Sandy Payton says how she spun the wheel may have given her an edge.

Carol Kaelson

When Sandy Payton received an invitation to audition for the game show “Wheel of Fortune” at Casino del Sol in March, she didn’t waste time in preparing.

The 52-year-old kindergarten teacher hit Barnes & Noble to pick up hangman-themed brain-game books and combed the internet for websites and former contestant blogs offering tips and tricks for the audition process.

Add to that a talent for word games and a natural enthusiasm for a show that she has watched since the 1980s and it’s no surprise that Payton was chosen to be a contestant on the long-running series.

The Tucson resident killed it in the audition process, zipping through timed written tests, solving projected puzzles with speed and accuracy, even nailing a mock wheel-spinning exercise.

“People were putting their arm out and pushing it gently,” said Payton, a teacher at Sewell Elementary School.

“When I went up, I leaned way over and pretended to really grab that wheel. I pushed it hard and did a follow-through. It was much more realistic. I felt it gave me an edge.”

Payton was chosen that same day to appear on the show. Her episode airs on KGUN 9 today at 6:30 p.m.

Payton is sworn to secrecy on how well she did during her taping.

But she remembers the behind-the-scenes moments she experienced vividly.

The studio was much smaller than she had anticipated, and when letter-turning veteran Vanna White came out to greet the contestants at the beginning of the day, she looked “very ordinary,” without her makeup on, Payton said.

Payton was in the last group to film — “Wheel of Fortune” films six episodes at a time — so she spent most of her day in the audience, where non-contestants were forbidden to speak with players.

“If they spoke to you, it would jeopardize your eligibility to play the game,” Payton said. “A couple of people tried. I ignored them.”

When Payton finally stepped in front of the cameras, she said her biggest surprise came when she went to take her first spin.

“The wheel looks like it is spinning on television, but you are lucky to get anywhere near a full rotation,” she said.

“Even (host) Pat (Sajak) doesn’t give it a full rotation.”

Payton said, regardless of any delays or surprises, she was happy with her experience on “Wheel.”

“I was not feigning any enthusiasm,” she said. “I was excited and it showed.”

Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at ggay@tucson.com or 573-4679.