December 2007: I get a call from a casting guy in Los Angeles. Top Gear, the most awesome automotive TV show ever made, is coming to the United States - again. They want to talk to me. I pack my bags for L.A. quicker than you can jam a star into a reasonably priced car.
I have an on-camera interview at the BBC offices, and frankly it doesn't go that well. I pitch them an idea or two - one host takes evasive driving lessons, another takes a police pursuit course, then they're let loose on a track in Dodge Chargers for a hot pursuit - but get a rather cool response. Later, I talk to Dan Neil from the L.A. Times, who was also called to audition, and ask him how his interview went. He says they asked him about Jeremy Clarkson, the linchpin of British Top Gear, and he replied, "Jeremy Clarkson is a well-known pedophile and the ugliest man in Britain." Clearly, Neil's interview tactics were slightly different from mine.
Encouragingly, Neil makes the cut. I do not, as I learn that the other two hosts are Adam Carolla and drifter/rally racer Tanner Foust. Things seem set to proceed until NBC makes the perplexing - in retrospect, foreboding - decision to replace Neil, the only guy whose roots, like Clarkson's, lie in journalism.
I'm in Japan when I get an e-mail from another casting person. Now that there's a spot open, they want me back at the BBC offices. I fly from Tokyo to Boston, then turn around a day later and fly back to L.A. This time, my meeting goes rather well, I think. Except that the BBC people make it clear that they're trying to copy the British version right down to the hosts' personalities, and they're thinking of me for the thoughtful, contrarian James May role. May is known as Captain Slow, and his disdain for the macho antics of the other two helps fuel the show's comedy. May is also unapologetic about his hopeless driving skills. So basically, I'm in a room full of people telling me that I have a shot at fame and treasure, if only I'll agree that I'm a bad driver.
The intellectual side of my brain is screaming for me to say things like, "What's an apex again, now?" and, "Why would anyone need anything faster than a Toyota Prius?" but I can't do it. My ego overrides my ambition, and I blurt, "Actually, I'm a pretty good driver. I held my own against Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in a Corvette Z06 on a short road course. I picked things up pretty quickly at rally school. I once rented a car and drove to the Nürburgring to try to do laps during a layover in Frankfurt. I like to go fast." I can see by their faces that these are the wrong answers.