BBC's 'Top Gear' hits the road in Southern California
All of these elements are present when the American version of "Top Gear," still produced by the BBC, launches on History on Sunday, Nov. 21.
It's the third attempt (following ones on Discovery Channel and NBC) to translate "Top Gear" to a U.S. audience, and a visit to the main set and test track at a former military base in Southern California shows that it's still "Top Gear," albeit with a distinctly American accent.
The hosts are California-based pro racing driver Tanner Foust; actor, comedian and muscle-car fanatic Adam Ferrara ("Rescue Me") from New York's Long Island; and Rutledge Wood, an Alabama-born, plaid-wearing automotive and racing analyst.
On an overcast, chilly day, the first celebrity to hit the test track is TV and movie star Tim Allen, who also has a background in racing Ford Mustangs.
"The Suzuki is not built for this," he says of the little red SX4 hatchback he was driving. "They throw on a few pieces so it does some parts of it better, brake or turn, but you get into the Lotus or the cars that actually come from a lineage of racing, and it's quite spectacular."
Next up after Allen is rock musician Bret Michaels, who describes himself as an "old-school, true gearhead."
He's just happy as long as he gets to go fast. "A bad day in a car, on a track like this," he says, "this is a good day to me."
The little Suzuki has actually surprised some folks, including Wood, who says, "You know what, that's a fun car to drive. It's not about finding a crappy car; it's about finding a cheap car that people can afford and can actually see on the streets."
Rounding out the cast is the U.S. version of the U.K.'s "tame racing driver," the Stig, who never takes off his white racing suit and white helmet with reflective visor. It's his job to train the celebrities and to take the supercars out on the test track.
The stunts are usually left to the hosts, whether it's Ferrara pretending to be a moonshiner fleeing from the revenuers and roaring an ancient Cadillac over a rutted roller coaster of a road, or Foust plowing a Mitsubishi Evo sports sedan down a ski slope.
After all this, the three come back together in the studio -- a converted airplane hangar -- to reminisce and share with the audience (which doesn't get to sit, another unusual "Top Gear" tradition).
"It's like having a very, very cool summer," Foust says, "except you had 30 of your friends, who know how to light and film and produce an amazing recap of the summer."
"Top Gear" even ventures into newer technologies, but don't expect to see a Toyota Prius squealing its wheels.
"There can be a combination of gas and electric," Foust says, "to make supercars even more super."
"Super supercars," Ferrara says, "which are supercars that can fight crime."
This may give Ferrara a chance to live down his auto past.
"I had an '81 Dodge Aries K-car," he says.
As to whether he lost women because of this, Ferrara says, "You don't get women because of that, so there's no way you can lose them."
"Rutledge had a Volkswagen four-speed pickup truck, diesel," says Foust, "so I think he had more women problems than you did."