It's been a couple years since NBC's clumsy embrace of Top Gear (making a pilot but nothing more), and in the meantime, the cars-on-TV genre has blossomed-relatively speaking. Automotive programming is still dominated by shows about guys in a garage arguing over which ring-and-pinion to install in a '68 Mustang that they have to finish by tomorrow or else (conflict!). Yet the renewal of Top Gear, now on the History channel, and the existence of the Adam Carolla project with Speed - The Car Show, as it's called - bodes well for our choices here in the States.
I interviewed for both of the aforementioned shows. And if you've watched U.S. Top Gear, a close viewing will reveal that I am not one of the hosts. But, hey, I'm happy to throw my hat in the ring on these things. If I don't make the final cut, it's probably just because I'm too handsome. That's what my mom says.
But I'm not complaining. I've resigned myself to the fact that any TV opportunity has slim odds of leading anywhere. Even if you make the cut, the show itself might not. And presuming the show makes it on air, there's an excellent chance it'll be canceled, regardless of its merit. If you want to end up on TV, your best bet is probably to become a hoarder.
In the face of long odds, I've developed a new strategy for softening the blow of rejection. These days, I embrace that friend who never lets me down: horsepower. Specifically, expensive European horsepower.
For instance, when I walked out of my History channel meeting, my normal propensity for post-interview self-criticism was derailed by the 621-hp mind-eraser waiting in the parking lot-a screaming red Bentley Continental Supersports.
When you're strapped into a twin-turbo, 204-mph cocoon of decadence, it's hard to indulge in much self-analysis. You're too busy firewalling the throttle and blurring through traffic as if you've got someplace you really need to be. "Call my agent and tell him I'm on my way! There was a little incident back at the Ivy, but it was all Charlie Sheen's fault. How was I supposed to know the Thai prime minister is allergic to pygmy elephants? That guy had no business being that close to the trampoline anyway!"
As consolation prizes go, a Supersports is mighty fine solace. But the next time I hit Los Angeles, I went the Italian route, snagging a fly yellow Ferrari 458 Italia. I had already driven the 458 in Italy, but I needed to drive one again. You see, the car I drove in Italy had a navigation system, and the one in L.A. did not. And how am I going to speak with any authority on this vehicle if I haven't compared two such drastically different models? Plus, the other one was red.
Los Angeles gets plenty of flack for its gridlock, but it also features one of the great traffic-management innovations of all time: the on-ramp stoplight. When traffic is slow, the signals dispense cars onto the highway at an orderly trickle. But when traffic is moving, you get a state-sanctioned zero-to-sixty run from the on-ramp Christmas tree. And a zero-to-sixty run in a 458 Italia is a glorious thing. Allow me to explain why.
First, the transmission's bottom three gears - the ones you'd use in anger on a public road - are spaced in roughly 20-mph increments. You're shifting just short of 50 mph, then 70 mph, then 90 mph. Given the rate at which a 458 accrues speed, that means you're basically upshifting as fast as you can grab the paddle.
Second, the 458 makes its horsepower peak at its redline. So if you want to access all 562 hp, you have to hang in there until 9000 rpm. In fact, if you let the tach drop below 7000 rpm, it will start raining because you made Enzo Ferrari cry from heaven. Did it rain while I was in L.A.? No, it did not.
As for the TV interview . . . Well, let's just say I'm already working on a new concept. It's called Ring and Pinion Wars. "You think this Mustang needs 4.10s? You're out of your mind! We need to install 3.73s by tomorrow morning or else!" If that doesn't work, I have a radical concept for a show about people whose houses are crammed to the rafters with car parts.
Illustration: Tim Marrs