On Monday, October 18th 2010, Michael Harley and I had the opportunity to attend a taping of an episode of the upcoming Top Gear USA series. As we all know by now, the show is a new version of the BBC original and as a huge fan of that show, my expectations were set to "neutral" for the American spin-off. Harley and I entered an old airplane hangar located on the former El Toro Marine Base in Irvine, California and were immediately impressed by what we saw.
Hit the jump for our impressions.
The Top Gear set is a cool site to behold, but not entirely original. Two older vehicles, clearly used in some sort of challenge, were parked in between a few supercars. Outside of the hanger our eyes quickly focused on a souped-up pickup truck, a handful of high-end sports cars and a few other random vehicles.
Once the audience settled in around the stage, we were greeted by Richard Porter, head writer for the British version. He told us to be patient with this new show because, quite frankly, the first few seasons of the original Top Gear were "total s#*t." He went on to say he was instantly impressed with what Top Gear USA has managed in a very short amount of time.
Up next we got to hear from the three hosts: Tanner Foust, Adam Ferrara and Rutledge Wood. Most automotive fans know Tanner, and he plays the straight man of the group. Rutledge Wood covers NASCAR for Speed Channel and is a Southern native. Strangely enough, he seems to prefer foreign project cars (such as the VW diesel pickup he once owned and a 1983 Honda Civic wagon he plans to rebuild). Ferrara is a comedian whose work is most prominently seen on the television show Rescue Me. He came off as quick-witted and managed some pretty good laughs from the crowd, crew and other hosts. The trio has already developed a solid chemistry and were perpetually joking with each other when the cameras weren't rolling. More importantly, they're not trying to mimic the roles of Clarkson, May and Hammond. All three have their own personalities, which came through loud and clear during off-camera discussions and interactions with the audience, including a few pokes at whoever parked a Prius in the lot outside.
The American version has all the elements that we love so much with the original Top Gear. The reviews are highly-stylized and the result is pure automotive pornography. But more importantly, these three are real car guys enjoying amazing machines. Besides the usual supercar fun, the show features ridiculous challenges which produce equally ridiculous results and lots of laughs. Having signed my life away, I can't divulge what I saw them doing, but some aspects should be familiar to longtime fans while other elements are totally new. And of course, the Stig is there as well, showing celebrities how to handle the track in a Suzuki SX4.
People were quick to bash the idea of a Top Gear USA when the show was first announced, and while we understand the knee-jerk reaction (particularly after seeing the detritus shoveled out by Russian and Australia), this Americanized show shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. There's room for two top-notch automotive entertainment shows, and while the British version will always be number one in my heart, I'll completely embrace Top Gear USA on the History Channel with open arms when it airs at the end of November.
Many people have developed strikingly strong opinions about Top Gear USA – even before the first episode hits the screen. Interested in digesting the show on my own, I joined Jeff and attended the taping at the old El Toro airfield in Southern California. After five hours, I left impressed.
Like Jeff, I signed a wicked NDA, so all I can report is that the show is fast-paced, interesting and there's solid chemistry among the three hosts (who seemed to genuinely enjoy each other's company as they pulled pranks on each other during taping and when the cameras were off). The vehicles in the spotlight will appeal to both hardcore enthusiasts and those who are more interested in the various automotive antics dreamt up by the show's production team (most original and a few we've seen before). While there's plenty of humor, most of it comes at the expense of one of the hosts – often through the destruction of something mechanical.
Top Gear USA mirrors many aspects of the original show, and it's very entertaining, but as expected, this isn't the original Top Gear. The new show is American and we have our own unique perspectives and odd senses of humor. That said, don't hold your breath waiting for a witty Clarkson comment... just sit back and enjoy. I did.
- Michael Harley