NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 85- TopGear meets NASCAR

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, the not-so-small section of Thursday’s Newsletter where we take another look at motorsports-related television available to the general public.

On Monday, BBC America premiered the second episode of Series 18 of the popular series Top Gear. On this particular episode, Richard Hammond (the shortest of the hosts) made the trip to Texas to learn about NASCAR. This episode, originally premiering in the UK on February 5th, was but one part of the 90-minute episode, but we’re going to look at the whole thing.

Let’s just say that Jeremy Clarkson is…Jeremy Clarkson. No sooner did the show start did he try to throw NASCAR under the bus. Of course, he tried to compare it to Formula One. There are almost no comparisons that can be made between the two series, other than the fact that both types of cars that are raced have four wheels. Here, he went after a stock car’s apparent lack of technology and rough shod style of operation, while standing next to a former Red Bull Racing Team show car (it was painted up like Brian Vickers’ No. 83 from 2010).

However, as stated above, Clarkson didn’t make the trip to Dallas. Maybe its better that he didn’t because he probably would have done something weird.

Hammond’s piece on NASCAR started out with a brief history of the sport’s origins. I think this was the first time I’d ever heard of bootleggers referred to as “naughty.” Just because this is Top Gear, the producers acquired the use of a restored 1941 Ford Business Coupe for the piece that had actually been used for bootlegging purposes. For the British home audience for the show, seeing something along the lines of this probably would be considered interesting (secret compartments abound).

Hammond spent time talking with Jimmie Johnson about the basics of his Chevrolet Impala COT. You know, the kind of the stuff that if you’re reading this critique, you probably already know (roof flaps, horsepower, those little vertical strips on the roof parallel to the car that were added in the late 1980’s, etc.) However, for an overseas audience, that might not be so.

In Britain, Sprint Cup races are aired live and commercial-free on Premier Sports, a subscription (read: Premium) channel available only to Sky TV customers. From what I understand, they snag the live telecast off of a satellite and use whichever broadcast crew is working the race in the United States. When NASCAR races were still on NASN (North American Sports Network), they would have commentators from that network talk a little bit during the American commercials. According to “their website”:http://www.premiersports.tv/, access costs nearly $13 a month (£7.99), although if you subscribe for a full year, you only pay for ten months. Remember, that’s for one channel. Not cheap.

In addition to Johnson, Hammond spent time talking with Juan Pablo Montoya, who talked about his transition to Cup from Formula One and the differences in handling characteristics for the two cars. Jeff Gordon also discussed turbulent air and how other drivers can affect you.

I suspect that a fair amount of NASCAR’s notoriety overseas stems from the more rudimentary means that some drivers settle their differences. The BBC didn’t fail to throw in a montage of confrontations (Montoya and Kevin Harvick confronting each other at Watkins Glen, the infamous fight of ’79, etc.) in order to quench viewers’ appetites.

After Hammond drove the pace car during the pace laps, he spent the race in the pits toting tires for Mark Martin’s team. This aspect of the piece was not all that different from what ESPN had a number of their non-NASCAR on-air personalities do last year as part of a “field trip,” or even when Steve Phelps did Undercover Boss on CBS (probably one of the dumber ideas that show has ever done).

Finally, the day after the AAA Texas 500, he got some track time in a driving experience car with Kyle Petty in the passenger seat (the car appeared to be an older-spec car painted up to resemble Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet). Hammond appeared to be pretty enthused. I don’t think he had much in the way of pre-conceived notions about how the car would drive, but he was impressed. Later on, Petty jumped in another car, a COT No. 43 Valvoline Dodge resembling one that Reed Sorenson drove in 2009 and gave chase, with Hammond screaming the whole way.

Following the piece, Clarkson basically gave Americans a series of backhanded compliments for “being easily amused.” However, he continued to state that being easily amused has resulted in wildly entertaining sports created out of what amounts to sports played by little kids in Britain. He did appear to be impressed with Hammond’s work.

Top Gear definitely came into the piece as outsiders, not really knowing all that much about the sport. There’s nothing wrong with that. The somewhat elementary tone of the piece when discussing the cars is understandable. Remember, the piece wasn’t designed for us die-hard fans. Prior to getting in a car himself, Hammond was surprised that people could participate in something like the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Apparently, the sheer thought of that was nuts to him. However, you can pay £1599 ($2588) to do a racing experience at “The Racing School”:http://www.racing-school.co.uk/racing-car-experiences.asp at Three Sisters Race Circuit halfway between Liverpool and Manchester. The two-day session (the price includes an overnight hotel stay) builds you up to briefly driving an actual Formula One car. However, these cars are either a Forti from 1996, or a Footwork from 1994 (knowing what I know about Formula One in that era, I’d take the Footwork, raced by Christian Fittipaldi and Gianni Morbidelli). Also, the circuit is like a go-kart track, so you wouldn’t be able to leg the car out very much.

