I'm crouched in the footwell of an Aston Martin V12 Vantage hammering across a dry lakebed at 140 mph, wondering why I'm not a Top Gear presenter, which, I can now confirm, is the greatest job... in the world.
(Full Disclosure: Nothing to disclose. This wasn't a junket. We paid for our own trip out here in August and I slept on a friend's fold-out couch. A nice lady from the BBC did drive me out to the desert and the crew fed me Red Vines, but it takes more than that to sway me. It takes Twizzlers. Oh, and this story's full of spoilers.)
If there's one overwhelming concept to understand about the U.S. version of Top Gear it's not that Jeremy Clarkson and wünderproducer Andy Wilman review the footage, or that a Brit with a biting sense of humor helms the production. It has nothing to do with a crew experienced working on episodes of the original Top Gear or, after exhaustive questioning, that it turns out the occasionally pink tuxedoed Rutledge Wood is a car guy of amusingly diverse tastes.
The one thing you absolutely must know is they really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, don't want you to hate them.
Like the popular high school cheerleader who transfers to a new school senior year, they are almost pathological in their determination to prove they belong at the cool kids table. A curious pursuit when you consider, in this metaphor, the table is filled with lame pretenders (buff book shows) and one polite, but increasingly senile music teacher (MotorWeek).
Whether this translates into a good show, worthy of the mantle of Top Gear, is for you to judge. I spent one day in the desert with the crew, one of the hosts, and two Aston Martins. It felt like an episode of Top Gear, it looked like an episode of Top Gear, but was it? It's the only thing I can't tell you. Below is an exhaustive list of things I can tell you.
Getting blown on the set
In the lexicon of the show, what I saw was a "Power Test." This is one or two cars, one host, and a number of high-speed runs. This is differentiated from an "Action Film" because the host isn't storming a beach, and a "Challenge" because it's not racing a helicopter.
As you'll see in Episode #2, airing this Sunday on HIstory, it was the Aston Martin V8 Vantage and V12 Vantage on a dry lake bed approximately two hours north of Los Angeles. Being both summer and a desert, it was hot and dry and sunny. Temperatures were already climbing above 110 by noon. The cracked surface looked the skin of a large, deceased reptile or maybe Mickey Rourke's forehead.
When I first approached set the camera truck, a truly wicked black AMG M-Class with a giant boom mounted on top, was out chasing Wood in the distance with the red V8 as he recorded the in-car commentary, much of which is scripted ahead of time by the writers and presenters, requiring the hosts to attempt to make canned comments seem fresh and spontaneous.
I drove out three-quarters of a mile into the flattest portion in a Suburban to join a camera crew waiting in case Wood decided to drive by. This was mostly useless because he only drove by once, but the show requires an enormous amount of b-roll (background footage) and daylight is a finite resource. With little to see we return to base camp about two miles away.
When the V8 joins us it's caked in the salty dust, which sticks to my recently suntan-lotoined face and causes me to tear up a bit. These tears aren't for the car which, unlike most Astons I imagine, was able to roam free at least for a bit. Compared to the V12, the V8 looks plain, but the veneer of dirt makes it look like what I imagine Christina Hendricks would after a thorough roll in the same dirt.
Now that I've written this it's hard to imagine much of anything else. Ahem.
The car's moved away while a crew rushes to polish and clean the V12 for the "beauty shots" you often see with the car standing stationary and the camera panning back-and-forth rapidly with flashes of light and focus. It's the clearest indication yet this will carry the same aesthetic of the original, albeit in the kind of sunny and sparse background Jeremy Clarkson has to endure jet lag to enjoy.
Some poor production assistant tosses a leaf blower on his back and walks towards the red Aston to remove the dusting. The charmingly blunt producer John Helsing makes a joke along the lines of the car being the only one on set getting blown, although I get the impression the V8 car won't get the same treatment in the final cut.
The PA removes the dust on one side and then goes to the other, only to have the dust underneath the car blow back onto the side he just cleaned. Four years of film school for this?
This cleaning break gives me a chance to talk with Wood who, in his soon-to-be trademark plaid, lumbers over with a smile and a handshake.
In which I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about Bricklins
The one glimmer of hope in Wood's bio, which has raised a lot of questions among those not in love with the NASCAR scene, is his amazing history of car ownership. In just a few short years he's accumulated old Bricklins and new Subarus, a tiny diesel Rabbit and a giant Toyota Tundra.
His current garage lineup is equally eclectic, including a 1953 Plymouth Suburban two-door wagon, which is either going to the paint shop or being traded. For what would you trade such a cool vehicle?
