was born in Detroit, the center of the U.S. automotive-manufacturing universe. Now he’s executive vice president and general manager of Speed Channel in Charlotte, a city that claims to be the center of the racing universe.

In June, Nickell, 49, replaced Jim Liberatore, who had been in charge since Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought the cable channel in 2001 and moved it from Connecticut. That’s the same year that the Fox network, another News Corp. property, began broadcasting NASCAR races. But Nickell bristles at the suggestion that Speed Channel only covers stock-car racing. “We’ve got everything from Grand Prix motorcycle racing to car-restoration programming. We’re a lifestyle channel.”

Speed Channel is available in about 63.4 million households in the United States. It does not disclose annual revenue, widely estimated to exceed $200 million. Nickell has negotiated a deal to carry another motorcycle series and is working on renewing the channel’s deal to show Formula One races.

His father worked in sales and management for vendors to Detroit’s Big Three, giving Nickell a childhood opportunity to fall in love with cars. “I’m not an automotive enthusiast in the traditional sense. I don’t collect cars, but I’ve always been around them and always been continually amazed by them.” He has stayed loyal to Detroit: He drives a black 2004 Chevrolet Impala.

When he really wants to relax, he has found a new outlet: fly-fishing. “You concentrate so much on what you’re doing when you’re out in the river that everything else just melts away.” His first sports passion was hockey. “I fell in love with the speed of the game.” After getting a bachelor’s in mass communications in 1978 from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, he took a job coaching hockey and teaching English at Kents Hill, a Maine boarding school.

In 1983, he took a job in sales and marketing for cable network HBO in New York City. In 1990, he joined the staff that launched Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting’s SportSouth, a regional sports channel. He started in sales and marketing. In 1993, he moved to operations. “Everyone was young and full of energy, and it was an idea that really hadn’t been tried before.”

SportSouth was sold to a News Corp. division in 1996 and renamed Fox Sports South. Nickell eventually became senior vice president and general manager. But the opportunity to be involved in expanding another channel was too tempting. “I saw all the same components of that 1990 startup here in Speed Channel, and that excited me.”