After spinning its wheels in development for years, Top Gear is finally headed to the U.S. (the show premieres this weekend on The History Channel). Adapting a British series for American audiences is always tricky, but this isn't just any ol' show. This is Top Gear, a wildly popular car enthusiast show that's a favorite of anyone with a passion for all things with wheels.
The hardest thing to replicate about the original version of Top Gear will be the show's magnetic presentation style—handled in the U.K. by the venerable Jeremy Clarkson, the boyishly enthusiastic Richard Hammond, and the everyman James May. But that tall task has now been handed over to a trio of hosts for the U.S. version: comedian and actor Adam Ferrera (Rescue Me), pro racer Tanner Foust, and racing analyst Rutledge Wood.
We caught up with them while they took a break from crashing cars to talk about the new show.
TV.com: How are you "Americanizing" Top Gear?
Tanner Foust: First of all, the cars. There's a unique car culture in the States. It's unlike everything. It's a huge car culture. The F150, the best-selling vehicle in the world, is sold in the U.S. Pick-up trucks [are] a phenomenon that we own in the states. We have big-liter cars, cars with 8.5 liters, like Vipers. Whereas the rest of the world, the two-liter version is the high performance version. The cars are so different, it's cool to celebrate a loud V8 on the show, and on the U.K. show that would be admonished or not necessarily seen as the coolest thing.
What parts of the U.K. format are you keeping?
Rutledge: BBC Worldwide Productions and History Channel came together on this one, so some of the same great producers who worked on the U.K. show worked on this one. Visually, it's going to be another great-looking show. It's shot in a hangar, so it's a similar look, but still our own. The biggest difference is that we are the three guys who are ourselves. We didn't try and fit into any roles and [the producers] didn't try to have us meet those three roles, because they knew it would be a massive disaster. The three of us are just three guys who love cars and come from different sides. Tanner has spent a lot of time with exotic cars, and Adam has always had a love for muscle cars.
The U.K. hosts all have their own personalities: Jeremy Clarkson is the brash one, James May is the quiet one, and I guess that makes Richard Hammond the cute one. Or the short one. Do you three follow a similar pattern? How would you describe each other?
Tanner: What was a worry for us and fans of the U.K. show was that we were going to try and copy the roles of the British hosts, and that just hasn't happened. We're all allowed to be ourselves and have a good time with it. All three of us are naturally competitive, like every male is, so we go out and do the challenges and try and win. I think our defining characteristics have broken down by how we drive. Rutledge drives with one hand on the roof and the other palming the wheel, Adam drives angry. We have a good time with it, and it's been a successful format, and that's essentially the only thing that has transferred over.
At this point, we hear a rousing voice shout "Pope Benedict!" followed by a smooth computerized voice uttering, "has joined the conference." It can only mean that Adam Ferrara has dialed in.
Rutledge: Hello, Pope. Nice to have you with us.
Adam Ferrara: Bless you all!
Top Gear is known for its awesome challenges. What can we expect this season?
Adam: Rutledge's nervous stomach.
Tanner: Rutledge is looking at some kind of record. I think it's seven times out of 10 episodes that Rutledge has thrown up.
Rutledge: That's not entirely true, Tim, don't listen to these jerks. Off-camera doesn't count. We had a lot of fun challenges. One of the ones you'll see, to follow the early ages of NASCAR, was to do some moonshine running for four or five days in the backwoods of North Carolina. You'll definitely get to see my strong stomach in that one. Tanner raced a couple skiers on a ski slope in a [Lancer] Evo that was totally stock, and he just ripped it up. Watching Adam, who has never driven on grass before, in a truck in Alaska was something just made my heart happy.
Adam: Oh god. I was in a '76 Ford F250 with no power steering, very little shock absorbers left, and no hope. I turned that thing for three days with my right arm, I was like a fiddler crab.
What do you think is the worst new trend in the auto industry?
Rutledge: What we have been celebrating as Hybrids and how wonderful they are is a little bit of a crock. We're not really where we should be with them, because you can take an old Volkswagen Turbo Diesel and out-mileage a Prius any day of the week. Hybrids are so fashionable right now. I'm all for technology and smarter cars, but it needs to be legitimate and not just a marketing campaign.
Tanner: I have to go in the other direction. Everything is about stability control, traction control, and electronic this and all these babysitting controls that. [It doesn't] make up for the fact that we don't get proper driver training. When you learn to drive, you learn [enough] to pass the test. You never really learn how to drive a car until you are in an accident situation and experience a car sliding for the first time. I think it's criminal that we have such terrible driving training in the U.S. and we rely on the engineers building these stability controls. It all goes back to when automatic transmissions took over in the U.S. and made driving a pastime instead of something to pay attention to.
Adam: Tanner goes out and destroys torque convertors in cars by night.
Tell me about your version of The Stig, the show's mystery driver who races cars on your test track.
Rutledge: I tried to shake his/her hand the first time we saw [The Stig], and I walked up off-camera and said, "I know we're not supposed to talk but I really appreciate you being here, we're really excited." And I stuck my hand out, and The Stig stood motionless. The Stig is truly a secret to the three of us. That's not just a trick, I legitimately do not know who he/she is.
Adam: The only clue I got was the slightest hint of Hai-Karate cologne. It could be a 70-year-old man.
Top Gear premieres Sunday, November 21 at 10pm on The History Channel.