The Frontstretch: Not NASCAR TV: Top Gear UK vs. USA by S.D. Grady -- Tuesday April 10, 2012

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Not NASCAR TV: Top Gear UK vs. USA

Fan's View · S.D. Grady · Tuesday April 10, 2012


There’s something quite poetic about blowing up a building to see if the Toyota truck perched on the roof can survive the 20 story fall. I mean, who wouldn’t be cheering for the complete demolition of one of the foreign interlopers in the automotive market? And who had to admit utter defeat to the Japanese car makers when that little red truck continued to run after the final horrific attempt on its life? I did.

Now, what does that story have to do with NASCAR? Not a thing. Let’s face it, NASCAR Nation has been veritably silent over the holiday week, leaving us with very little to talk about. So, I thought I’d take a detour to another of my favorite fast machine past times: Top Gear. In particular, to take a moment and compare the aging show produced in the UK against America’s relative new comer to the game with the same name. Is there a comparable amount of fun to be had on both sides of the pond?

The show appears very similar in both versions. Three presenters—middlish aged men—spend sixty minutes showcasing supercars and trying to demolish some of the lesser members of the automotive breed in true juvenile fashion. Nothing is sacred. If it’s possible to make a Prius look foolish, Top Gear won’t pass up the opportunity. And for those of us who love our cars with more than four cylinders (preferably eight), this show feeds into the mantra of “put the pedal down and don’t let up.”

But like all things that try to mirror each other across the Atlantic Ocean, there are the not so subtle differences that keep my finger on the remote as I try to decide which form is more addicting.

The L.A. version stars Tanner Foust of X Games fame, the familiar face of NASCAR’s Rutledge Wood and their purported “wrecker”, comedian Adam Ferrara. Tanner provides believability behind the wheel as he takes Ferraris and Lamborghinis out for sedate spins around the Top Gear track. Rutledge remains much the loveable goof he portrays so well at NASCAR tracks across America, but backs it up with real car know-how, and Adam does his best to be the guy who just likes cars. This trio follows their script well enough. I ended up laughing as their trucks tried to cross the wilds of Alaska or as they escorted various TV celebs in make-shift limos.

However, it is scripted. Over almost two full seasons, the only time I really believe the script has been tossed out the window in favor of sheer exuberance is when Tanner has been challenged to execute an improbable stunt in any given vehicle. Otherwise, the voices of the producers and insurance agencies can be heard far too well in the background. Yes, trying to elude a Cobra attack helicopter in a Dodge Viper is quite possibly one of the coolest scenarios ever dreamed up for a car show…but it wasn’t dreamed up in Hollywood. The BBC thought of it first.

Which brings us to the Top Gear set in England. Now syndicated in eight different nations worldwide, England boasts the original mish-mash of car show and frat house toga party. Clearly the writers living in London spent a bit too much time at the pub while they conjured up 1,001 ways to squash a vehicle. Or which European road would appear the most luxurious as the backdrop to a speeding Lotus.

Yes, you can run a quarter mile in a Porsche on an abandoned airfield in California, but it doesn’t look at home—more like somebody trying to escape a post apocalyptic city. Take the same high-end car and cross the Alps or cruise along the Riviera and it appears much more…yummy. This is part of the charm of the British version. Not only are we treated to the dry wit of Jeremy Clarkson and company, but the supercars are permitted to run the roads they were designed for. It all comes together in a much more organic manner, from Richard Hammond’s boyish charm to Captain Slow’s phlegmatic technical explanations. The BBC presenters own that elusive combination of on-set chemistry which transports you into their world of, “How can we make James May look stupid this week?”

Joie de vivre permeates the British show, where their American counterparts seem to struggle to piece the various segments into something that resembles the original. The History Channel could raise our version to the heights the Brits have achieved…but it would require a belief in the presenters’ immortality that allows Clarkson, Hammond and May to run Minis off a ski-jump, drive through brick walls and sail a small pick-up across the English Channel.

So far I’ve yet to see an episode starring Rutledge where I gasped, “They did not!” Because, well, their tricks just aren’t that unbelievable. In an uncharacteristic twist, the Americans seem to be trying to duplicate the original instead of following our customary creed of, “Anything they can do, we can do better!”

Simply, Top Gear already approaches the ordinary car guy and tosses him off the cliff. The new incarnation requires a Texan attitude; bigger, badder and without any apologies for unforeseen collateral damage. That may well require an adjustment in cast. I have no doubt that Foust would be willing to slalom his car down the Rockies, but would Adam or Rutledge? Doubt remains.

So, if you are looking for an enjoyable, not entirely useful hour of car TV when there’s no racing to be had to hand, try tuning into BBC America for a bit of the real Top Gear. You’ll be laughing at the same time your eyes are treated to some of the best photography framed around a McLaren MP4-12C. Just make sure to keep a dictionary nearby. I never knew my Impala sedan was in all actuality a saloon…

Top Gear can be found on the History Channel in America. Check your listings for future show times.

The British version runs on BBCAmerica. Season 18 will be premiering April 16th at 8PM Eastern.

Sonya’s Weekly Danica Stat:

Status Quo: She returns to the track this week in Texas.

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04/10/2012 08:03 AM

True enough, the Brits look like three guys you’d like to have a beer with, the LA guys like three actors trying to copy them. In fact it appears from the little I’ve wanted to watch that they are doing exactly that.

04/10/2012 10:53 AM

Your assessment is right on! The American version of Top Gear doesn’t have the chemistry of the UK show.
It has gotten better since I started watching, but it still falls well short. Considering that the UK group has been together for a decade, maybe the American group just needs more time. If there was to be a cast change, I’d replace Adam.

04/11/2012 01:47 PM

The US version of Top Gear is horrible. To be completely honest, they need to kill off Rutledge Wood the same way the UK version has killed off the original Stig, and then never copy anything the UK version has ever done again.

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