"[I] may trade it to Kyle Petty for his '69 Charger that he drove in High School (it's bad ass)," Wood told me.
There's also a 1970 Datsun 521 Ratrod featuring the original 1600 Nissan J Engine with a new head, four-speed transmission, disc brake kit, custom tractor seats, and a gingham tablecloth interior. The hope is to do an S2000 or SR20DET swap in the future if he has the time.
My favorite vehicle, and the one we spend the most time talking about, is his 1983 Honda Civic Wagon. It'll get a B18 non-VTEC swap from a 1996 Integra, Magnaflo exhaust, and a KiddRacing header if they can make it fit. Aesthetically, it'll get a tank green color offered on the Nissan Xterra, 80s-style mesh rims, VW MK1 front duckbill spoiler, GTi Recaros, Hella lights across the front, and custom LED taillights by Cosmic LED he promises will be "tasteful, not stupid." The best part? A Nardi Classic wood steering wheel.
We get our food, Wood pauses to pray, and I look off in the distance at a giant wall of rain. This will be fun.
This Is Cool
The safety crew out here for the day walks towards the craft services table and snags a giant fistful of Red Vines. I inquire as to why and they point at the storm in the distance. What starts out as a small cloud turns into a raging sandstorm.
I begin talking to Helsing, inexplicably wearing an Atlanta Air Exchange hat, about his goals for his season and he's talking about production values and making something "really quality" and behind him the apocalypse begins to crest. The tents have to be taken down. Anything that can fly away is quickly secured. Helsing yells to a crew member to "grab a camera." Why waste a sandstorm?
A camera crew and the set photographer haul ass to get a shot of the car being enveloped in sand. You couldn't stage this any better. I get some shots, too.
Following the wind is the rain storm, and following that is the fun part: beating on a V12-powered car in the desert. I hop into the passenger seat with Wood after all the cameras get setup. In his plaid shirt he looks comically out of place in what's accurately described as a Saville Row suit you drive.
"Ready?" Wood asks.
"Hell yes," I respond.
We head out deep into the dry lakebed and the director asks us to make a high-speed "swooping left" between two camera cars spaced 20 feet apart for a cool close-up shot.
"Go through the middle of the cameras and the cars?" Wood asks bemusedly.
"Correct, look for the Suburban and my Audi, make a sweeping turn, hug your right, and then make a long left, and then hammer through the middle," says the director calmly.
"Okay, sounds good... This is where it gets crazy"
To quote Richard Hammond: "If you're watching this and thinking this is cool. It is."
It turns out 100 mph is fast enough because we come uncomfortably close to the camera man as he cuts the wheel and Wood lifts off the throttle a little too quickly, sending the rear winding out as we throw up a giant rooster tail. Afterwards, Wood gets on the radio asks if that was the right way to approach the turn.
"Yeah... you're trying to be Tanner, aren't you" the director chastises.
Unfortunately, the cool factor — and any pretense of comfort — started to diminish as soon as a call came out over the radio asking me to duck down in the footwell of the Vantage. Not sure if you've been inside one of these cars, but whatever you're picturing in terms of space is being overly generous.
We do this trick and other shots over-and-over-and-over-and-over again, both out of veracity (technically, Wood's reviewing the car) and because it's freaking awesome to lean on a rare supercar with no cops in sight. Drive this way. Drive that way. Drive fast. Drive slow.
You'd think it would be tedious, but it's still a trip driving in a place with such a prehistoric feel in an Aston Martin, Plus, Wood's nothing if not affable. With his giant head he's like a PEZ dispenser, but instead of spitting out chalky tasteless pellets he's sharing humorous observations about the car. The camera's rolling the entire time and I think some of it ended up in the final cut.
At the end of one shot Wood floors it and starts calling out the speed — "110, 120, 130!" — as we accelerate into the desert. I don't care if they're filming, I pop my head out and enjoy the rush. It feels like a Top Gear moment.
As the light begins to fade, they setup for one final shot with another driver in the red V8 Vantage. I hop out of the V12 and stand in a line behind the camera man with the nice lady from the BBC as the two cars fly by us at high speed. I don't want to go, but they politely drag me from the set and toss me in a Prius.
The wind picks up, the windscreen of the Toyota fills with dust, and the driver realizes he can't see base camp. The high of being in the middle of nowhere, on camera, in a rare British supercar's quickly killed by the thought that I'm lost in a God damn hybrid.
The episode where you might see Matt's hair poking out from the window of a V12 Vantage airs this Sunday at 10/9 pm central on History.