A few years into his television career, Rutledge Wood met with some executives to discuss new opportunities.
By then, Wood (BBA ’02) had been grinding away as an on-air NASCAR analyst nearly every weekend for several years running. And he’d recently gotten a big break starring in the U.S. version of the car show Top Gear, which aired on the History Channel.
With his trademark beard, horn-rimmed glasses, and dressed-down persona, Wood even occasionally found himself recognized in public. Television producers were taking notice too.
Wood, then mostly known for being a car enthusiast, was looking to branch out.
“I can go anywhere and talk to anyone about anything,” Wood proclaimed to the executives.
And what couldn’t he do?
“I can’t tuck in my shirt and wear khakis.”
It was an off-the-cuff but honest answer. Rutledge being Rutledge.
The executives started laughing, and that’s when he realized they were wearing khakis with their shirts in.
Fortunately, Wood found a career where just being himself is a path to success.
In addition to appearing in Top Gear and covering NASCAR for Fox and NBC, Wood has hosted a handful of other cooking and car-themed shows. But his most popular project to date is hosting three seasons of the Netflix sleeper hit Floor is Lava.
Wood’s latest project is hosting Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge, which premieres on NBC on May 30. The car makeover competition show allows contestants to create life-size Hot Wheels cars—as in the miniature Mattel toy hot rods—out of ordinary vehicles. The prize: Hot Wheels will make an official die-cast from the winner’s vehicle.
Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge is tailor-made for Wood, whose earliest memories include playing with toy Hot Wheels.
Wood grew up in Alabama and moved to Peachtree City in high school. His love of cars stuck. As he got older, Wood learned how to tinker with and fix up old cars and vehicles, which he still does today; about seven or eight cars are in his driveway in Peachtree City, not counting what’s parked in the garage or barn.
Wood attended the University of Georgia and studied marketing. There, he found ways to incorporate automobiles into his studies.
Wood once bought an old gas-powered scooter at a party. He took it home and gave it a loud, multi-colored paint job, adding “Stud Muffin” to the back.
He got it in his mind to include the scooter in a group presentation for a class. It was a 300-student marketing course taught by Tom McPeak on the basement floor of Brooks Hall.
“I don’t even remember what the project was, but I convinced the team this is the perfect thing. We need this scooter to be part of it,” Wood says. After driving the wobbly scooter down College Station Road and bringing it into the business school, it was finally time for the Stud Muffin’s big moment.
“I fired it up in the hallway and rode it into class.”
The students loved it, Wood says … that is until the smell of gas fumes started filling the classroom and hallway.
“It had no business being in there,” Wood admits with a chuckle, “but boy, it sure was fun.”
After graduation, Wood’s career took plenty of turns. He went from mobile marketing at Country Music Television to a sales job at Hertz to a couple of gigs in radio and karaoke in metro Atlanta.
Thanks to a Craigslist posting, Wood landed a job on the cable and satellite channel Speed. Though he started behind the camera in marketing roles, Wood eventually talked himself into an on-camera role covering NASCAR.
Riding a Hot Streak
Wood got a new opportunity when producers of the classic British car show Top Gear wanted to bring the franchise to the U.S. But he almost botched his chance.
Wood took a phone call from a woman going by Celia Converse from the Central Booking Agency. She said she wanted to talk to him about a show with the BBC.
An avid prank caller in his youth, Wood thought it all sounded fishy.
“I was like, ‘Central Booking Agency, better get a better name than that,’” Wood says. “And I hung up.”
Of course, the call was legitimate, and, fortunately, she called him back and gracefully gave Wood another chance.
With Top Gear came opportunities to star in other non-scripted shows, including Lost in Transmission, Southern and Hungry, and The American Barbecue Showdown.
Based on the name alone, Wood also agreed to host Floor is Lava for Netflix.
That show premiered Father’s Day weekend in 2020, as many summer camps and family vacations were canceled because of the pandemic. The show immediately found an audience with kids and their parents craving low-stakes adventure and belly laughs.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Floor is Lava takes inspiration from the rainy-day household game that bored kids have concocted for generations. All it takes to play is leaping from couches and pillows to armchairs and ottomans, trying not to touch the ground because, in this game, it’s not carpet or wood anymore. It’s lava.
The show turns that activity into a larger-than-life obstacle course made from props that look like household furniture and knick-knacks and a floor made of a steamy red, bubbly liquid that looks an awful lot like lava.
As adult contestants struggle through the course—slipping on, banging into, and barreling off obstacles—Wood provides a steady stream of commentary, encouraging contestants while injecting the kind of corny quips that either make you groan or snort with laughter.
Like when first-season contestant Dan Debevec, a high school math teacher wearing a t-shirt with the “pi” symbol, missed the landing and banged into a prop boulder, Wood quipped, “Oh, Dan totally miscalculated that jump.” He waited a beat before adding, “Ironic.”
The show struck a nerve. Floor is Lava appeared as Netflix’s top-watched show for 13 straight days. And Netflix renewed the show for two more seasons.
“And I’m just there cracking dad jokes and being silly,” he says. “It just blew my mind.”
Wood hopes Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge, which combines his love of cars with his passion for telling people’s stories, will make a similar connection with audiences.
Because whether it’s riding a scooter into a classroom, watching adults play out a childhood game, or helping someone build their dream car, Wood just wants to make people happy. It’s why he got into TV to begin with.
“I felt like it was the best way to make the most people smile at once,” he says.
It also helps that he gets to do it all without tucking in his shirt.