The only aspect of the piece that I didn’t really like was the almost obligatory look at the fans that populate the infield in Texas. Invariably, the type of fan that was referenced were the fans that come to races and spend the whole weekend drinking brewskis and acting like fools. That’s not necessarily the only type of fan that camps out at a Cup race. Granted, I’m sure that if you look around, you can find those types of fans without too much of a problem. I’ve seen campers in Daytona with signs asking women to show their breasts before. I can’t attest as to whether these guys succeeded or not, though (probably not). However, there is more to NASCAR fans than simple debauchery and meat eating (not that there’s anything wrong with eating meat).

After some news pieces, there was a look at the new Mercedes SLS AMG, the gull wing door-equipped two door coupe. Clarkson isn’t exactly a fan of the gull wing setup, so he preferred the SLS AMG Roadster, which has a more traditional door setup. The main idea behind Clarkson’s piece is basically that the car is for people who don’t care about being sensible in any way. That notion would definitely make sense since the roadster he test drove cost the same as a Rolls-Royce.

Eventually, the SLS AMG Roadster was handed over to “The Stig,” the show’s resident car tester and trainer for celebrities in the “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment. Compared to Clarkson, who drove the car on the airport circuit like he was at Lebanon Valley Speedway, The Stig was very smooth with the 571 horsepower 6.3 liter V8.

Speaking of the “Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car” segment, Matt LeBlanc (you probably remember him from Friends) had at it with a Kia Cee’d on Top Gear’s Test Track. He appeared to be very laid back while driving around the track and not nervous at all. It showed. He turned in the best-ever celebrity time on the show.

Finally, the show closed with a feature on the exploding car industry in China. Up until 20 years ago, car ownership there was quite rare. Now, there’s 85 million cars on the road and major manufacturers have factories there. Buick survived a potential axing only because of the Chinese market (Buick is GM’s preferred brand there).

The Chinese auto industry for the quasi-general public began with random companies buying up the rights to manufacture cars from other companies. Nowadays, car companies in China often blatantly copy designs of vehicles from more mainstream companies. Examples were shown of Chinese vehicles that were blatant rip-offs of BMW’s, Daewoos, Renaults and Minis.

However, the guys did find a Chinese-developed car to try out. The Flybo XF150ZK-4 is a strange looking (to say the least) three wheeled contraption that looks like a small van. Clarkson sat down and the seat fell backwards to expose the very small, motorcycle engine. Let’s just say that driving the 12 horsepower vehicle was quite an adventure. Shifting the transmission was quite a challenge. Clarkson had quite the time trying to shift up from first to second. Note that this car was only a few years old, but the technology was almost straight out of the 1950’s. Eventually, the vehicle stalls in the middle of traffic, forcing a end to the review.

Clarkson and James May continued to try out some more Chinese machinery, including the Haval M2, a love child of a Suzuki XL7 and a Chevrolet HHR, I guess. The information given on the car contained a healthy amount of “Engrish,” just enough to elicit strange looks and chuckles.

Eventually, they brought two cars, a GAC Trumpchi (based on a now-obsolete Alfa Romeo 166) and the Roewe 350 (a future MG that will be sold in Britain) that they thought were halfway decent. To put them through their pace, another Stig, this one obsessed with the marital arts, was brought in to put the cars through the paces on a road course.

The cars were not quite as quick as their European counterparts, a relatively dire circumstance for the Roewe since it will be in Europe within a year or two. However, the creature comforts were not terrible. In conclusion, neither May nor Clarkson would buy their cars in Britain. But, these examples do show how far China’s automotive industry has come in a few short years.

Generally, I do find Top Gear to be a cool show to watch. There are many classic bits that I love to watch, the infamous “Ford Fiesta test”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7e7R3y-qwZ0 amongst them. I actually enjoyed their piece on Chinese machinery more than their piece on NASCAR. People like myself, and by extension, almost everyone reading this article, are not in the intended audience for the NASCAR feature. As a result, it drags. Sorry, but its the truth.

I hope you enjoyed this look at Monday night’s episode of Top Gear. Check back next Thursday for another edition of the Critic’s Annex. Until then, enjoy this weekend’s action at Talladega.

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